In the first lesson of our Focus Week series, I suggested that you unplug to give your brain and emotions a breather in our current moment of constant, agitating distraction. In the second lesson, I suggested that you implement a daily deep reading habit to retrain your neural networks to sustain and find satisfaction in unbroken concentration. In this third and final lesson, I want to talk about how to leverage this newly reclaimed clarity to focus your life.
At the heart of my advice is a simple recommendation: take control of your time. To be more concrete, when thinking about your work day, I suggest that you give every minute a job.
I call this technique “time blocking,” and I’ve been talking about it here since at least 2013. I also popularized it in my book, Deep Work, discuss it often on my podcast, Deep Questions, and am even releasing a planner dedicated to the method in November. Which is all to say: I’m a fan of this strategy.
Here’s the basic idea…
- Most people tackle their work day using what I call the list/reactive method. This casual approach has you fill the time between scheduled meetings and calls reacting to emails and occasionally, when the mood hits you, trying to make progress on items plucked from an unwieldy task list.
- The time blocking method, by contrast, has you partition your days into blocks of time and assign specific work to these blocks. Maybe, for example, you’re working on a strategy memo from 9:00 to 10:00, then after a 10:00 to 10:30 meeting you put aside thirty minutes for checking email, followed by ninety-minutes, from 11:00 to 12:30, when you’ll try to complete a project report that’s due soon, and so on. Every minute gets a job. (What if you get knocked off your schedule by an unexpected crisis or task that takes longer than expected? Not a problem. You just build an updated time block schedule for the remainder of the day the next time you get a chance. The key is maintaining intention about your time, not perfection in your planning.)
There are two problems with the list/reactive method. First, because you’re letting other peoples’ needs drive your activities, the balance between the urgent and the important becomes skewed. You feel busy and exhausted, but you’re not really moving the needle on the things that matter.
Second, because you have no plan beyond just “trying to get things done,” it’s easy for your mind to keep deciding it needs ad hoc internet “breaks,” which have a way of transforming into time-devouring rabbit holes. This decreases the total amount of work you’re able to accomplish.
Time blocking, by contrast, gives you fine-grained control over the balance between the urgent and the important. In addition, because you know what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment, you’re much less likely to take unplanned breaks. Time blockers, in other words, don’t web surf.
This scheduling commitment also provides you hard evidence on how much time you really have available, and how long things really take. This reality check can be bracing at first, but ultimately it’s crucial. It leads to a more vigorous essentialism (e.g., as I recently discussed on Greg McKeown’s podcast), and more conservatism on how early you start projects.
A word of warning, however, is that this strategy is cognitively demanding. Part of the reason time blockers get so much more done is because their average intensity of focus is quite high compared to their semi-distracted peers. Such concentration, however, takes a toll. So you do not want to extend this blocking discipline to your time outside of work, as this excessive rigidity will eventually lead to burn out.
Escaping from the noise of a distracted world and becoming reacquainted with the pleasures of presence and concentration are crucial preconditions to a focused life. To achieve this state in full, however, ultimately requires that you take the final step of actually focusing your attention with intention and purpose.
Time block planning will move you in this direction. It’s important to note that it’s not enough by itself. A life of focus also needs, for example, regular time to reflect about what to focus on in your work, and a more serious commitment to directing your free time toward higher quality and more rewarding activities. Beyond these concerns, solitude is important, as is aggressive community engagement and cultivating high quality leisure.
But time blocking will set the needed tone; a signal to yourself that you take seriously how you direct your newly empowered attention.
If you’re looking to go beyond the advice offered in this Focus Week series, and take even more radical action toward reclaiming your life from the forces of distraction, then I invite you to stay tuned to find out more about Life of Focus, the new online course that I co-created with Scott Young.
The course takes students through a three-month, guided training. The first month is about gaining more focus in your work life, the second month is about increasing focus in your life outside of work, and the third month is about training your brain to focus at levels of intensity that enable astounding feats of cognitive accomplishment.
We’re opening the course for registration on Monday, August 31st. I’ll post a note on my blog and email newsletter on Monday pointing you to where you can learn more.
I hope to see you in the course. But regardless, hopefully this week has already injected a new appreciation of focus in your life. Stay deep!
21 thoughts on “Focus Week: Take Control of Your Time”
Is there going to be a zoom class where we can see you? 😉
While I was in the U.S. Navy I worked on, and was later responsible for, a large complicated medium range, surface-to-air missile system that required constant care. To facilitate that care, the Navy developed the Preventative Maintenance System that involved a series of cards that detailed Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Quarterly, Semi-Annual and Annual maintenance actions. PMS ruled our lives and the structure became second nature to us.
When I left the Navy to attend college I carried that system in my head and developed a weekly and quarterly study system that kept me on track. At the beginning of each 10-week quarter I would take the syllabuses for my courses and log each reading assignment, paper and test on my desk calendar (today I would have done a spreadsheet).
Because I had measured my focused-reading pace, I knew precisely how many hours (plus-or-minutes 10 minutes) I needed to read assigned texts. I would work backwards from the end date and and if I knew I would need 22 hours of reading time across five weeks, I would assign five hours per week to that task and then block that time in on my weekly calendar. I would do the same for papers and exams; working backwards from due dates so that I scheduled adequate time each week.
Because the school cafeteria served brunch on Sunday mornings, I used the time before brunch (I was, thanks to my time in the service, an early riser) to schedule my week in “blocks” of time for each class while I did my laundry.
I continued the system into my work life and now, in retirement, find that what I learned in the Navy is just as good today as it was when I was 18.
This feels like a pointed analogy of focus driven by planning. Remembering my own Navy days, really everything seemed driven by focused planning. Of course adjustments were needed along the way.
I recall my first Navy school: Basic Electricity and Electronics. It was all self study–no instruction. You just sat in a cubicle and worked on a lesson until you felt competent enough to take a test. An instructor could help you if you got stuck.
What stands out in particular is that you were mandated to take a five minute break for every hour of study.
Yep. Took the same class at Great Lakes in 1975 before moving on to Gunners Mate A and C schools.
OMG I was also in that Great Lakes class in 1975, starting in December. I remember my instructor’s name was Schwartz. That was after boot company 291 across the street. Then went to Construction Electrician A school–Seabees that is.
What are the chances you both end up in the comment section for a Cal Newport article? Is there a follow-up to this?
Thank you, Cal, for these three articles. Also the artwork is beautiful. Since there is no photocredit as usual I suggest that you or Scott Young painted it? However: Good job! Also not distracting as modern photos tend to be…
I think the articles of the Focus Week cover the basics of the Deep Life and will take you a long way when you start implementing the advice. That is why I will recommend them to my students and friends. Since I am a little more ambitious myself, I am looking foward to the onlinecourse.
Scott painted them! He taught himself art as an ultralearning project (a topic we tackle in month three of our upcoming course…)
Oh these are beautiful, I wish Scott could share a high-res to be set as a wallpaper on my devices. Whenever I turn on that screen, it’ll remind me of the Deep Life.
Anyway, great artwork Scott!
Will your time blocking planner be available at places other than Amazon? I don’t shop at Amazon.
I do violate one rule of the time blocking approach, in that I do block the time before and after work. With that said, the morning time has either 5 or 6 tasks, listed sequentially, that I do every day before settling in for the real workday and the evening blocks make sure dinner, etc don’t go too long as I need a 90 minute block each night to make progress on my dissertation. The weekends are checklist days, so at least that allows a little more flexibility.
I’ve been experimenting with a time blocking game. On Friday afternoons, I schedule the entire upcoming workweek using Google Calendar, blocking the times in dark blue. Then, as the days progress, I mark how I actually spent my time in yellow. Thus, on a daily basis, I get to see what I thought I would do and reflect on how things actually panned out.
Obviously, none of my weeks go 100% according to plan. We all have to deal with unexpected challenges and opportunities. But I find myself focusing more on my most-important projects, I’m more realistic about how much I can handle, and I’m more likely to say “no” to lesser opportunities that might otherwise creep into my schedule and distract my focus. My personal care and family time are consistently attended to, I’m leaving work earlier, and working fewer weekends.
I recently wrote this article on my blog describing my experience in detail:
This series has been wonderful! As a senior professor of microbiology & infectious diseases, I teach these principles to my graduate students, Postdocs, and the Junior and Mid-level faculty I mentor. I am looking forward to the new course you and Scott have designed. I can’t wait to participate.
Time blocking is definitely a learned skill! The first time I tried it, the system fell apart because I was too specific with the tasks, and my schedule too chaotic. This time around, everything gets dumped into a weekly task and then sorted into general groups (i.e., Admin Tasks, Travel Tasks, etc.). Then I put those general groups in slots on my Outlook calendar, plus a 2 hour block every day to pick up the interruptions and emergencies. For MOOC course I’m taking as part of my IDP, I decided to give myself 10 days for each lesson in case my schedule goes crazy. The hardest thing has been when I get a short fuse deadline. Those trigger my fire fighter mode–that part of my brain that’s screaming “I have to get this done now! There’s not enough time!” I’ve had to go out for a short walk to stop that reaction and then force myself not to do it immediately, but put it on the schedule for later that day.
It has really helped with balancing my energy so I’m not exhausted at the end of the day and I can work on my side hustle of fiction writing.
I really relate to what you call “firefighter mode”! Especially during my corporate job hours when I’m forever being interrupted to help staff with issues. Curious whether you time block your fiction-writing hours (i also write fiction, after working a corporate job).
What time does Life of Focus come out ?
What’s the hold up? Release the class already! haha
Hi Cal! Thanks for the wonderful essays you write here. I just saw a documentary ” The Social Dilemma” and was expecting your voice in it too. It highlights some of the same issues you highlight here. If you haven’t seen it yet, do watch it. Have a blessed day!
Adding to Ann’s comment above: (1) will we be able to buy the Time Block Planner somewhere other than Amazon? And (2) Is it possible to post a sample page (Amazon and also the publisher are only showing a cover shot). I am seeking a planner that has space for planning a full 7 days a week. (Was trying to use the 12-Week-Year Planner b/c I love that concept. But it only runs M-F, 8am-6pm, which doesn’t work for anyone who has serious Deep Work side projects not executed during a standard workweek.)
Is the registration still goin on?