In my previous life as a consultant I would often get to work, open my laptop, pour a cup of coffee and start thinking about what is that I should actually start doing. As I was slowly sipping the coffee I might have opened my email, browsed a few news sites or blogs, and by the time the coffee was getting cold I’d be nowhere nearer to getting any real work done. Sounds familiar?
It was a rare occasion when I had actually determined beforehand to dedicate the next morning for a particular task or achieving a goal. Even when I knew that one of the best things for productivity is to always have one important thing you want to get done for each day, and start working on it first thing in the morning. No email, no news sites, no distractions. That way you feel that at least you’ve accomplished something even if the rest of the day is completely unproductive.
So why was it so hard to do this? As it turns out, with an array of tasks which to choose from, I had hard time choosing anything. My experience of Paradox of Choice in action. Also, as I now know decision-making is depleting the same very limited mental resource that is needed to focus on a task and stick to it. So I was already shooting myself in the foot by leaving the decision-making for the morning. (1)
Another problem was that quite often I actually did not know what I should do. I had a list of deliverables, I knew the big picture project plan, and I knew what needed to happen at a given time. However, many times I wasn’t able to see the steps leading to those deliverables. And in face of uncertainty it often is easier to just read email and focus on the trivial stuff than to start thinking about how to deal with what is important.
Let the system guide you
A bit over a month ago Johnny B. Truant, one of my favorite bloggers, published a 116-page novel titled Fat Vampire (Yes, that’s an affiliate link. You should totally read the book. It’s hilarious.). It had taken him less than a month to get the idea for the book, write the whole thing, edit it, and publish it. By anyone’s standards I think that can be considered to be fairly productive. Shortly after the publication he shared some of his tips and tricks on how to do it. This article focuses on one of them: using a calendar.
I have known for quite some time that one good way to be productive is to schedule tasks that need to get done. In the same way you’d schedule a meeting from 9 to 11 am, you could reserve that time slot in your calendar for working on a particular task or project. One of the best ways to be productive is to work in 25 or 50 minute intervals, followed by 5-10 minute breaks, and having a longer 30 minute break every two hours. This way you won’t run out of steam mid-day, but also have energy left for personal stuff after you get home from work. In other words, you should schedule work in 30 and 60 minute blocks. (2)
Inspired by Johnny’s article I decided to experiment with combining these methods. Here’s my calendar from last week (the green color stands for personal stuff, blue is work/study related):
What’s going on here is that every night I check my to-do list and create a schedule for the next day. The tasks are scheduled for 30 or 60 minute time slots, which reminds me to take those 5-10 minute breaks. I use a timer when I work because skipping a break is detrimental for long-term productivity. Lastly, I schedule longer breaks such as playing on xbox, taking a nap or watching an episode of South Park (humor boosts creativity!).
The reason I do this for one day at a time – as opposed to e.g. creating a schedule for the whole week at once – is that meetings are called, deadlines change, and so do my own energy levels. For example, besides writing this article and a mandatory class my schedule for today is almost empty. I have worked a lot during the past few days, including the weekend, and haven’t really had time to relax. Yesterday I noticed that my performance started to suffer because of it, so today is a take-it-easy day.
If you need to accomplish a task with a tight deadline, it makes sense to schedule time slots for that task for the whole week. This is to ensure that no one steals that time from you with (usually) pointless meetings – a common annoyance in corporate environments where people have access to your calendar.
The system is your friend
During the four weeks I have used this method my productivity has skyrocketed. It might be partly because having an hourly schedule is so similar to how all of us have lived our lives ever since the 1st grade. We already have a lot of conditioning to work this way. There are also more specific benefits and advantages:
- Say goodbye to procrastination. When you have a schedule and you have already decided the day before that e.g. from 9 to 10am you will work on that sales pitch or that presentation, you don’t end up browsing email or checking facebook news feed. When the clock hits 9 you put a timer to alert at 9:50 and you get going.
- Be meticulous when it comes to breaks. Like all the things that need to get done, you have also scheduled your downtime. It’s one thing to know on a conscious level that you should take breaks, but another to actually disconnect from work when you’re in a good flow. Having a break pre-scheduled removes the sense of guilt you might normally feel about “wasting” time, while also helping to maintain high-level performance in the long-term.
- Stop wasting your willpower. Did you know that at work Barack Obama wears only blue or gray suits? He does this in order to conserve mental energy: “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make, … You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” When you have a schedule you don’t need to decide what to do. You have already decided. (3)
- Gain control of your time. A major cause of work-related stress is the feeling of not having control about how you spend your time. Creating a schedule is exactly the opposite of that. It is one example of a problem-based coping strategy, which can be very powerful when it comes to dealing with stress. Even if you keep getting e.g. many meeting invitations, this method allows you to grab some control back to yourself. And if you need to regain more time for actual work, you can schedule the work time in advance to ensure that no one steals it from you. No more working after-hours or when everyone else in the family has gone to sleep. (4)
Obviously every now and then something comes up during the day that causes changes to your beautifully crafted schedule. Life can’t be planned perfectly in advance. When this happens, you at least have a visual representation of what you intended to do with the rest of your day. It becomes easier to prioritize. You can quickly check what you can still do, and what you should move to the next day. This is more liberating than it is restricting, and most importantly it helps you stay in control in spite of surprises.
I mentioned earlier that one big problem used to be that sometimes I didn’t know exactly what to do, and that resulted in procrastination and postponing the important tasks. When it comes to dealing with ambiguity, one solution is to schedule time for simply sitting down with pen and paper, making plans, dividing the task into smaller components, creating a list of things you need to find out before proceeding, and planning on how you intent to gain that knowledge etc.
Lastly, by using this system it becomes surprisingly easy to make progress even when a goal seems huge, distant, and uncertain. Many times a project such as writing a novel or creating a new product causes the inner resistance to go on overdrive, filling your head with all the reasons why the project won’t succeed. As a result, you give up before even getting started. When you adapt to the approach of working towards a goal in predetermined slots of time, and measure progress by the amount of work done – as opposed to the amount of tasks finished – suddenly the goal doesn’t seem that hard anymore.
I for one will certainly continue working using this method. If you want to try it out, or have experience with something similar, I’d love to hear about it in the comments! :)
(1) Vohs, K. D., Baumeister, R. F., Schmeichel, B. J., Twenge, J. M., Nelson, N. M., & Tice, D. M. (2008). Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 94, No. 5, 883-898.
(2) Loehr, J., & Schwartz, T. (2003). The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. Free Press; 1 edition.
(3) Vanity Fair: Barack Obama to Michael Lewis on a Presidential Loss of Freedom: “You Don’t Get Used to It—At Least, I Don’t” – online article.
(4) Drnovšek, M., Örtqvist, D., & Wincent, J. (2010). The effectiveness of coping strategies used by entrepreneurs and their impact on personal well-being and venture performance. Journal of Economics and Business, Vol. 28, 193-220.