Have you ever taken a class and had no time to do the work for it?
Maybe you've been in this situation: You've had a full day of back-to-back classes, student org meetings, work, and dance practice. When you finally start your homework, it's 1am, you're tired as hell, and you have class the next day at 8am.
My friend explained to me once why she liked work more than college.
"After work, I have nothing anything else to do. I'm done for the day and it's great. In college, there's no off button. There's always something to do and I always feel like I'm juggling."
We’ve gone over how common us college students feel overwhelmed with things to do. This feeling can carry onto our future work as an employee at a high-pressure cultured company, a grad student, or an entrepreneur.
To (seemingly) feel productive, I used to fill up almost all of my pockets of free time doing work. Nothing to do after dinner? I’ll study. No plans on a Saturday? I’ll read for class.
Despite this, I was still an average student.
NowI generally fit my work between 10am-7pm Monday through Friday. I don’t do academic stuff nor check my email weekday evenings and weekends. I’m still improving my work-life balance but I’m confident enough to say I get shit done, rarely feel very stressed, and have a ton of free time.
Jim Collins—author of Good to Great and Built to Last—writes a page a day and still has tons of free time.
Cal Newport—author, computer science professor, and blogger—never works past 5pm ever since he was a grad student at MIT.
Treehouse—an online education platform company—has their employees work a 32-hour work week since 2006.
In other words, it's very possible to put a stop to our stream of never-ending work.
Here’s one technique that taught me and many others how.
Cal was the first to write about fixed schedule productivity for college students and for employees, grad students, and entrepreneurs. In this post, as I've applied this technique in my experience, we'll focus in-depth on how fixed-scheduled productivity applies to us college students. However, I’ll also list out general suggestions for those working a full-time job as this technique has been applied by all types of people who do some form of work.
If you don't know where to start with all the techniques we’ve talked about (like having a personal time management system, an autopilot schedule, and a weekly review) fixed-scheduled productivity is a good technique to start at and is a good place to apply future techniques.
Here's the basic idea: Fix your ideal schedule. Then work backwards to achieve it.
Step 1: List your weekly obligations on a calendar.
If you’re a college student, these are your regular classes, weekly meetings, labs, part-time job, and practices. If you’re working, this could look like all-staff meetings, weekly project reports, brown bags, and recurring conference calls. You'll have this step done if you have an autopilot schedule.
Step 2: Estimate the amount of hours of your work outside your obligations.
For college students, identify every bit of recurring work outside your obligations and list out how many hours you spend on each. Stuff like readings, problem sets, and weekly writing assignments.
It’s okay to not know exactly how long each assignment takes to finish. Approximate and give yourself more time than you think you need.
During my Spring Quarter 2014 this looked like:
- Research hours for WIDER project = 8 hours/week
- Reading assignments for social psychology = 3 hours/week
- Reading assignments for stress psychology = 2 hours/week
- Exercises for stress psychology = 1 hour/week
- Total hours of outside class work= 14 hours/week
The hours could seem a bit excessive, but again, overestimate the amount of time you need. Easier to cut down hours spent on work than extending them.
For those working full-time, this step will look a little different. As you're most familiar with your tasks more than anyone, break down your recurring tasks and projects outside your obligations and estimate this amount.
Step 3: Set your ideal work hours.
Set a schedule that provides you the ideal balance of work and relaxation.
Let’s break it down:
a. Choose a work start time. (e.g., 9am)
b. Choose a work cutoff time. (e.g., 5pm)
c. Look at your weekly obligations and count the amount of in-between hours between your start time and cutoff time.
- If your in-between hours are less than the hours calculated in Step 2, choose an earlier start time or a later cutoff time.
- If your in-between hours are more than the hours calculated in Step 2, choose a later start time or an earlier cutoff time.
- Do a. or b. until your in-between hours match your hours calculated in Step 2.
Now you have your ideal schedule.
During Spring 2014, Step 3 worked for me like this:
- I calculated 14 hours in Step 2, which fit nicely 10-7:30.
Before I started a fixed-schedule, I used to think that I could wake up at 7am every day and get started at 8. But as a dancer who practiced late at night, I was never able to stick this out long-term. It’s tempting to set drastic goals, but be realistic about choosing what time you want to start working. If you normally wake up at 9am every day, don’t be afraid to set 10am as your start time.
Step 4: Execute, assess, and refine.
Similar to the autopilot schedule, it won’t run perfect at first. There will always be setbacks. You’ll wake up late, take longer than you planned on projects, and fight lost time because your meeting lasted 3 hours instead of 1.
What’s important is to gradually get better. When you review your week, ask yourself questions like:
- What’s working for me?
- What isn’t?
- How can I get closer to my ideal week next week?
Fixed-scheduled productivity isn’t about getting it perfect the first time. It isn’t about drastic change. It’s about celebrating progress and making a small improvement next week. If you eventually want to get to working at 8am every day but normally wake up at 9am, set your start time to 10am, then next week at 9:30am, then 9am, then 8:30, then 8.
After I make my morning coffee, I used to get the hell out of my house and do my work on campus and/or in a coffee shop. I work much better out of my house and like to keep my work-relax boundaries clear. Other people work well at home. You know where you work best, so use that to your advantage.
- List your weekly obligations on a calendar.
- Estimate the amount of hours of your work outside your obligations.
- Set your ideal work hours.
- Execute, assess, and refine.
At some point, if you want to consistently get your shit done and still have a ton of free time, fix the schedule you want. Then work backwards to get there. It won’t be perfect at first.
But don’t let that stop you take action towards what’s ideal for you.
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