Scott H Young

Make Your Time Top-Heavy


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If all the tips for getting things done needed to be summarized in three words, they would be, “Do it Now.” Today is a more valuable time to start than tomorrow. Working on the project in the next hour is better than putting it off until later in the day. Changing a habit this month is better than putting it off until next January.

Another way to summarize this lesson in productivity would be: make your time top-heavy. People who get stuff done have top-heavy schedules. Chronic lateness and procrastination are the result of bottom-heavy schedules.

What is a Top-Heavy Schedule?

Being top-heavy means the bulk of the work is at the start. A top-heavy joke has a long build up for a short punch line. A top-heavy schedule emphasizes the start, leaving more space at the end. When it comes to productivity, there are a few things you can make more top-heavy:

  1. Volume of Work. Put most your work earlier in your schedule. This could mean working all morning while having little to do in the evenings.
  2. Importance of Work. Put your most important tasks first. Do the tasks that have a long-term impact before taking on the minor problems.
  3. Difficulty of Work. Put the hardest tasks first, when you have the most energy. I love writing articles, but it takes a great deal of energy and thought before writing each post. Putting my writing work earlier lets me write when I’m the most energetic.

A bottom-heavy schedule would be the opposite. It would place the most work, the most important work and the most difficult work at the end of your schedule. This is a recipe for procrastination as you burn yourself out on the tasks that don’t matter.

How to be Top-Heavy

There are three different scales you should keep in mind when asking how top-heavy your schedule is. These are on a:

  1. Daily Basis. Is your work shifted earlier into the morning or late into the night?
  2. Weekly Basis. Are your Monday’s and Tuesday’s busiest, or are you finishing up everything Sunday night?
  3. Long-Term Basis. Are you doing the bulk of work on your goals now, or planning to work harder in the future? If I have a project I expect to take 4 months, I make sure the first two contain the most work.

Being top-heavy at all of these levels accomplishes two things. First, it ensures that you actually get work accomplished. Bottom-heavy schedules make it easy to waste time and miss deadlines. Second, a top-heavy life is more relaxing. By finishing your work early, you can have guilt-free relaxation time nearer to the end of your schedule. Waking up early and finishing by 2:00 or 3:00 with several hours to relax is better than getting a lazy start to your day and cramming work in by midnight.

Here are a few ways you can tip the balance in your schedule:

  1. Start a Morning Ritual. Wake up earlier and plan out a routine for your first hour. This will make sure you can start working right away, instead of fighting off sleepiness for the first few hours.
  2. Set Daily and Weekly Goals. I maintain a weekly and daily to-do list. Both of these lists help me chunk down the infinite number of tasks I have into something more manageable.
  3. Preserve Your Rest Time. I make a commitment to take at least one day off completely each week. Having a guaranteed rest day makes it easier to work hard now.
  4. Find Your Procrastination Items. Pick those things on your to-do list that you are most likely to procrastinate on. Then make sure to get those done first. Finishing the difficult work early on makes life less stressful.
  5. Expect Interruptions. Schedule your week as if you expect unforseen work to be added. This way, if no extra work comes by, you have more time to relax later in the week. If new work does come, you’re prepared.
  6. Set Your Own Hours. You can create more productive days by defining between what hours you will work. If you don’t allow work to expand into your personal time, it becomes easier to work top-heavy days.
  7. Make Realistic To-Do Lists. Whenever I set my daily and weekly goals, I’m careful to only add on an amount I think I can handle. If you don’t believe you can everything done today, you won’t work as hard. Setting a slightly shorter list and finishing early is best.

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22 Responses to “Make Your Time Top-Heavy”

  1. Jonas Park says:

    An excellent article which is basically a one-page summary of the most important point in GTD (or ZTD). I appreciate that you always work into your articles specific, implementable action steps.

    This approach has worked very well with me, who happens to be a “morning person,” but what would you suggest for people who are “night owls” – those who just can’t seem to muster up the energy to get up earlier than 10am, let alone get any productive work done early in the day?

    As for me, my problem currently is that I have back-to-back classes/meetings from 9 to 6 nearly every weekday, leaving me little time to get any of the MITs out of the way before dinner. And I’m in college as well, so of course all the fun happens in the evenings and the temptation to slip into procrastination mode is, to say the least, palpable. I’m sure I’m far from alone in this – what suggestions do you have on this?

    Jonas

  2. LM says:

    A nicely written article! I love the image of the Balancing rock.

  3. Michael Tyas says:

    Easier said than done :(

  4. jd says:

    Good post

    It’s consistent with my “worst things first” practice.
    This avoids having things loom over you.
    Recently though, I’m been doing more “carve out time for what’s important” and “build momentum” by “starting with something simple.”

    Jonas – two suggestions:
    1. baseline your calendar — put down on paper all of your committed time and explicitly put down your free time. As simple as this sounds, thinking on paper will show you where you rob from Peter to pay Paul. It will also quickly show you whether you are giving yourself the right time for things. The first time I did this it was a rude awakening that all the “free time” I thought I had didn’t exist. I had to purposefully carve out time for fun.
    2. batch your fun — you can designate fun nights. If you have designated fun nights, then this will help you buckle down on other nights and stay focused when you need to. If you try to intersperse too much, you probably won’t get the focus you need. Experiment with both patterns.

    The ah-ha is that scheduling your free time helps you focus. It’s easier to stay focused on the task at hand, if you know you allocated breaks. If you don’t have allocated breaks, then a part of you will keep wondering — when’s the fun? For example, telling yourself fun’s at 8, is very different then saying, when I finish this, I can have fun or later I can have.

  5. Scott Young says:

    Great advice, jd.

    As for night owls, I’m one by default, so I can understand the sentiment. Top-heaviness is one theory for productivity. Another is getting your most important work done when you are in the highest upswing in an energy cycle. I know some people who are highly productive at 2am.

    My solution was to take control over my energy cycle so I did have more energy when I needed to work. This is half conditioning (adapting to a different sleep rhythm) and half scheduling (timing meals to ensure blood glucose is decent when you need to work).

    -Scott

  6. Jonas Park says:

    jd and Scott – Thanks!

  7. M. A. says:

    I’m a frequent reader of your website Scott, and I’m not sure if this is something you can avoid, or whether or not the sensation of novelty is something I should be looking for in your work or anyone else’s, but a lot of this material seems a recycle of your earlier articles.

    On the whole though, sound advice. Many of the things I have read on your website I almost wish I had discovered earlier. It makes you think that there are some vital lessons missing from standard school curricula (certainly from my experience).

  8. Scott Young says:

    M. A.

    With my writing I strive to maintain a balance of core topics and new topics. Top-heaviness may tread on the same ground as other productivity articles, but I hope it will be a new metaphor to help people who want to become more productive.

    Since I get a lot of new readers I like to split the posting into finding new ways to hit upon the same core ideas this website is based on, and spend the rest of my time tackling new subjects.

    It’s hard to balance the interests of someone who has read my blog for several months and someone who has just found it today. Hopefully the articles where I break from my regular writing will keep the blog interesting for you.

  9. [...] pickle jar approach: put in the big rocks first, then the pebbles, then the sand, then the water. Make Your Time Top-Heavy [Scott H [...]

  10. [...] February 21, 2008 · No Comments Top-Heavy Approach to Work.  [...]

  11. [...] pickle jar approach: put in the big rocks first, then the pebbles, then the sand, then the water. Make Your Time Top-Heavy [Scott H [...]

  12. Appreciate your time saving tips! Thanks!

  13. [...] Rhoades’ post here– and Young’s here.  « Sermon: Genesis 12:1-4(a), John 3:1-17   [...]

  14. [...] level is lower. Use your peak energy levels to handle the difficult tasks. Scott Young’s recent post entitled “Make Your Time Top-Heavy” does a very good job of presenting this [...]

  15. Ani says:

    Thanks for a great article, cure against procrastination.
    Stumbled it!

  16. [...] All of us want to be the most effective in our ministry work. Rearranging our tasks into a top-heavy schedule may be just the trick! You can find other great tips at Young’s blog. [...]

  17. Gerald says:

    This article describes exactly my strategy for getting stuff done and having free time. I’m trying to convince my computer science grad school friends these ideas and I will send them this link to improve their lives and mine as well. Life sucks when you have free time but your friends take away their own free time with terrible time management and planning.

  18. Scott Young says:

    Gerald,

    I completely agree. Free time is best shared.

    -Scott

  19. [...] Use A Top-Heavy Schedule: Scott Young has a brilliant idea he calls “top-heaviness“, where he gets his work done early on the day (or the week), so that he doesn’t feel [...]

  20. [...] I kind of feel inadequate, like I’m not really living. And I’m going to make my time top-heavy by getting up really early in the morning (I’ve had semi-success with this the past few days) [...]

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