Note from Scott: Cal Newport, MIT graduate student, author of two books and blogger at Study Hacks has offered to help me out during the recovery from my illness by writing a guest post. You can check out his fantastic blog at: http://www.calnewport.com/blog/  or read his other popular guest post on this website, The Art of the Finish .
In terms of sheer volume of work, the two busiest periods from my recent past include the writing of my second book and the writing of my masters thesis. These occurred one right after another, and both intersected with a full graduate student course and research load. Here’s what’s interesting. These were not the most stressful periods in recent memory. That honor probably goes to last spring, a semester in which I wasn’t doing much research, and was definitely not writing a book or a masters thesis, but was instead taking one course and TA’ing another.
The reason this observations proves interesting is that if you add up the number of hours per week spent working, both my book and thesis swamp the recent spring term. Why, then, was the latter experience more stressful? What can this teach us about the sources of stress? And, most importantly, how can we use this knowledge to our advantage?
These are the questions I tackle in this article…
Schedule Footprints and Deadline Counts
From my experience, there are two metrics that prove particularly useful when analyzing your work. The first is the schedule footprint. This captures the quantity of hours spent working on a particular set of activities over a given period of time. The second metric is the deadline count. As its name implies, this counts the number of work deadlines – times when specific things had to be done – over the same period of time.
The Footprint Fallacy
A common mistake made by people worried about stress is to put too much emphasis on the schedule footprint. They reason that the more hours they work the more stress they’ll experience. This train of logic leads to the conclusion that a semester spent writing a book or a masters thesis should be much more stressful then the semester with just one course and a TA gig.
The intuition is sound, but as I noted, the conclusion is wrong.
The reason, it turns out, that my spring term was more stressful was because it contained a large number of deadlines. Being a teaching assistant involves a constant flow of little things that have to get done right away – problem set problems need to be graded, students updated, slides posted, graders organized, papers sorted and handed back. The same was true of my other course: there were constant reading assignments that needed to be finished and presentations to be started and paper drafts to be handed in. Writing a book or a masters thesis, by comparison, has relatively few deadlines. Indeed, each has just one main deadline: hand it in. Even though these latter examples had a big schedule footprint, because their deadline count was low, I found them much less stressful.
To understand this observation, let’s dive deeper, and ask: What really makes you stressed? If you think about it, you’re unlikely to simply answer “I have lots to do.” Upon reflection, you’ll probably key in on those moments when several things (potentially small) fell due at the same time; moments that spark a feeling of “I can’t get this all done in time!” These are the moments that trigger the hormonal response that we call stress.
The math is simple: the more deadlines you have, the more likely you are going to encounter these stress-inducing collisions. Therefore, the higher your deadline count, the higher your stress. Big schedule footprints, in the absence of large deadline counts, are much easier to manage.
Taking Advantage of this Reality
This sophisticated understanding of stress highlights an inefficiency in the system—a way to increase your success without a major increase in your stress. In particular, it makes a case for the following approach: focus on getting really good on a small number of things. This goal requires a large schedule footprint. If you’re becoming a world class expert in your field you have to spend a lot of time. But this time, like writing a book, or crafting a masters thesis, comes free of a large number of intermediate deadlines. To use our terminology: the schedule footprint is large but the deadline count is low.
Now compare this to the other approach of doing lot’s of things, the proverbial “keep many options open,” “say yes to everything because you never know when the favor will be returned,” strategy for handling work. This generates a huge deadline count, which, in turn, generates a large amount of stress. The kicker is that people who become world class in a small number of things are just as successful, if not much more successful, than those who do a huge number of different activities.
In other words, success-levels being equal, it stands: the experts are happier than the polymaths.
An Important Caveat
This does not mean, of course, that you should become single-tracked in your life; unable to explore or expand beyond one or two interests. Keep this in mind: activities that don’t generate hard deadlines don’t add to your stress. So if you want to take up Frisbee golf or start a band, go ahead; these don’t really add to your deadline count. They’re hobbies. You control how much time you put in. So explore. Meet people. Have fun.
This also does not mean that you can never change course. Most interesting people master many different fields over a long, fulfilling lifetime. The key, however, is to keep this more or less a serial endeavor—one pursuit after another, not all jumbled together.
Placed on the level of practical advice, this reality suggest that at work, or at school, be wary about tacking on one more committee, or joining one more club, as the benefit you’ll gain might not be worth the extra stress. Furthermore, this same volume of benefit can be replicated, if not surpassed, by assigning that extra time to an existing, long-term pursuit.
This is just an insight; use as you see fit. But it’s certainly an interesting exercise to take a good hard look at your schedule, and ask where you could reduce your deadline count while expanding your schedule footprint. For someone with outsize aspirations, these insights can be the difference between being successful and happy, and being successful with a particularly nasty ulcer.