In this post I’m going to share a trick I’ve used to double the work I’ve managed to get done, while working fewer hours. Without it, I’m certain I couldn’t have finished the MIT Challenge.
Before I share the method, however, I’m going to tell you why it works.
First, I want you to ask yourself a question: do you have enough time to get done everything you want to do?
I’m guessing you don’t. Or at least, you feel you don’t have enough time.
However, in this email I want to explain why this is a misconception. You do have enough time, and most people do. Time is rarely the constraint that limits the amount of work you can get done, and as I’ll explain, believing it does causes you to get far less work done with more stress than you could using a different system.
Why You (Almost) Always Have Enough Time
Now it might seem unfair for me to claim this. After all, I don’t know your life. How can I possibly assert that not having enough time isn’t your problem?
The reason I make this claim is because I’ve researched it. Just three weeks ago I surveyed the readers here to tell me their biggest obstacle to learning. The results weren’t surprising because they were almost identical to the last time I asked:
The problem is focus.
I’ve read hundreds of emails from students and workers all suffering from the same problem: they can’t focus well. They procrastinate, they get distracted, their mind wanders.
I’ve also heard just about every possible solution. They study someplace quiet. They turn off their phone. Shut off the laptop. Force themselves to stay in the library for longer hours to get more done. Even then their mind doesn’t want to stay on task.
I’m willing to bet that if most of these students could have a deep focus for even 50% of the time they commit to studying, they’d have more than enough time to finish all their work. This goes double for non-students.
If you could focus completely, you wouldn’t need more hours in the day.
Why You Can’t Focus
The truth to why you have difficulty focusing is simple: you don’t have enough energy.
By energy I don’t mean chi or electricity. I mean the invisible resource that controls your willpower, self-control, and ultimately, your ability to get work done.
Dr. Roy F. Baumeister conducted an interesting series of experiments. In them, he showed that willpower wasn’t just a personality trait, it was something you could boost up or down with something as simple as a sugar cube.
Baumeister ran an experiment testing willpower. To one group, he gave a glass of glucose-containing lemonade. The other group used an artificial sweetener. The group that got the real drink performed better on tests of self-control and willpower than the control.
Willpower is a resource. What’s more, by giving someone more energy, they’re better able to perform on tasks that require it (such as focusing when learning something hard). This showed that energy isn’t just New Age quackery, but a physical constraint which can enable us to work.
Interestingly, one of the treatments for ADHD is methylphenidate, or Ritalin. Ritalin is actually a stimulant. This may seem paradoxical, that a stimulating drug could reduce hyperactivity symptoms. But what may be happening is that the drug is stimulating the control areas of the brain.
Energy is the limited resource, not time. Add any extra hours to the day that you want, without more energy you won’t get more work done.
Why Time Management Hurts You
The belief that there aren’t enough hours in the day is a toxic one to productivity. It’s toxic because it suggests that better management of our time will lead to greater output. But if our energy is the true constraint, better time management may actually be destructive if it results in poorer energy management.
Consider the response most students take when they have an important exam:
- Pull an all-nighter
- Devote long hours to studying
- Give up on exercise, sleep and good eating habits
These practices make sense if there truly isn’t enough time. But they’re the opposite of what you’d want to do if energy were the scarce resource. Instead you’d want to:
- Make sure you’re well rested
- Study in intense bursts, not endless sessions
- Have dedicated time off
- Continue exercising and eating well
You might be able to get away with an energy deficit one or two days, but more than that and the cost just isn’t worth it. More hours does not equal more productivity.
How I Used This to Finish MIT Classes in 5 Days
Now I’m going to share how this philosophy of energy management can solve the mystery of focus, and lead you to get more done with fewer hours and less stress.
Here’s the time management system, simply:
- Dedicate time off. For me, that meant one day off per week and evenings were no study zones. I did not study during a single evening the entire year, even the day before a hard exam.
- Never sacrifice sleep. Giving up sleep to study more is the stupidest thing you can do as a student. Stop.
- Constrain your working hours. Don’t try to work more hours, in the hopes you’ll be able to focus. Work in smaller, more intense chunks and you’ll greatly increase your productivity.
Nothing here is complicated. But this goes against everything we’re taught as students, so I suspect there will be some resistance from many of you, so I’ll try to explain these points precisely.
Evenings + One Day Per Week = No Work
If you’re a full-time student, follow this formula. One day per week and evenings are no-study periods. You can exercise, watch television, read a book for fun or socialize, just no studying.
If exam periods are an exception, never let the exception go beyond one week. Then you’ll just be retreating back to lower levels of energy and output.
If you’re not a full-time student, this point doesn’t apply to you. Instead, think about constraining your working hours so that you know which hours are for work (or any particular learning project) and which aren’t. I’ll discuss that soon.
Please note this isn’t just a plea for life balance. I didn’t care about life balance when I was doing my challenge, and I would have been quite happy working non-stop if it would have helped. The reason I suggest this is because it allows you to get more done.
Never Sacrifice Sleep
Sleep is one of the things students quickly cut when they need to prepare for exams. This is the stupidest move you can possibly make, since you’re sabotaging both your energy and the system your brain uses for consolidating memories (that’s what sleep does).
If you need to make an exception to this in a pinch, realize it’s going to cost you double down the road. One hour of missed sleep will require at least two more later in the week to get back to neutral, so pay that price with caution.
Constrain Your Working Hours
I’m a fan of task-based productivity systems. But during the MIT Challenge, I often found I would spend all day working on just one or two tasks. In this case, I found it more useful to use Calvin Newport’s fixed schedule productivity.
The idea here is simple: you set dedicated hours to your most important work, outside these hours you’re not allowed to work.
This approach works better if you’re not a student and want to devote time to a particular learning project. Simply schedule certain time chunks for the job, and don’t allow yourself to work on them beyond this. Studying for a professional exam? Pick your studying hours and constrain them in advance.
It’s also important that these be real constraints. Many people get in their heads the idea of working non-stop on a project, so their constraints aren’t really constraints at all. If it doesn’t feel like you’re being lazy when setting your hours, you’re not doing it right.
Cal Newport himself only works 8 hours a day using this method, which if you’ve met any postdocs competing for academic tenure, is practically unheard of.
Your action step is simple and will take less than 15 minutes. However, it has the possibility of doubling your long-run productivity and cutting your stress at the same time.
Here it is:
- Take out a piece of paper.
- If you’re a full-time student, pick which hours/days you WILL NOT work. I followed no work after 7pm and on Sundays during my MIT Challenge, but adapt it to suit your own preferences.
- If you’re not a student, or learning part-time, doing the opposite might be easier: look through your schedule and figure out which hours you WILL dedicate to your learning project.
- Write these hours on a piece of paper and put them over your desk or workspace.
- Commit to following this new schedule for AT LEAST one week.
If you don’t feel it will be somewhat difficult to finish all your work in that time period, it’s not a tight enough constraint. The pressure of the constraints should force you to focus during your work time. The lack of pressure outside those constraints should allow you to keep your energy high, so you can focus when working.