Finding the ideal working style

3rd September 2015

It is difficult to know how to best achieve a high level of productivity. It is common to hear people say they are most productive at certain times of the day, or that they are better when not sticking to a schedule. Being an academic means that you are able to select your own working hours. Thus, you are able to pick the style—and working time—that is most suitable. But how do you really know what is most suitable?

I have experimented with a number of different approaches to improve my own productivity. In school I used to work on the idea that I was much more productive early in the morning. This idea continued through my undergraduate degree. Everything changed when I entered the professional world where there is a certain expectation of face time. My hours became "semi" regular (sometime the company demanded more time for certain tasks) and I felt that I developed a good work routine. This routine seemed to really help me when I entered into my PhD. There was little wasted time during my studies, and if wasted time existed the impact was not really noticed.

Now that brings me to my postdoctoral phase of my career. As you may have seen over other blogs, I have been fairly ambitious in trying to get as much work done as possible. This has resulted in me having numerous projects that are running at the same time. It is getting a little hectic now and I feel that after 18 months of this something has to change. This has driven me to identify other methods for generating higher productivity.

Fixed Schedule Productivity

I recently stumbled across this fairly old blog by Cal Newport. The author of this blog is a very successful writer and academic, which he reports is due to his working style. Cal Newport says that his work day is from 8:30am until 5pm and is very strict on these hours. The idea is that he sets the time for work and then the rest is for his leisure time. I also get the feeling from reading blogs of Cal Newport, when he is at work he is working. It is common to see people being present in the office, but the productivity is not there. I also appreciate the general message in these blogs saying it is important not to get overloaded with work to the point that it takes time away from what makes your life fun.

Upon reading the idea of fixed schedule productivity I felt really motivated to implement something like that in my own life. Up until that point I was feeling overwhelmed with the work that I was trying to do. This resulted in me feeling that I would not be able to complete everything that I wanted. Now, that last sentence alludes to something mentioned by Cal Newport in this interview—don't get overloaded. I feel that this is something that I need to address and improve.

My approach

Now, I have very diverse interests and like to work on many different things. It keeps me interested and moving forward. However, this is against the principles given by Cal Newport, stating that you should focus on a small number of tasks. I can agree in some ways. It can be argued that it is difficult to move forward when you are trying to work on many different projects at one time. But that is what I like to do, so I will fit my productivity process around that.

The first thing that I did before I tried to implement this working style was to identify all of the tasks that currently require my attention. I am a big fan of digital notes. I limit the amount of things that I put down on paper. I have put a "Sticky Note" on my Ubuntu desktop (along side some inspirational quotes, rules for working that I have set and a message to tell me to have fun). This note is to keep me focused and always have my tasks at hand when I am planning my daily schedule.

I enjoy the idea of setting the working hours that you want to do and making your work fit into those hours. I have set my working hours as 8:30am to 5pm (but this could come with an earlier start if I am feeling up to it), and I try to cut the useless things from my work day. Cutting the useless things out of my day is aided by writing a schedule each afternoon for the work that I want to do the following day. This follows similar ideas given here.

My daily schedule consists of three working blocks, two for 2.5 hours and one for 2 hours. These blocks are given to the tasks that I have written on my "Sticky Note". Sometimes I feel that a task may not require the full about of time, so I will split the block into two. However, I try to only ever split one block per day. I like having the consistency of working on the same task for at least two hours. I feel that you are able to get into the work and accomplish something in that time.

That leaves 1.5 hours free in my daily schedule. I give myself 30 minutes for lunch, I don't really feel like I need any more than that. The last hour is for reactive tasks and things that I feel will make me enjoy my day a little more. I find that it takes about 30 minutes to look through your emails and perform any administration work that is required. The last 30 minutes is left up to me. That can be anything from doing a little more reading on a particular topic, thinking about updates to my website or just considering new research directions.

In summary, my approach is:

  • Write a list of task currently requiring my attention.
  • Get into work between 8am and 8:30am, leave by 5pm.
  • Work in blocks of 2.5, 2.5 and 2 hours (some limited splitting permitted).
  • Give myself some time to work on things that bring me enjoyment.
  • At the end of each day, write a time schedule for the following day.
  • Working rules

    I briefly mentioned above that I have a "Sticky Note" for my working rules. This is something that I tried before discovering the fixed schedule productivity working style. However, it still helps in reducing the number of useless things that creep into my day.

    The first, and probably most important rule for me, is to not check my emails until lunch time. Then after lunch, I only permit the checking of my emails another two or three times before the end of the day. This follows an idea that I once read—your morning should consist of output, not input. Reading emails may make you feel like you are doing work, but in reality you are not producing any output.

    The other rules that I follow are just based upon when I can do certain non-work related tasks. These include the times that I should send emails to communicate with people in Australia and when I permit some useless tasks. The most important thing for me is removing the distraction that email brings.

    Try your own way

    I am really motivated by the fixed schedule productivity working style. However, at this stage I don't feel that the direct approach is completely suitable for me. There have been refinements to fit within my own working style and research interests. It has been good for me to have a model and I can build upon and try to be more productive at work.