Study Hacks Blog Posts from April 7, 2008 - Study Hacks - Cal Newport

Monday Master Class: How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done By Building an Autopilot Schedule

April 7th, 2008 · 52 comments

The Schedule That Wasn’t ThereAutopilot

I had an interesting conversation last week. A friend asked about my schedule for the rest of the semester. “I have it all planned out,” I replied. “I’m going to alternate, back and forth, between working on the big research paper I have to write for my art history seminar and the early parts of my dissertation.”

The friend was quick to challenge me. This schedule, he noted, missed a lot. What about the hundreds of pages of weekly reading for my art history seminar? What about writing and grading problem sets, and prepping and running recitation sections, and student e-mail, and all the rest of the random logistical effluvia emanating from the course I am TA’ing? Or, for that matter, what about all the non-MIT projects I keep brewing? My blog? My freelance articles?

It didn’t occur to me to mention this work. These tasks — numerous as they may be — rarely make an appearance in my scheduling decisions. Why? Because I use a simple but devastatingly effective student trick: the autopilot schedule.

It works as follows…

The Autopilot Schedule

There are two types of work in my world:

  • Regularly occurring tasks.
  • Non-regularly occurring tasks.

The former typically outweigh the latter and take up the bulk of my time during. These regular tasks are so numerous that I don’t trust myself to schedule them, week by week, in a reasonably efficient and spread out manner. If I made scheduling decisions on the fly for all of my regular work, I would likely:

  • Get behind on my regular work, letting it pile up and instigate last-minute scrambles.
  • Make very little progress on my important non-regular work. “I’ll start that paper tomorrow, I have all this reading to get done today!”

So here’s what I do instead:

  • I assign every regularly occurring task to a specific day in the week. (Sometimes I even assign the task to a specific time.)

For example, here is the schedule I am currently using for non-regular work in my student life:

  • Reading for my art history seminar: Friday and Monday. If I don’t end up finishing, then I also use Wednesday before class.
  • Develop new problem set problems: Thursday morning before class.
  • Build a prep sheet for problem set problems: Thursday morning right after the problems are chosen.
  • Prepare for office hours: One and half hours before office hours start on Tuesday. (The process is simplified by the prep sheets put together the preceding Thursday.)
  • Work with graders to discuss problems, setup rubrics, and review procedure: Two hour meeting, in conference room, Thursday afternoon.
  • Reassemble problem sets, print sample solutions, print graders notes: Tuesday morning before class.
  • Write draft of Monday and Wednesday blog posts: Sunday morning.
  • Edit and post blog articles: First thing Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Reply to student e-mail for class: Right after blog posts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and first thing on Tuesday and Thursdays. Also at end of work day.
  • Work on non-MIT writing: Friday, Sunday, “early-evenings” during the week.

I call this an autopilot schedule. It took some tinkering, as it does every semester, to get it to a place that works. But now that it has been fine tuned, I no longer have to expend any scheduling energy to make sure I accomplish all of these regular tasks. They run, in effect, on autopilot — getting done when scheduled.

The Power of Autopilot

Here’s why I love having an autopilot schedule: my scheduling energy can be focused 100% on the large, non-regular tasks in my life. This is why I was able to tell my friend that my schedule for the next two months consists of alternating between my research paper and my thesis. All of that other crap he mentioned is already taken care of. I’m only interested in what happens in the time that remains.

Let me give you two reasons why you should consider placing the regular work in your life onto autopilot:

  1. Your regular work gets done consistently and with a minimum of stress.
  2. The clarity gained by having this regular work “taken care of” allows you to focus on the important big projects in your student life.

Getting Started

There’s no magic 10-step process here. Identify what work you do every single week and then start fixing it to specific days. You probably won’t get it right at first. The biggest mistake I make each semester when forming my autopilot schedule is to put too much on one day. So play with your work. Slice. Dice. Spread it out. When possible tie work to specific events. (Much of my TA work is attached to the hours immediately before or after classes or office hours.) These triggers make it easier to get started. If a given task is big and scary and ambiguous try to break it down and systemitize it. (A post for another day is the amount of mechanization I’ve applied to my TA responsibilities to minimize any wasted or unnecessary time spent handling papers.)

Once you get to the point where your regular work is getting done with a minimum of thinking, you’ve hit that low-stress sweet spot where you can start turning your attention to the bigger things. Like that terrible massive art history research paper that I have no idea how to start. Still working on a way to automate that too.

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