Study Hacks Blog

Your Work Matters. Build Your Schedule Accordingly.

September 20th, 2022 · 11 comments

About halfway through Laura Vanderkam’s sharp new productivity guide, Tranquility by Tuesday, we’re introduced to Elizabeth, an education professor who, worried about her ticking tenure clock, came to Laura for time management advice.

Elizabeth was struggling to find time for her research. Her husband and two children had followed her to northern Long Island to be close to the university were Elizabeth taught. As a result, however, her husband now faced an hour-long commute into the city each day, leaving Elizabeth with the primary responsibility for taking care of the kids before and after school. This created tight constraints on her available work hours, and the time that did remain was all too easily devoured by the demands of the classroom and teaching assistant supervision.

Laura asked Elizabeth to come up with a set of fixed time slots she could dedicate to research, to help ensure progress would be made even during busy weeks (longtime readers might recognize this as a variation of the autopilot schedule strategy). Elizabeth came back with the following options:

  • 6:00 – 7:30am on Monday and Fridays, before her husband left for work.
  • 5:45 – 6:45pm on Wednesday night, when she had childcare coverage before a night class.

Laura knew these meager options weren’t going to produce a lot of new research. “You don’t need to be a professor to deduce how easily those three small spots could disappear,” she writes. With this reality in mind, Laura pushed Elizabeth to be more aggressive in carving out time for deep work. The result was the following more substantial schedule:

  • On Thursdays, Elizabeth arranged for their normal sitter to pick the kids up from school and stay with them until 5:00. Because Elizabeth doesn’t teach on Thursday afternoons, this frees up a five-hour slot she can consistently dedicate to research.
  • Turning her attention to the weekend, Elizabeth arranged for her husband to take the kids from 12:00 to 4:00 every Saturday, freeing up another four-hour research block.

I know from my own academic experience that a pair of four to five hour chunks each week can really support some serious academic output. On the flip side, Elizabeth’s original proposal of three apologetic, short bursts, scheduled early in the morning and at the end of the day, wouldn’t have likely been that effective.

This example is important because it underscores a psychological reality of productivity that can be lost among all the posturing around systems and tools. It’s easy to feel like it’s impolite to prioritize work that’s important to you above other peoples’ demands. This is what led Elizabeth, at first, to limit her research to only the few scraps of time during her week that no one else had already claimed.

Sustainable production of valuable work, however, requires a dash of selfishness. Elizabeth’s revised schedule was exactly right. No reasonable person would find her investment in a once-a-week babysitter, or request for weekend dad time, to be excessive. These acts of self-prioritization were, objectively speaking, small. But they made a large difference in Elizabeth’s ability to produce the tenure-caliber work she knew she had in her. Your work matters. It’s okay to fight for it in your schedule.

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Laura’s new book will be released in October. She’s offering some nice bonuses, however, if you pre-order it now. (Learn more here.)

11 thoughts on “Your Work Matters. Build Your Schedule Accordingly.

  1. Hi, Cal

    This is a very timely topic for me. I’ve been running a series on my blog on time management for fiction writers because there are some areas no one talks about. Most productivity advice is framed from the perspective of “work.” If you have a side hustle (or a personal life), it’s kind of this thing on the side like vegetables you don’t want to eat.

    I write fiction after work. When COVID shut everything down, it allowed me to pull back from the chaos that my work had been and get better control over it. Other people’s delegation by emergency had chipped away at my agency and had become an energy suck. By the time I got home, I was all used up and didn’t have the energy or the creativity to write. Not only that, I brought some of the bad “firefighting” habits home with me and that affected the administrative side of publishing.

    I had to learn how to rebalance work in a saner way so I could make time for my writing after work. It’s been a huge learning experience of how much work influenced my personal life. It’s also an area that’s not paid enough attention to in a lot of productivity advice.

  2. Mayank says:

    Hey Cal,
    My problem is not social media but News, I like reading news, current affairs, geo politics, economy, finance, infrastructure and what now. And I don’t just read news – but go to the depth of it, for ex: read more about the leader/country in news, their history, spend hours in maps and so on and so forth with web surfing.

    I am a software engineer but spent a lot of time on above during and outside of my work -I feel it is important to know all this and everybody show know this and not be ignorant(I may be wrong) but this has become prevalent since we are doing WFH from Covid-2020.

    I see folks about social media addiction but I don’t spend time on facebook but rather on News or Information/learning videos(youtube) . Have you come across such an usecase before? If yes, what advice you gave?

    1. Andrés says:

      Hi, Mayank. I think this post says something about news consumption and may help you:

      https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2020/08/25/focus-week-give-your-brain-some-breathing-room/

    2. Tim says:

      Hello, Mayank. I’ve come to rely pretty heavily on newsletters to help me filter news and world events in a timely way. I really like the Flip Side for a US-focused newsletter, and I designed a weekly newsletter (timtalkspolitics.substack.com) that summarizes major world events that can be read in 10 minutes, or can occupy that 45-minute daily slot like that discussed in the piece that Andrés links to.

      I know this sounds somewhat self-promotional, but I only share it b/c as someone who studies world politics (international relations is my academic field), I needed a way to focus on my research while still staying up on current events, which kind of sounds similar to where you’re at.

  3. Sam says:

    “It’s easy to feel like it’s impolite to prioritize work that’s important to you above other peoples’ demands.” THIS. This is exactly why so many professional women struggle. For women, prioritizing our own work/goals/fill-in-the-blank over kids/spouses/parents/etc. feels morally wrong and there’s a heap of guilt that comes with it if we do finally muster the courage to do it. Thank you so much for spotlighting this example Cal.

  4. Skyler Frost says:

    I have to disagree with this advice. The reality for most academics who are mothers and fathers is that shorter, yet frequent, devoted time allotments are often all that is available. Professor Robert Boice, in his research on academic faculty, found that Brief Daily Sessions (BDS) allowed academics to produce more work than less frequent, longer sessions. Boice’s books (e.g., Advice for New Faculty Members: Nihil Nimis) provide data on what practices actually produce more innovative ideas and more quantity and quality of research. Boice also addresses how women and faculty of color (including women faculty of color) are often asked to take on more service and teaching than their male counterparts. Given what Boice’s research has shown (and my own experiences as a female, tenured academic) that two longer sessions won’t produce the quantity or quality that is probably necessary for tenure today.

    1. Yoko says:

      Boice noted short and regular sessions produced more publications than occasional bursts of long writing sessions. This does not mean having two weekly writing sessions lasting a few hours produces less work than three one-hour sessions in the long run.

      I have not read this latest book by Vanderkam, and I am assuming Elizabeth is adding those two longer sessions on top of the three one-hour sessions. These two combined would produce more tenure worthy work than having three one-hour sessions.

      Hopefully Elizabeth does not have as many service work as some of us who are tenured, female, and minority end up taking up. I trust Elizabeth keeps those sessions sacred for writing at least while on tenure-track.

      1. Skyler Frost says:

        Boice does not recommend three 1 hour sessions. He does note very clearly across multiple research projects that BDS produce more work than long tiring sessions. Regardless, it is consistent sessions of writing that produces writing.

  5. Hayrunnisa says:

    Hi from Turkey Cal! I’ve just finished Digital Minimalism and I deactivated my social media accounts. Since then I am planning my week day by day. It’s been two week and I’ve finished four books. I am thankful for your hardwork and mind-opener books.

  6. Emily says:

    Thanks so much for highlighting the need for self-prioritization in this context — it is incredibly validating! I cannot agree more with Sam’s comment above (see Sept 24). I appreciate your work!

  7. More CS says:

    It would be cool if you wrote more about academic productivity. There hasn’t been anything related to computer science in awhile.

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