The Fixed-Schedule Effect: Secret Keys to Life?
My husband often forwards me tidbits from the interwebs that he knows I’ll find interesting. Last week he sent me an article about time management that really blew my mind. In some ways I think it’s the paradigm shift I’ve been looking for, as I often feel lost in the vortex of caring for young children and stepping between motherhood and work.
The answer to feeling overwhelmed and overbooked is NOT throwing more time at your workload — it’s about prioritizing and working in a more condensed framework. It’s about working smarter, not working MORE. Just what busy mothers need, right? We can’t add more hours to our day, but we can use what we have more efficiently WITHOUT running around like maniacs.
This article was truly an eye-opener for me. There’s even discussion of synthesizing parenthood, domestic life, and work. Here’s an excerpt (although I do hope you read the whole thing):
I must emphasize that I’m not some laid-back lifestyle entrepreneur who monitors an automated business from a hammock in Aruba. I have a normal job (I’m a postdoc) and a lot on my plate. This past summer, for example, I completed my PhD in computer science at MIT. Simultaneous with writing my dissertation I finished the manuscript for my third book, which was handed in a month after my PhD defense and will be published by Random House in the summer of 2010. During this past year, I also managed to maintain my blog, Study Hacks, which enjoys over 50,000 unique visitors a month, and publish over a half-dozen peer-reviewed academic papers.
Put another way: I’m no slacker. But with only a few exceptions, all of this work took place between 8:30 and 5:30, only on weekdays. (My exercise, which I do every day, is also included in this block, as is an hour of dog walking. I really like my post-5:30 free time to be completely free.)
I call this approach fixed-scheduled productivity, and it’s something I’ve been following and preaching since early 2008. The idea is simple:
Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way.
The beneficial effects of this strategy on your sense of control, stress levels, and amount of important work accomplished, is profound.
Michael Simmons’ [business] expanded quickly in the years following college graduation. Around the time I was reading The 4-Hour Work Week, I started to discuss the possibility that Simmons tone down the hours. It was his company, I argued, so why not take advantage of this fact to craft an awesome life.
Among the specific topics we discussed, I remember suggesting that Simmons cut down the time spent on e-mail and social networks.
“This isn’t optional for me,” he explained. “Any of these contacts could turn into a important partner or sale.”
But then Simmons’ daughter, Halle, was born.
Simmons’ work schedule reduced from 10 to 12 hours days to 3 to 5 hour days. He took care of the baby in the morning, then worked in the afternoon while his wife, and company co-founder, took over the childcare responsibilities. Evenings were family together time.
Halle forced Simmons into the type of constrained schedule that he had previously declared impossible. And yet the business didn’t flounder.
“The baby turns ’shoulds’ into ‘musts’,” Simmons explained to me. “In the past I used to put off key decisions, or saying ‘no’, because I didn’t want to deal with the discomfort. Now I have no choice. I have to make the decisions because my time has been slashed in half.”
“Since out daughter was born about a year ago, our business has more than doubled.”
The Fixed-Schedule Effect
Collins, Saunders, and Simmons all share a similar discovery. When they constrained their schedule to the point where non-essential work was eliminated and colleagues and clients had to retrain their expectations, they discovered two surprising results.
First, the essentials — be it making sales calls, or focusing on the core research behind a book — are what really matter, and the non-essentials — be it random e-mail conversations, or managing an overhaul to your blog template — are more disposable than many believe.
Second, by focusing only the essentials, they’ll receive more attention than when your schedule was unbounded. The paradoxic effect, as with Collins’ bestsellers, or Saunders and Simmons’ fast-growing businesses, you achieve more results.
Living the Fixed-Scheduled Lifestyle
The steps to adopting fixed-schedule productivity are straightforward:
- Choose a work schedule that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
- Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.
This sounds simple. But of course it’s not. Satisfying rule 2 is non-trivial. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal schedule.
Here’s a simple truth that you must confront when considering fixed-schedule productivity: sticking to your ideal schedule will require drastic actions. For example, you may have to:
- Dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on.
- Ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule.
- Risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom.
- Stop procrastinating.
In the abstract, these are all hard goals to accomplish. But when you’re focused on a specific goal — “I refuse to work past 5:30 on weekdays!” — you’d be surprised by how much easier it becomes to deploy these strategies in your daily life.
Read the full article here. Really, it’s worth the read!
I’ve already begun applying these principles to my work life, and I see how powerful this approach can be. Knowing that I need to tie up all loose ends by a certain time (various intervals throughout the day) really helps me stay focused. It’s kind of like applying the urgency of NaNoWriMo to your regular schedule. Do it now; there’s a deadline; stay focused. When you know there really are only 6 hours to get a project completed (rather than telling yourself you’ll work a second shift to get it done) you don’t waste time on Facebook or comparison shopping prices for Seventh Generation Diapers online. And in the end, what do you get? A finished project AND an evening to spend doing whatever you want to do. Suddenly there is time for creativity, reading, whatever. Sounds so simple, I know, but I can’t tell you how much I DON’T do that when left to my own instincts.
Can you see ways of applying these principles to the domestic side of life? Obviously, children aren’t going to observe a “fixed” schedule, no matter how much we might want them to, but there must be ways to apply the “container” approach in a way that makes the domestic scene feel less overwhelming. Your thoughts?