Estimating Our Schedule

Estimating Our Schedule

How much time do you need for some of the mundane tasks in your life? You probably have a good sense for how long it takes you to get yourself together for work in the morning, how long it takes to prep your easy Thursday dinner, and how long it takes you to brush your teeth and get into bed at night. What you probably don’t have a great sense of, however, is how long it will take you to complete something new in your routine. If you are looking to introduce something new into your routine you will probably misjudge just how much time you will need.

 

This is an idea that Cal Newport presents in his book Deep Work. Newport specifically writes about new habits for work and leisure that help us improve our focus and spend more time with important things that truly matter. He encourages us to create schedules not just for our workdays, but four our entire days, and warns us that it is going to be hard to plan our days when we first start. Newport writes,

 

“Almost definitely you’re going to underestimate at first how much time you require for most things. When people are new to this habit [scheduling their full day], they tend to use their schedule as an incarnation of wishful thinking – a best-case scenario for their day.”

 

I started this post reflecting on common activities that we do daily, and our sense of how long those activities really take us. The reality for even these simple things is that we don’t have a great sense of how long they actually take, especially if we are not focused while working through those tasks. Deliberately getting ready for bed is a lot quicker than distractedly getting ready for bed while simultaneously watching YouTube videos. If we likely get these daily things wrong, then we will surely have a poor estimate for just how long new habits, routines, and tasks will take us.

 

For work, scheduling just how long a spreadsheet or report will take us can be challenging, especially if we have varying demands and levels of interest from our supervisor. But the more we practice, the more we can focus and engage with deep work, the better we will eventually be at getting a sense for how long something will take. This will carry over into other areas of our life as well. We will eventually get a good sense for how long the new physical therapy routine will take us, how much time we need to set aside for exercising, or how long a board-game with our family will take. Along the way, we will develop muscles for flexibility in our time and scheduling, helping us make better predictions and adjustments as we schedule out our days.
spend time on autopilot

Spending Our Days on Autopilot

“We spend much of our day on autopilot – not giving much thought to what we’re doing with our time,” writes Cal Newport in his book Deep Work. “This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work.”

 

Good habits are everything, but they are hard to develop without deliberate, conscious effort. Bad habits, on the other hand, spring out of nowhere and are always ready to creep into your life. When we spend time on autopilot and fail to recognize how much time we lose to TV, to our smartphones, or to the snooze button, we start to allow bad habits more space to creep into our lives. Living on autopilot encourages us to do easy things, and to default toward limited action rather than put effort into things that take effort but in the end provide more value.

 

Newport’s solution to our autopilot days is to literally, “schedule every minute of your day.” We can schedule time for deep work, we can schedule time to do the important things around the house that need to get done, and we can schedule time for TV or scrolling through the internet on our phones. If we try to schedule out what we are doing and when, we can start to think about how we spend our time and begin to redirect ourselves toward more meaningful activities. Scheduling our full day, not just our workday, will give us a chance to jump out of autopilot, to stop moving through the motions each day, and to use our time meaningfully.

 

This isn’t to say every minute of the day has to be productive, but it gives us a framework to keep distractions and low value tasks and activities away from the times when we are trying to focus and get important things done. If we find that we have bad habits that waste a lot of time in the morning or early afternoon, we can schedule activities during those times that get us away from the distractions, helping us be more engaged and intentional with the world. Planning is everything if we want to get away from spending our days on autopilot, and if we want to find a balance between excitement, important work, and mindless leisure.
Shutdown Rituals

Shutdown Rituals

What do you do at the end of your work day? Do you just haphazardly save and close out of anything that you happen to be working on during the last 10 minutes of work? Do you glance back through your email one last time and shoot off a couple emails to make sure you got a response in before you left for the day? Do you even sign off for the day or do you just leave the office only to continue checking email and doing tidbits of work here and there for the rest of your evening?

 

One thing about work today is that it can creep into every moment of our lives. It is easy to continue checking your work email all weekend long, to continue to take calls from clients well into the evening, and to hop on for a few minutes here and there when you are off the clock to help take care of something. All of this can be extremely draining, and we can become overly consumed by our work. Living this way pushes our family out, adds a low level of stress to each moment of our day, limits our time for real leisure and disconnection from work, and as Cal Newport puts it in his book Deep Work, prevents our unconscious brain from working through those challenging issues when we are not thinking of them directly.

 

Newport’s solution? Shutdown rituals. For Newport, ending the day with a plan is incredibly important for having a life focused on meaningful things within and outside of work. Shutdown rituals are crucial for setting ourselves up to have a productive workday the following day. If you take some time to gather your thoughts, reflect on what you accomplished, how long it took, and what you wish you had been able to achieve, you will be able to better structure your work and your days. You can plan ahead for the next day to make sure you get the really important thing done and avoid getting stuck on the small unimportant details. Shutdown rituals allow you to evaluate what went well, and where improvements could be made. They also allow you to put your work down, knowing that you have a plan to address the crucial things tomorrow, when your brain is fresh.

 

Newport writes, “Shutdown rituals can become annoying, as they add an extra ten to fifteen minutes to the end of your workday (and sometimes even more), but they’re necessary for reaping the rewards of systematic idleness summarized previously.”
Finding Success Through Structure

What Happens When Your Day Lacks Structure

In the past I have found it incredibly helpful to have fully planned out days. To know what I have going on, what the most important priorities are for my day, and when I am going to buckle down with focus work versus when I am going to sift through emails is a great feeling. When I have thought through what to work on and know I have blocked off sufficient time, I can really do some great work.

 

Without having such planning, each day is a bit of a challenge. Things come to mind as the day passes for what I should work on, but I often float from one task to the next without a great sense for why I am working on any specific thing at any specific moment. This strategy is easy and might work fine when I am not under tight deadlines, but I have run into a real crunch when suddenly remembering a project or task that needs to be done today. Or, when fortunes change and an emergencies pops up, I have been wholly unprepared to deal with the new reality that needs my attention immediately.

 

My last post was all about finding success and finding willpower in a routine that makes you effective. Creating spaces, planning ahead, and developing rituals for deep concentrated work is the best way to ensure that you can do hard things continuously. This structure is important, and Cal Newport describes it in more detail in his book Deep Work, “without this structure, you’ll have to mentally litigate again and again what you should and should not be doing during these sessions and keep trying to assess whether you’re working sufficiently hard.”

 

Whether you work as part of an organization, lead a campaign, or work as a solo entrepreneur, you need time for deep work. You also need to think about what each day is going to entail and have a plan to get the most important work done. Spending a few minutes thinking about what is most important and what you should be focusing on at what time can help free up the mental energy and space required to get into deep work. Having to think continuously about what you should be doing at any moment is exhausting and will lead you to flutter around at a shallow level with your work. If you haven’t yet developed an effective structure to approach your day, you are missing out on being effective and finding a sense of stillness in doing the important work that needs attention.
Reschedule Your Email

Move Email to the Periphery

Email is the default busy work for most people today. I currently don’t receive a lot of emails, but in a previous role I was frequently inundated with emails, and a few days out of the office undoubtedly resulted in hundreds of unread emails to sort through. With so many messages coming it at every moment, and with so many people receiving, reading, and replying to emails all around us, it feels like checking and answering email is an important part of our jobs.

 

The reality is often that email is one of the least productive and least meaningful tasks for us to engage with. I have always like the idea that there are four types of tasks (an idea we can apply to emails): 1) Urgent and Important, 2) Urgent but Unimportant, 3) Non-urgent but Important, and 4) Non-urgent and Unimportant. Many of the emails that we spend time with fall into categories 2 and 4, and consequentially our action on those emails doesn’t provide much benefit to ourselves or anyone else.

 

With a better system we can move email to the periphery of our work, rather than keeping it at the center where it is continuously monitored throughout the day. This approach is difficult and takes real planning to implement if you are used to being on top of your email at every moment. For many of us, our day starts by checking every email first thing in the morning and we default to an easy strategy of trying to keep the inbox clear whenever we have a second to check it.

 

Changing away from this default would require deliberate action on our end. Cal Newport sums it up in his book Deep Work, “If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.”

 

A solution that I found helpful for managing emails went like this. First thing in the morning I would log in and quickly scan my emails. Email that was obviously unimportant I would archive. I used Gmail and had Boomerang, which allowed me to make emails disappear from my inbox and show up at a later time when I could address those issues that were non-urgent. Any email that was important and urgent I would review to see whether it truly needed action at this moment or not. If it didn’t, I could use Boomerang to have the email come back to me at an appropriate time.

 

After lunch each day I scheduled 1 hour of admin time for myself. During this time I would address the non-urgent but important emails that needed a response from me, or that I did need to be aware of. I would also use this admin time to schedule the remainder of my day and the first half of the next day (or longer if possible). I could estimate the time needed for me to focus on specific tasks, and block time on my schedule to handle those tasks, with an hour admin block after lunch for the following day for more planning.

 

This was a tough schedule that required focus and effort to maintain, but during the day I could reliably concentrate on important tasks. My mind was not constantly trying to ask whether I was working on the right thing, and I didn’t have to try to remember emails I had clicked in earlier. I improved over time at estimating how much time I would need for certain tasks, and I could routinely adjust for meetings and interruptions as needed. I got a lot done, and I kept up with email just fine, even though I only spent a small amount of time on email in the morning, and sent a lot of emails straight to archive.
Solving for Productivity

Solving For Productivity

My general sense, from working at a health-tech start-up to my time in government, is that we under-invest in how to be productive. I recognize that everyone will have different preferences, different abilities, and different thinking styles, but I have seen plenty of areas in which we could improve the how and when of our schedules to make ourselves more productive. We can level this up from individual level decision making around productivity into group levels of productivity to really improve our organizations.

 

In the start-up world I saw individuals who were incredibly productive, but who also seemed to work for 12 or more hours every day. This is impressive, but not very sustainable and not something that could scale. In government I have seen people face mountains of work, but fail to prioritize and schedule appropriately to focus their work. Both examples highlight the importance of how we approach our productivity and why we should have more discussions about planning, schedule design, and deep work if we are going to improve our productivity as individuals and organizations.

 

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport addresses these issues directly. He shares a story about a business school professor named Adam Grant, who produces a prodigious amount of work in terms of New York Time’s best selling books, academic journal articles, and award winning courses at his University. Newport met Grant who shared with him a PowerPoint outlining strategies for academics to become highly productivity and effective. As Newport states it, Grant, and the professors who developed the PowerPoint, “See productivity as a scientific problem to systematically solve.”

 

This is the exact opposite of the productivity strategies I have seen in my two careers. The commendable start-uppers burning the midnight oil seemed to mostly just throw themselves at every project until they were spread too thin and slowed down other operations. Conversely, many of the people I have seen in government simply give in, arguing that there is too much work and not enough manpower to manage it all. Neither see their effectiveness and productivity in a scientific sense, adding variables and completing formulas to find their maximum (sustainable) productivity.

 

Newport encourages us to think about how we do our work and what work we prioritize. His suggestions also seem to be in line with recommendations from Dan Pink’s book When. From Grant, Newport learned, “batching of hard, but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches.” This can take place at “multiple levels” according to Newport who demonstrates how an academic can batch teaching into one semester and research into another semester. In our own lives, we can batch important analytical work into our productive and focused mornings, and we can save emails and rote paperwork for our afternoon struggle-bus hour.

 

We might be tempted by Newport’s advice to just double down on our hard work and extend our working hours. But this is not the best strategy for the best performance. Newport explains a lesson he learned while researching his book How to Become a Straight-A Student, “The best students understood the role intensity plays in productivity and therefore went out of their way to maximize their concentration – radically reducing the time required to prepare for tests or write papers, without diminishing the quality of their results.”

 

If we see a mountain of work and shrink from it, or if we see a mountain of work and blindly throw ourselves at it, our end result is not going to be the best possible outcome. What we need to do is think about how we can be the most productive in tackling the task in front of us. We need to think strategically and scientifically about our approach, batching the complex focus work into periods of productivity, and saving the less important work for the time when our brains have maxed out on their focus ability. This is something that leaders of all organizations should be encouraging and teaching to those they lead, otherwise they hold onto the secrets of good work, and allow those who work with them to flounder about in front of the challenges of work in the 21st century. By adding a little more time to planning and thinking strategically for how we work, we can make adjustments to kickstart our productivity. By giving ourselves realistic challenges and knowing when to say no, we can ensure that all of our work is the best we could possibly produce.

Night Owls By Birth

A chronotype is the scientific term used to describe people who are night owls and early morning people (or larks as they are sometimes called). Most people fall into these two categories, with a small segment of the population who are somewhere outside of either lark or night owl. Between morning people and night owls, the majority of people are generally in the morning person category (even if most people are not waking up at 4 a.m. to write blog posts every day).

 

In the book When, Dan Pink discusses research which suggest that our chronotypes are often determined before we are even born. He suggests that being a night owl or a lark is beyond our individual control, and not something we can flip like a light switch. He writes, “Genetics explains at least half the variability in chronotype, suggesting that larks and owls are born, not made. In fact, the when of one’s birth plays a surprisingly powerful role. People born in the fall and winter are more likely to be larks; people born in the spring and summer are more likely to be owls.”

 

To me it seems really strange that we would find a genetic component to whether we like to wake up early or go to bed late. What is even more strange is that there would be an epigenetic factor that shapes whether we are a morning person or night owl based on the time of year of our birth. I can understand why early human civilizations would benefit by having some people who were morning people and some people who were night owls, but it is still surprising to me that it is baked in at a genetic level.

 

We often look at behaviors like waking up early or staying up late and apply some type of moral lens which does not make sense given this research. Our society generally praises the early risers and is critical of night owls, but for many people, according to the research Pink presents in his book, being an owl or lark is not a choice. We don’t need to be so critical of people with a different chronotype than ourselves, and we don’t have to praise people who have the same chronotype as ourselves either. We can simply accept that some people are going to be up early and others will stay up late, and we can adjust our own schedules according to our chonotype so that we are engaging in appropriate activities at the appropriate time for ourselves based on our chronotypes.

 

Ultimately, for me, this brings me back to my personal belief that we need to shorten the work day and find more flexibility in how we work. Forcing everyone into the same work schedule doesn’t make much sense if many of us are not built on a genetic level for that work schedule. Also, if our work is knowledge work, where the important thing is what our brains produce and not how many times we swing a hammer, then there is no reason to force that work to be done at a particular time of day, at least not if it can be done at a different time of day with better output that doesn’t slow down and impact other people’s productivity. Respecting chronotypes in this way will likely make us  more productive, if we can find a reasonable way to blend chronotypes and work schedules. This is something I think we should work toward, especially since our chronotypes are more or less set before we are born, and not something we explicitly chose for ourselves.

Afternoon Creativity – The Inspiration Paradox

“The Inspiration Paradox – the idea that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms,” is an idea that Daniel Pink writes about in his book When. Time is important for us human beings. We all have experienced first hand how frustrating it is to have someone energetically talk to you either first thing in the morning, or late at night after your typical bed time. We all know there are times when we like to work out, and times of the day when all we feel that we are able to do is sink into a comfy chair and absorb a TV show. The fact that we all have cycles and time preferences for certain activities is largely ignored, however, by most of us and by the schedules we have to adopt for life, work, school, and family.

 

Pink thinks this is a huge problem and provides insight from the studies of time and timing to help us design new schedules and better consider the times at which we engage with specific activities. One area that I found fascinating was Pink’s recommendations for when we should do our analytic work versus when we should do our innovative and creative work. He writes,

 

“Our moods and performance oscillate during the day. For most of us, mood follows a common pattern: a peak, a trough, and a rebound. And that helps shape a dual pattern of performance. In the mornings, during the peak, most of us excel at … analytic work that requires sharpness, vigilance, and focus. Later in the day, during the recovery, most of us do better on … insight work that requires less inhibition and resolve.”

 

Things like daily writing (focus work that requires deep thought on a given topic) and mathy tasks are good things to work on in the morning. The majority of people are roughly morning-ish people, and their brains are the most attentive and best able to focus to complete analytic work in the first several hours after waking up. Things that require focus and attention are best when done earlier.

 

Contrasting analytic work is creative work, which requires some focus, but also works best when our brains are not too narrowly focused on a single area. Brains that can pull from various sources and different fields are more creative than brains that are dialed into one specific channel. In the afternoon, after we have recovered from our daily trough, our brains are more engaged, but still a bit distracted. According to Pink this sets our brains up for creativity and innovation, taking existing ideas and combining them in new and novel ways. We actually do our best creative work when our brains are not quite firing on all cylinders. The paradox in the first quote of this piece is referring to our brains being the most creative when they are not exactly the most efficient and effective – at least in terms of how we would analytically measure our brains.

 

Keeping this in mind can help us organize our days in ways that work better with the mental capacities we will have at a given time. We shouldn’t fill our mornings with administrative low value add tasks. The mornings should be the times when we tackle the big items that require analytic focus and resolve. Our trough should be the time that we pack in the emails that don’t take much brain power and just need to get sent out today. Finally, our creative brainstorming should take place in the afternoon, when we no longer have to fight off an afternoon nap, but are not too focused on a specific area and can use our brain’s flexibility to pull together new thoughts.

Start High School After 8 A.M.

I’m a super early morning person and I have been since high school, but I was definitely a bit of an anomaly in high school and throughout college. Most high school students, not necessarily through their own poor decision-making or bad habits, go to sleep a lot later at night and don’t wake up very early. It is a pattern that is made fun of in families and in popular culture, but it is a pattern that seems to be pretty stable and should be considered when we think about designing a school system for teenage children that maximizes their educational opportunities and efficiency.

 

This is an argument that Dan Pink presents in his book When. In most places in the United States, my hometown of Reno being one of them, our high school students have the earliest start time. Middle school students head to school next, and our elementary age children start school the latest. This allows us to have three different bus schedules that pick up the oldest kids in the early morning, then get the next youngest group, and finally get the little guys. What we prioritize is an efficient bus schedule that feels safe for our youngest kids, not necessarily our kids learning.

 

The problem with this schedule is that it is a bit backwards for our oldest and youngest children. Our younger kids tend to wake up a little sooner and would actually do better than our teenagers with starting school early in the morning. Teenagers need just as much sleep as kindergartners, but rarely get enough. Moving school back for them would actually help them get more sleep and be better students. Their learning would improve, their driving would be safer, and hopefully outcomes for our high school students would be better in the long run.

 

Pink references a study of start times for schools writing, “one study examined three years of data on 9,000 students from eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming that had changed their schedules to begin school after 8:35 a.m. At these schools, attendance rose and tardiness declined. Students earned higher grades in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies and improved their performance on state and national standardized tests. At one school, the number of car crashes for teen drivers fell by 70 percent after it pushed its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.”

 

I understand that we don’t want to encourage teenagers to stay up all night on phones and computers, and I recognize that many people would be afraid that pushing the start of school back would do just that, but as it is now, we force teenagers into settings that are not conducive to learning. We make them start school early, prevent them from getting enough sleep, and put them in dangerous situations due to fatigue. What our current system reveals is that we value efficient bus schedules and perhaps a feeling of safety for our smallest kids over the actual learning that is supposed to take place in school. Perhaps it is fine to express our values this way, but we should take a critical look at the learning taking place in our schools and make sure that we are ok with the values we prioritize when it comes to our children’s school schedules. Making a switch would likely help our students learn more and save lives, two outcomes that should be high priorities for society and our education systems.

Setting an Agenda, and Killing “Being Busy”

In his book, The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier talks about being busy, and how we sometimes use business as a way to show that we are important, hardworking, and have lots of meaningful things we are tasked with. He argues that being busy is really just a form of laziness stemming from a failure to prioritize the world in a way that makes the important work stand-out and shifts the busy-work to the background. Being busy is really about being over-committed and spread too thin to be effective.

 

Instead of being busy all the time, we can focus on what matters most and think through the key items that we can work on to make a difference. There are a million things we all could do each day at work, and we usually know, at least enough to make a useful estimate, which items are the most important and which items on our to-do list will make the biggest difference. Indiscriminately trying to do everything creates a sense of overwhelming busyness that we carry with us and complain about throughout  the day. It sounds good, like we are ambitiously taking on big important topics or as if we are being asked to complete an unreasonable set of demands by someone higher-up, but often times, it is just us not setting an agenda and working on the things that matter most.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “George Bernard Shaw was on to something years ago when one of his maxims for revolutionaries states, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.” The people who use busyness as a way to look important are really just failing to adapt. Learning to adjust ones schedule, build a routine, and prioritize will help in becoming more effective and getting the key things done. We don’t have to run around from project to project trying to adjust things to what we want, instead we can build ourselves and our days in a way that manages the busy work for us and allows us to be effective.