This past autumn, I completed my PhD in Neurovascular Genetics. Simultaneous with writing my thesis, I finished the manuscript for my first book, which was handed one month after my PhD defense and is now published by Lulu. During this past year, I also managed to create and maintain this blog, Science for All, which enjoys already over 5,000 unique visitors a month, publish a dozen peer-reviewed academic papers, start a MBA course at the University La Rochelle (and pass all first semester exams), do an accelerated bioentrepreneur course, write a business plan, and work freelance for my recently created company Koonec.
Now you may think – admit it you do – that I’m a freak, who spend days and nights working and has no personal life whatsoever ,or maybe that I’m some “new rich” who monitors an automated lifestyle from a beach in Costa Brava. Well nope, I have a normal job (I’m a postdoc) and with only a few exceptions, all of the work I did took place between 10:00am and 7:00pm on weekdays. However, once I leave the lab and go home, I only do non work-related things I love like cooking, cleaning the house, swimming, walk my 2 dogs, watch TV series and movies, and of course spend time with my bf.
You must wonder what my secret is. Well the answer is that I do not have one but many secrets. The good news, however, is that I started to and will continue revealing them all to you and you can come back here to check them in the productivity tips section. But today is a special day because I want to reveal to you what I consider to be the most important productivity approach of all: work on a fixed schedule. It is not really a new idea. It has been preached by several very talented people that I admire such as Tim Ferriss, Calvin Newport, and Ramit Sethi. The beauty of it is that it is a really simple strategy, even thought it might not be so easy to implement.
Now, let me explain what it really means, how to do it and what benefits you will get from it.
What is the Fixed Schedule Strategy
The fixed schedule strategy means that YOU have to choose a schedule for your work and then make everything you have to do FIT in this schedule. I know it seems very difficult right now, because you’re used to check your email at 2 o’clock in the morning and to finish writing papers on Sunday evenings after family dinners. But trust me, you can do it. Does it mean you will have to cut back on obligations, projects, and turn people down? Yes it does. However, you will get such a relief from feeling stress-free, avoiding procrastination and accomplishing important things, that your life will become really awesome and you’ll feel amazing with yourself.
Why does it work so well? Simply because having more time and working more does not necessarily mean having more and better results. On the contrary – and if you work in a lab, you know what I’m talking about – having more time usually means wasting more time on the Internet, reading useless papers, waiting for experiments to finish, doing and redoing PowerPoint presentations, drinking too many coffees, and generally procrastinating while waiting for something important to happen, which of course never does!
Instead, if you identified the most important tasks, the ones that actually bring valuable results (like sending this damn paper to publication), you’d be surprised by how little time they actually require.
How to Live a Fixed Scheduled Lifestyle
To implement a fixed schedule in your lifestyle, you have to follow these simple two steps:
- Choose a work schedule.
- Don’t break the schedule.
Sticking to your ideal schedule will require drastic actions. As I mentioned above, you might have to dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on, eliminate inefficient habits from your daily schedule, risk to annoy or upset some people, and stop procrastinating.
Here are five tips you can use to keep your fixed schedule:
- Ship results. What’s your ultimate goal as a scientist? To produce good research that answers important questions. Nothing else really matters. Define what YOUR ultimate goal is and make it happen.
- Don’t be afraid to say no. If you don’t have time to take on new projects, just turn them down. If not, tell people when they can expect results from you and stick with the timeframe you gave.
- Don’t be afraid to drop projects and quit. This is probably the most difficult thing to do, because after spending so much time and effort, it’s hard to know when to stop. Think about it this way: nobody will remember the projects you started and quit, they will only remember the ones that gave awesome results.
- Keep habits. I find it easier to keep a schedule when you keep the same habits for everything you do regularly. For example, I always read and write articles in the morning, have lunch at 1:00pm, and work on new experiments or analyze data in the afternoon.
- Start early on important and urgent projects. It’s ok to adapt your schedule to start a project that needs to be done right now, as long as it is really valuable for your ultimate goal.
The Benefits from the Fixed Schedule Strategy
The fixed schedule strategy has three immediate impacts:
- You will focus only on the important things.
- You will have better and more results.
- You will get more respect from your colleagues.
If you can constrain your schedule to the point where non-essential work is eliminated and colleagues have to retrain their expectations, you’ll discover two other surprising results.
- First, the important tasks (focusing on the core of your research) are what really matter, and the non-important ones (e-mailing, reading news, etc) are more disposable than you may believe.
- Second, if you focus only on the important tasks, you’ll receive more attention from your colleagues. With this paradoxical effect, you’ll achieve more results.
Finally, you have to understand that it’s really easy to fill time with what seems to be productive work. Between e-mail, web surfing, meetings, to-do lists, there is always something you could be doing. At some point, however, you have to put a stake in the ground and learn to focus on what’s rally important. If you don’t, you’ll get sucked into tiring, inefficient schedules, and you’ll end up more stressed but not more accomplished. Bottom line: fix the schedule you want, and then make everything else fit around it.