Getting meaningful things done using "fixed-schedule productivity"

Cal Newport, a post-doc at MIT who writes the blog Study Hacks, has an interesting method of getting important work done. He calls it "fixed-schedule productivity."

The idea, in a nutshell, is this: "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."

Newport works between 8:30 and 5:30 on weekdays only, yet he gets a lot done:

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.

Ramit Sethi of I Will Teach You To Be Rich wrote about Newport and a few other people who use similar techniques to get a lot of meaningful work accomplished in 40 hours a week or less.

I think they are onto something -- ever since I had kids (which gave me fewer hours in the day to work, and also put a start and end time on my day) I've been much more productive.

Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers – and finishes by 5:30pm


  1. My first day of work at my first job, at 5 pm my boss leaned into my cubicle and said “Go home!” I took that to heart.

    Watching friends and colleagues working longer and longer hours, began reminding them: “Work will always expand to fill the time you give it.”

    1. i agree. i work in the food service industry, and whenever business started to get overwhelming, my boss would always tell me, “take a break. let someone else take over for a while.” on occasion, he would have to tell me this several times. only after a while did i take this to heart. learning to let go of your work at appropriate times is not always easy. a friend at work also told me, “take your break, because the work’s gonna be there when you get back, no matter what you do.”

      1. I totally agree. All work and no play makes Jack or Jill a very dull boy or girl. Life was meant to be spontaneous and enjoyed and not lived on a rigid schedule. Sooner or later something is going to give.

  2. Companies use the same technique to become more productive. They cut employment to the bone, but keep producing the same stuff. Thus the big boost in productivity you hear about on the news. And bonuses get handed around.

    If I work fewer hours and still make the same stuff, shouldn’t I get a bonus too?

    1. If you work fewer hours and still make the same stuff, you won’t get a bonus, you’ll just be expected to make more stuff. After all, how do you think companies cut employment, but keep producing the same stuff? Bonuses are strictly for executives who, needless to say, don’t actually make stuff.

      So the key is to make sure you’re an executive! ;)

    2. yep thats how it works….glad I dont work for vons anymore same the old times making top pay.get someone lower on the pay scale.or make baggers and checkers get less hrs but expect the same amount of work that the district manager and who ever can look good.while the employees are the ones that suffer so that the suits can look good and of course increase productivity…so they can get a bouns.mean while we lose hrs,more strees,we worked twice as hard so they can look good.and get bigger paychecks….thats b.s. “so suits can get bounes” you know if you think about that line.its explains alot of whats wrong with our sad sad world today…..o lol trickel down haha…..even if the suits dont get a bounes 1 year they did lose any hrs or money eather?

  3. Most software development projects do that kind of fixed schedule thing, too. If the tasks don’t fit the compressed schedule, they reduce the amount of time allotted to the task. Presto!

    1. Of course, like requirements gathering – if it’s taking a while, just stop doing it!
      Unfortunately, it’s the most important part of the SDLC, but it gets cut or neglected the most.

  4. Did anybody else read this as “I did my PhD, wrote three books, and mantained a blog all in one summer”? That’s sure what it seemed like.

    The intro makes it sound like he manages to get so much stuff accomplished, but really, he’s just finishing up projects that are ongoing.

    His tricks are basic and obvious: don’t procrastinate, avoid distractions, etc. The only suggestion I’ve seen here that I haven’t seen elsewhere is the idea of saying no.

    Basically what he has said is: set the hours you want to work, and in those hours, work. Don’t bring work home or stay late and don’t screw around while you’re at work. He adds in a couple nice things like “only do what’s worth doing”, “plan ahead”, and “drop anything that threatens your schedule”.

    I don’t see any of this as revolutionary or even novel. It’s really just setting reasonable expectations (your work schedule) and work ethic (don’t piss around). Unfortunately, these are two things many employees and employers seem to have forgotten.

    1. >Did anybody else read this as “I did my PhD, wrote three books, and mantained a blog all in one summer”?

      I got as far as “I completed my PhD in computer science at MIT” and stopped reading.

    2. I agree with RevEng’s final paragraph. My mother often complained that she had less time for what she wanted to do during retirement; I scoffed. Upon my own retirement, I suffered the same realization.

      It also dawned on me that retirement is freedom from the structured demands of workaday life.

      What has this to do with “fixed-schedule productivity”? Only a welcome contrast, which I happily endure.

  5. There is a cognitive style issue here. I actually did write my master’s thesis in about 2 days. Obviously, I researched a lot before that, but the crafting and the major writing was completed in more or less a straight shot, working almost straight.

    This is how I work, and how I’ve always worked. When I was a musician (amateur, but it was the biggest thing going on in my life at the time), I’d go into the studio and work straight until a song was absolutely finished–guitars, drums, keyboards, vocals, embellishments, effects, and mixdown. I cannot have any distractions or breaks. I don’t want any. I’m completely focused.

    I have seen people use this fellow’s method successfully, yes, but those are people who can do things little by little and keep track. I keep extensive notes on what I’ve done on a project if I have to put it down, along with instructions on what to do next. I will not remember otherwise.

    I GTD, and it has helped me stay on top of things, but in the real world, there are only a small number of things you can do, but employers ask for far over that limit. Add into that family issues, spouses who don’t like to be ignored, and everyday life, and yes, most people will be overwhelmed.

    Also, I must point out that his PhD, books, and blog are all basically the same thing. There is a lot of crossover in those activities. That is always great if you can work that out, but often you can’t.

    So, um… “Duh. But it’s not realistic for some, if not most, people.”

  6. “..ever since I had kids…(it did) put a start and end time on my day) I’ve been much more productive.”

    Well… on thing is clear – it hasn’t been written by mom!

  7. When I was with the 82nd Airborne Division, we called this reverse cycle training. Our mission had to be completed by a certain time, we work backwards from that point plugging in the important steps that must be accomplished and then accomplish the mission!

  8. Very good idea that the US Military has been using for a very long time. The Army calls it backwards planning and that is how missions are planned. Everything is planned backwards from end to start and down to the minutes involved.

  9. I love this article and I have forwarded it to my friends and children. We have been trying to operate a home based business, manage our appointments, care for our pets and teach important values to our children. I am certainly going to study on this subject, far to many days go by and I feel like I did not get everything done that I set out to do. The expression “wheels are turning but I am going no where” seems to describe how I feel many days.

  10. In my fifty year career as an engineer, I was forced by deadlines outside my control to follow this “revolutionary” time management technique. Too bad that the method didn’t permit me the time to write a thesis about it.

    1. Wow! There’s the truth. You’re a gentlemen and a scholar! What is wrong with everyone today? Does anyone wonder, like me, how we’re getting any work done while we’re blogging, chattering away on cell phones, twittering, tweeting, instant-messaging every minute in a frenetic, white noise focus or obsessive orientation upon inane, inconsequential minutia?

      Take care. Evangelize, but be prepared to be labeled as “negative.”

      My very best to you,

      Jeff Young
      Palm Beach, Florida
      U. S. A.

    2. How do you like your career as an engineer?? Would you have done anything different if you started over?? I’m just asking b/c i’m in college and considering an engineering major.


  11. “If I work fewer hours and still make the same stuff, shouldn’t I get a bonus too?”
    Well, you should. Either in the form of a promotion/raise if your exceptional productivity is noticed. Or in the form of more free time because you’re not wasting it working alongside the slow pokes

  12. If you work your ass off and complete everything asap, you are only “rewarded” with more work for the same money. Why bust your butt in todays corporate world? It’s all who you know 99% of the time and which butt to kiss.

    Stop it.

  13. I had a mgr (payroll dept) in the eighties that use to work 9-5 on Mon/Wed/Fri. He would work late on tues and thurs until 8 or so. We would enter into contracts on what our goals and objectives were. We had weekly meetings (same time every week) where he would review everything we did that week to accomplish those goals and objectives…revising when necessary. If we needed to meet with him and there was no free time during the week we could one of those two late nights to talk to him. Usually, you had to schedule time to talk to him (His way of saying no to interuptions). After work (9.00 pm) on Tuesdays he took guitar lessons. I did not like it much but you knew where you stood all the time.

  14. Wow! Actually all he is doing is being an jerk.
    I don’t know if it is different at MIT, but much of being an academic involves mentoring and helping others, lecturing, serving on committees, talking to students…… So sure, I would probably get more research done if I hid from my students, refused to give advice, and ran from my other obligations, but that would be shirking a great deal of my responsibilities. Hiding away, writing a book, and blogging is actually not all there is to having an academic position.

  15. That’s a sweet idea. I often utilize the same method but have never thought about it in such a way. I will now make a conscious effort to schedule my productivity. I think it works. If you’re not always stressing yourself out over projects and just get it down in the time you’ve been given, then you’re productive. I get it. It’s an idealist kind of idea.

  16. Keep in mind that this is a technique for “elective” work. We would not want fire fighters, law enforcement officers, surgeons, nuclear reactor operators etc. to leave before their tasks are complete. In jobs where health, safety, lives, and security are at stake this method can cause catastrophic problems.

    Even in less vital professions, when time is a factor, people will cut corners and do inferior work to to get out on time. This can be end up wasting a great deal of time and money when these tasks have to be done over.

    The idea presented is not a revolutionary idea – my brother, who is a carpenter, adopted a similar strategy after cutting his finger off with the table saw as a result of working too long and late and not paying close attention to what he was doing.

    I prefer a “stopping point” method where one works until he or she is at a good stopping point and the schedule is more of a suggestion than absolute limit. This way things are not left “hanging” that can cause problems. This idea isn’t revolutionary either, but would apply more universally to work of all types and wouldn’t have the potential of major health and safety problems the idea presented in this article has.

  17. After reading it is clear , the never worked in the culinary profession, where when deadlines are not met , you go out the door .

  18. I broke up with my BF to have “more time” to do things I wanted to do, but ended up wasting those hours because I had nobody to push me to be ready to go out at a certain time. Focus and discipline. Only you can provide the focus, but frankly, someone else often provides the discipline. Everyone I know who follows the advice of the author is much more productive than I am.

  19. If people would spend less time on private calls and non-productive conversations with colleagues while on the job, they’d really be surprised how much would get done! I’m one of thoes people that works when I am supposed to. I rarely work overtime because I believe in a work-life balance. We need rest in order to recharge. I adhere strictly to my schedule, and what doesn’t get done today can usually wait until tomorrow. It’s really all about planning, but not everyone is good at it. Then we have those people that just want to appear “interesting.” And some people don’t know how to amuse themselves – so they do only the thing they know how, work.

  20. These concepts are fine if you can stay away from the “old School” bosses. In one position I had I was able to do the work of the previous person in 2/3 of the time and took on new responcibilities and projects. I did not have to work any overtime. I was told by my boss that I would not get anywhere in the company or earn bonuses if I did not work overtime. So, on Saturdays I clocked in and read a novel behind a closed door then went home about noon.

  21. I personally believe that we don’t always give ourselves the proper downtime to relax and reflect. The goal shouldn’t be getting as much done as possible in the least amount of time, but to focus on the quality of what you are doing…quality vs quantity. Likewise, we are already overwhelmed and overextended with our lives here in the US, and unlike many of our European friends, our work schedules are absurd and unrealistic. Work too hard and you’ll be missing the wonderful things that make life enjoyable. If you use this method, be sure that you are balancing it with healthy doses of personal time for yourself, your family and your friends!

  22. This makes a lot of sense, personally I don’t think it could work for me, because I like to apply a lot of what I learn through tests or jobs for clients.

  23. You may be making this public – but this is a way of conducting business for us (Project Engineers)and yes, you complete more work this way

  24. “Companies use the same technique to become more productive. They cut employment to the bone, but keep producing the same stuff. Thus the big boost in productivity you hear about on the news. And bonuses get handed around.”

    Every time this happened where I worked, it usually meant NO bonus and the company was going bust. They were just trying to get more out of you for less.

  25. not new. the Coro Foundation Leadership program has taught this method as “backward planning” for decades.

  26. I just wish that congress could use this process to put together a budget and then stick to it. It works because you only have limited time or money and you have to make plans for it all.

  27. In Michigan…we’re thinking…”what’s work”…is it that thing one’s supposed to go to just to get layed off or fired or perhaps the biggest one of all…sorry but ummm the plant’s closing…

  28. Read the book “Margin”. It talks about setting guidelines to ensure that work doesn’t invade your life and you can have a happier life.

  29. The whole key is staying focussed. If you get distracted easily or interrupted often, that really cuts into your productive time, because then you have to refocus again after each interruption or distraction. Set aside a chunk of time, bring water and a snack, and then lock yourself away until what you intended to do is done. That’s the only thing that works for me. Epictitus said it best — “Decide what you will have, and then do whatever the hell you have to do to get it.” Well, kinda …

  30. This is a method of workflow/time management that most Production Artists are familiar with and employ to achieve goals. We analyze the end game and then work backwards. This includes: Man/woman power, hours on the board, client demands and changes, physical printing or output, and all final deliverables. These items can be categorized into fixed and variable equations… so to speak. Perhaps the Scientists should be talking to the Artists ….. ;)

  31. I use the phrase “begin with the end in mind”. You can apply this to long-term goal setting as well as short-term activities management. Picture (define) your ideal outcome, and then working back to the beginning outline all the steps(activiites) to accomplish the task or achieve the goal. I cannot remember where, but I read a long time ago that there is really no such thing as “time management”, only acitivites management. You really cannot control the passage of time, only what you do during a period of time, how you “spend” that time. One last comment; if you spend 10-15 minutes at the end of every day identifying the 3-5 most critical things you must accomplish the next day, you will be amazed at how much more effective you become. You can expand this to include a weekly and monthly planning session as well, but the daily is most critical.

  32. In today’s world the internet snags most of your time. Now reading the responses to this small article took up most of the time. It shows that people like to gossip and talk and discuss and put in their two cents on every topic(that includes me). Typing in a few sentences gives a feeling of accomplishment an worth. And generally speaking there is very little original thought that crops up in such discussions but a pointing of various points of view

  33. Do you have time to pee. If you don’t, your schedule is bad. Always remember, give yourself time to pee. The rest if just distractions.

  34. How do you think Moms through the years have managed to prepare, cook and serve 4 or 5 different dishes nightly and put them all on the table AT THE SAME TIME piping hot? By starting with the time you want to eat and working backwards to ensure each dish finishes at the same time. And I always thought that was just plain old common sense……

  35. I have used the same principle for 16 years as a project manager. I get assigned a project with a due date and then have to fit all sub tasks into the time left between today and the due date. It ends up becomming the project plan. I guess most folks use something similar to guide them on their way to the completion of everyday tasks. It’s not rocket science or even MIT science, it’s the way things get done.

  36. I start my work around 7:30am I am supposed to leave round 4:30. but i often be over time. But i can’t claim i am over time due to a lot of paper work.

  37. Well just to point out, he said he finished his “third” book, not wrote three books. And in all honestly, the key to life IS to get things done. You can live comfortable if you actually do things. In these days people are overwhelmed with “stress”. So people create or make up, as I prefer to call it, “free time” “chill time”, a break. That is true and great to have, only you should actually be doing work or working to fulfill responsibilities before you can take a break. I think having lunch,supper, and dinner constitute for a break. A quick example of how comfortable you can live by actually working on your life is getting on the phone and calling those creditors that seem to have you “swamped” and have become a burden in this economy and start working out a payment plan, a final due amount, something, to relieve that “stress” of being in debt. If you think about it, isn’t not keeping up with your responsibilities a great reason of why people get stressed out anyways? Having to work to pay the bills! Keep up with that and your job becomes that much more enjoyable!

  38. I personally think there is no formula for personal productivity. Everyone is different with different skill sets. People have different habits, preferences, priorities and backgrounds. There is no algorithm. Take it easy.

  39. My bosses have to stay until 6:00 or 7:00 to get thir work done, or to work on their “special” projects for the CEO’s. We have a “Lean” program in place, now we do our own paper work for the boss because he/she doesn’t have time to do it. Am I my own boss? Why do I need a boss when I figure my own production and account for every minute of my day? Almost forgot, we spent 10-15 minutes a day on a morning meeting, which station to start work, how many days without an OSHA recordable accident, and new rules or changes in old rules. Then morning exercises!! Just like Japanese!! I am American, work for the French, under rules like the Japanese. The world is small. I want to go backwards and work for an American in America with American values!

  40. “I drop projects and quit. If a project gets out of control, and starts to sap too much time from my schedule: I drop it. If something demonstrably more important comes along, and it conflicts with something else in my queue, I drop the less important project. If an obligation is taking up too much time: I quit. Here’s a secret: no one really cares what you do on the small scale. In the end you’re judged on your large-scale list of important completipons.”

    I feel like I’ve always been taught not to take on things I can’t finish. Dropping projects when they become seemingly less important or too time consuming seems irresponsible and would probably make me feel just as stressed or upset as working extra hours would…

  41. “Time management: How an MIT postdoc writes 3 books, a PhD defense, and 6+ peer-reviewed papers — and finishes by 5:30pm”

    How the heck can you be a postdoc (as in Post Doctoral) and do your PhD defense? Was he a postdoc for his first PhD while finishing up a second PhD?

  42. There are more ways to waste time than there used to be – like writing comments and surfing the internet:-)
    To us old-timers (I graduated from MIT in 1986, well before Facebook, twitter, texting, etc.) these new “revelations” may seem obvious. But I doubt they are to the 20-somethings out there distracted by electronic equipment and other things that seem to be “necessities.”
    They are not and should not replace obligations.
    Also, I wish all my bosses over the last 10 years would have stopped wasting my time and others’ by calling foolish meetings with a dozen people to get information that I could have gotten in a short hallway conversation or two because the Harvard MBA’s say that that’s the way you have to do business now. I hope Cal addressed that nonsense in one of his 3 books.

  43. It’s simple, really. I get caught up in the same tangled delima most everyday.

    But, i have learned that no matter how hard i try to get everything accomplished in one day, i end up not finishing one simple thing because i try to work on every task needed before finishing any.

    I have learned to make a list and rank by importance and deadeline….then finish the first and not touch anymore until that one is completed or stopped due to lack of information. It has become more productive and alot less stressful around my office……

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