I've recently made four lifestyle changes that have allowed me to get more done and put much more effort into everything I do, all while feeling great with very little stress.
- I sleep 8 hours a day
- I work out for an hour every weekday
- I hide all clocks while I'm working
- I don't do anything related to academics on Saturdays and past 5pm on weekdays
My main focus of this post is the last two, but I'll briefly address the first two because I think they're very important.
I read a lot of what tech entrepreneurs have to say, and I've noticed a trend. The ones who are most successful seem to be the ones who value their physical and mental health. I feel like every few months I see a new study about how getting adequate sleep makes you perform better. It's almost common knowledge at this point. Yet so few students take that research to heart.
Working more hours in a day doesn't necessarily correlate with getting more done. I find that I'm much more efficient and productive if I've slept well the night before. Therefore, I've been putting myself on a consistent sleep schedule from 1am-9am every weeknight. After a few days, I started being able to fall asleep much faster and wake up refreshed in the morning... something I haven't consistently felt in months.
I also made a habit of going to the gym every day from 5-6pm. In the beginning this was a pain, and I felt like it was taking an hour away from me getting work done. I used to feel like I didn't have time to exercise, but now I feel like I don't have time NOT to exercise. By forming a habit, it feels like something I need to do every day, just like eating and showering. I don't think twice about it anymore.
But my real trick for getting more done with much less stress is in the things that I don't do. It all stems directly from Parkinson's Law:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
-- Cyril Northcote Parkinson
The idea has been around since 1955, and taking advantage of it has completely changed the way I work. Parkinson's Law, in other words, states that if you have a certain amount of time to complete something, that's how long it will generally take.
Usually this means that if you have more time than you need to get something done, you'll use that extra time because it's available to you. From personal experience I've found the reverse to be true as well. If I give myself less time to do something, I'll still manage to get it done in that limited time.
Scott H. Young wrote in his email newsletter that time usually isn't the bottleneck when it comes to getting things done. The real bottleneck is focus. I found that to be absolutely true when it came to my study habits. Everything I did took 3-4 times longer than it should because I would distract myself every few minutes by Facebook, email, text messages, Hacker News, or any number of other distractions.
But the real time cost when it comes to these distractions aren't the distractions themselves. It's the context switching that occurs every time I'm distracted. Thirty seconds on Facebook may seem harmless, but the real time cost comes from the time it takes me to become mentally re-engaged with a task after a distraction. Read up on context switching, and the findings may surprise you.
Everything up until this point led me to believe that I would be much more productive if I eliminated distractions. If I could frequently achieve flow (being fully immersed in a task), then I'd be able to get things done more than twice as fast, right? So now comes the mission of eliminating distractions.
The biggest distraction in my life (and potentially yours) isn't Facebook, email, friends, or anything remotely related. It's the clock. Whenever a clock is in my field of vision, I find myself constantly looking at it. Every time I look at the clock, some sort of thought about how much time I have left enters my head. Every time that happens, I waste time because of context switching.
Cover the clocks
So I eliminate clocks whenever I'm working. I disabled the clock in the corner of my laptop. Since you can't disable the clock on an iPad, I ripped the sticky part off a post-it note and covered the clock. My phone isn't a problem because I usually have that on "do-not-disturb mode" when I'm working.
The only genuinely useful thing about clocks when I'm working is that they tell me when I have to be somewhere. But I don't need a clock for that. All I need is an alarm. If I don't have to be somewhere until noon, I'm much better off not knowing what time it is until it's 11:45. I'm able to get by without ever looking at the clock because I set an alarm before I have to be anywhere. I use an app called Brrrr Alarm, which vibrates your phone instead of making noise, all the time when I'm working in a quiet space.
Let's think back to Parkinson's Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion." The no-clocks thing works great for short tasks. When I don't know how much time I have to complete a task, I naturally work as quickly as possible the entire time.
But aside from eliminating some context switching, this alone doesn't really do much to help me efficiently complete long-term tasks. What harm can a little Reddit break do when I'm working on something that's due next week?
No studying after 5pm
The answer is simple. It might sound crazy, but rigorously following this rule has forced me to completely focus most of the time and start things long before they're due. I don't do anything related to academics on Saturdays and past 5pm on weekdays.
I like to think of this as reverse-procrastination. Think of how procrastination works. You put a task off as long as possible, and then complete it hours before it's due. In a way, you're utilizing Parkinson's Law when you procrastinate. You're limiting the time you have to do something, and therefore you're able to complete it in much less time than it would normally take you. In a way, procrastinators are very efficient when it comes to how long it takes them to get things done. But this comes at a great cost: stress.
If I give you a week to complete [a short] task, it's six days of making a mountain out of a molehill. If I give you two months, God forbid, it becomes a mental monster. The end product of the shorter deadline is almost inevitably of equal or higher quality due to greater focus.
-- Timothy Ferriss
It's stressful to do everything at the last minute. So I've taken procrastination and turned it on its head. I tell myself that the due date for everything I need to do each day is at 5pm. This forces me into consistent periods of ultra-efficient productivity because I'm constantly racing against time to get everything done by 5pm. I find myself not even wanting to take those quick breaks because they might stop me from completing everything I need to do by 5pm.
This constraint I've imposed on myself has also caused me to start tasks long before I need to. Before I started imposing this constraint, I generally wouldn't start anything until the day before it's due. Now, if I've finished everything I need to get done for tomorrow, I'll go ahead and start something that's not due until next week. Why? Because I don't want to get stuck in a situation a week from now where that task isn't done by 5pm. I now spend almost every moment before 5pm in my day actually working.
Here's what a typical week looks for me now:
10am-5pm: Homework, studying, going to class
6pm-1am: Whatever I want, as long as it has nothing to do with academics
Saturdays: Whatever I want, as long as it has nothing to do with academics
Sundays: No constraints. I can use this as a catch-up day if I absolutely need it
I'll occasionally make exceptions to those constrains for group work or scheduled school events like review sessions and exams. Other than that, I stick to this schedule pretty rigorously.
By constraining the amount of time I have to study and do homework, I force myself to completely focus and put more effort into my studies with much less stress. This, combined with getting adequate sleep and exercise, has made me much happier and more efficient these past few weeks. It may or may not work for you, but this combination of lifestyle choices has been tremendously beneficial for me.
UPDATE: I'm not suggesting using the same constraints as mine. Only that constraining your time in some way can be beneficial.
UPDATE 2: I don't spend that time from 6pm-1am twiddling my thumbs. I work for a bunch of startups and a research lab, so most of that "free" time is actually spent working. I just find it much less stressful to separate my academic and professional time rather than jumble them together in my day.
For more, I recommend reading the following articles:
How to Use Parkinson's Law to Your Advantage - Lifehack
Beat Parkinson's Law and Supercharge Your Productivity - Litemind
Parkinson's Law and Productivity - Academic Productivity