Note: this is a contributed post by Cal Newport. If you like this, check his study hacks blog for more. If you have an interesting idea that supercharges your productivity and want to share it with our community, feel free to send it to us using the contact form. We’d certainly want to hear it!
I’m a graduate student. A fourth year PhD candidate at MIT, to be precise. And I have an annoying habit. Whenever I get a chance to collaborate, chat, or hang around with successful professors in my field, I like to find out about their work habits. In doing so, I’ve discovered the following two trends:
- The best young professors carve out a day each week to do nothing but research. This prevents the administrative nonsense that dominates their early professional lives from bringing their research momentum to a complete stop.
- The best, distinguished, older professors — those who have earned light teaching schedules and have paid their dues on enough committees that in their final years before retirement can begin to untangle themselves from these obligations — isolate administrative nonsense to a small number of days. They might even, for example, have a single day each week to take care of this crap, and then spend the other four thinking big thoughts.
Graduate students exist in an interesting middle ground between these two extremes. We don’t have the administrative burden of a young professor. On the other hand, unlike older, distinguished professors, we can’t get away with mainly just thinking big thoughts. They can do this because their young grad student collaborators — i.e., us — will take care of the time-consuming grunt work on actually writing papers.Keeping these two examples in mind, however, I devised an innovative schedule for my graduate student work week. I’ve used it for over a year now, and have been really pleased with its results. It works as follows:
The 3 + 2 Graduate Student Work Week
Designate one day each week to be your Administrative Nonsense Day
Spend this entire day taking care of any work on your plate that doesn’t directly connect to the task of conducting research and writing research papers. This is when I fill out forms, return library books, hand in reimbursement paperwork, call the cable guy, and add new publications to my web site. You get the idea…
Designate one day each week to be your Big Idea Day
Spend this entire day doing literature search and brainstorming on that research project you’ve always day-dreamed about, but have been to afraid to mention to your advisor. If you don’t set aside this time, you will get stuck in the rut of happenstance papers — the projects you fall into out of convenience or advisorial coercion. This work is fine. It’s how you earn your research stripes. But some time along the way you have to be fighting to make your own mark.
Use the Other Three Days to Get Your Normal Work Done
Most of what we do as graduate students is working on various stages of the paper-writing process. This spans cleaning up numbers in Excel to editing the related work section of a journal submission. Use these three days to get this work done. Because you isolated the administrative nonsense on another day, you might be surprised by how much gets accomplished in just 60% of the week. I like to make my Admin Day on Monday and my Big Idea Day on Friday, so this work can happen consecutively in the middle of the week; but preferences differ here.That’s it. A simple structure. But sometimes it’s the simplest changes that yield the most consistent results over time. This approach, of course, gets complicated by classes, group meetings, and collaborators who don’t know about (or, frankly care) that a certain day is your big idea day. So it will never apply perfectly. But even the attempt can make a difference…