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Control Your Life

February 6, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Now that we have captured everything floating around in our minds on a physical medium and purged it from our thoughts, we are feeling über organized and near stress free. But wait, we still have to find time to do everything that we’ve captured! Now it’s time to take control of our lives.

The Goal

The goal is to adopt efficient and low-stress scheduling strategies that ensure we get stuff done well and on time.The Problem

Most students I know just keep a mental to-do list and then sit down around 8:00pm and ponder “What do I have to do today?” or turn to their syllabi to see if they have anything due the next day.  They start working on whatever comes to mind first, and hope to get through everything by 1am so they can get some sleep. Now, some students are a bit more organized and have all their assignments written out somewhere, and if you’ve been following us on the Study Hacks on Campus journey, then you should have everything you need to do recorded in your MTL… but that’s not enough.The Problem

To-Do List Planning. What is it? The bane of productivity – that’s what it is. All of the students described above are “to-do list planning” (i.e. queuing their work from a to-do list of assignments). As Cal Newport points out, “[T]o-do lists are a terrible daily planning tool” because they are “missing two key pieces of information:”

  • Duration (of the tasks)
  • Availability (of the person)

A big looming list of all the things you have to do fosters procrastination. Students tend to put everything off until “later” and then don’t know what to do first when they finally do get started. Usually, to-do list planners start their work sometime after dinner, and often times something unexpected will pop-up (like an irresistible, impromptu beruit tournament), and they’ll end up with little work done and hours less to complete their assignments. Thus, the problem with to-do list planning is that it is an inefficient and unpredictable method of scheduling that often leaves you feeling exhausted and unaccomplished.

The Solution

Essentially, we need to turn all of our tasks into engagements with ourself. (If these terms aren’t familiar, read our first meeting’s discussion on Capture.) Three key strategies will get us closer to optimum productivity.

Time Blocking

Time blocking is the act of “[a]ssign[ing] specific times on your schedule … [to] specific tasks.” When you review your calendar and MTL each day, select the tasks that you plan to complete that day and assign each task to a specific block of time (e.g. “Calculus Homework”: 2:00-3:30). Time Blocking has three distinct advantages over to-do list planning:

  • Increased efficiency. As Cal puts it, “you are more likely to take advantage of smaller chunks of time open earlier in the day,” and are “more likely to fit in urgent small tasks between the bigger time-consuming tasks.”
  • Decreased procrastination. Time blocking “reduces [the] urge to procrastinate,” as the decision regarding whether or not to work at any particular moment is already made.
  • Increased awareness. It “increase[s] your ability to predict how much time work really requires” which in turn reduces your tendency to either pull all nighters or fail to complete assignments.

Autopilot Scheduling

Autopilot scheduling is “a devastatingly effective” study hack which is simply a way to manage regularly occurring tasks. Recurring tasks typically take up the majority of our time as students and, as Cal puts it, “are so numerous that I don’t trust myself to schedule them week by week in a reasonably efficient and spread out manner.” They often get cause you to “make very little progress on … important non-regular work” and are easily forgotten or put-off. (Freshman Humanities reading, anyone?).

With autopilot scheduling, you “assign every regularly occurring task to a specific day in the week.” If you can assign it to a specific time block in advance, that’s even better. “Identify what work you do every single week and then start fixing it to specific days.” Make sure to tinker with this autopilot schedule until you get it right and don’t overload any single day.

Autopilot scheduling ensures that you “no longer have to expend any scheduling energy to make sure [you] accomplish all of these regular tasks,” thus, your “scheduling energy can be focused 100% on the large non-regular tasks in [your] life.” Furthermore, “[y]our regular work gets done consistently and with minimum stress and “[t]he clarity gained by having this regular work ‘taken care of’ allows you to focus on the important big projects in your student life.” Autopilot scheduling lets you focus on that upcoming midterm or campaign for class presidency by alleviating your concern for your regular class readings and assignments.

Below is an example of an autopilot schedule. It’s actually my schedule for the week of March 22nd, which contains just those items I’ve put on autopilot!

iCal Screenshot

Connor's Autopilot Schedule

Time Arbitrage

Time arbitrage is essentially maximizing your productivity by trading “low-value time” for “high-value time.” Cal explains this in detail.

Extra Credit

Up to the challenge? Try adding a Sunday Ritual to your schedule!


Don’t be a to-do list planner. Save yourself the stress and inefficiency and try out TAT (Time Blocking, Autopilot Scheduling, and Time Arbitrage)!

How do you use these strategies to your advantage? Have questions or comments? Leave a comment below and the SHOC@CMC Team will get back to you within the week!

  1. Cal
    April 1, 2010 at 7:31 am

    I’m fascinated to hear how your experiments with time blocking and autopilot scheduling turn out.

    A couple points:

    (1) be prepared to adjust your autopilot schedule 3 – 6 times before it works consistently.
    (2) a hidden benefit of the autopilot schedule is that it acts like an overload alarm. If you’re having a hard time fitting everything onto your calendar, then you’re doing to much. Cut.

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