Cal Newport on the Monk Mode Morning

Cal Newport, Professor at Georgetown University and author of Deep Work, recently published a blog post entitled The Rise of the Monk Mode Morning.

It’s an interesting article and echoes one of the tactics I use to write my books, articles and columns. For me, I intersperse morning spent writing with triathlon training mornings. The breakthrough occurred when I decided to consciously move my last hour in the evening to the morning.

In other words, I decided to go to be an hour earlier in order to awaken an hour earlier. The end result was a swap – one unproductive hour at the end of the evening for a productive hour at the start of the day.

It worked like a charm, due to the reasons outlined in this article.

For Total Task Schedulers it’s an easier transition to make. When you consciously think about the use of your time you gain the ability to schedule spans of time when you can be hyper-productive. The Flow State, Deliberate Learning or Deep Work are all techniques which become easily available to you because you schedule everything.

It’s just one of the outstnading benefits of being a Total Task Scheduler.

Why Scheduling Everything Can Make You Happy

Chances are, you already know a thing or two about the hyper-focused frame of mind which produces a state of high productivity. But there’s surprising information emerging about its opposite: a state of “mind wandering” which makes you not only unproductive, but unhappy. It made me ask: “Is there are a hidden connection between happiness and being a Total Task Scheduler?”

Authors Mihalyi Csikszentmihaly, Anders Ericsson and Cal Newport are separately known for a trio of similar concepts: Flow, Deliberate Practice and Deep Work. They advocate a variation of the same idea; there comes a time when, in order to achieve a productive state, you must shut out distractions and focus on a single challenge for a long enough time to produce a breakthrough result. These tasks are the ones which produce the most movement in our professional careers. Complete enough of them, and the improvements compound over time, giving you a clear path to growth and an advantage over the competition.

The most productive people who attempt to achieve these states know that they don’t just happen by accident. They must not only be scheduled beforehand, they involve clear-headed preparation. Not only must you set up your environment in a particular way, you must also ward off other people who could become a source of interruptions.

While these highly productive states may occur by serendipity, you are unlikely to fall into them by accident. The opposite is more likely. Most workplaces are set up to interrupt you easily. As a result, a professional may never experience a single moment of Flow, Deliberate Practice or Deep Work in the course of the average working week.

Now there’s evidence that a failure to manage oneself to reach these productive states can make you unhappy. The evidence actually comes from a recent study of wandering minds.

Matthew Killingsworth

Apparently the behavior is widespread. “People spend some 4.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing” according to a recent study by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” they state. Even though our ability to think about what is not happening in the moment is a great advantage to us as humans, apparently we indulge in it far too often.

We think about stuff that has already happened, is about to happen, and will never happen, instead of being present. By contrast, we are at our happiest when completing tasks which occupy our attention the most: “making love, exercising or engaging in conversation.”

Daniel Gilbert

We are least happy when” resting, working or using a home computer.” Each of these are un-challenging tasks which are completed alone while not using any particular skill.

Not surprisingly, there is a strong link between mind wandering and happiness. “Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

In fact, the researchers estimate that a person’s mind-wandering is responsible for some 10.8 percent of their happiness, while the nature of the activity only accounts for 4.6 percent.

Someone who schedules everything is far more likely to stay on purpose each day. After creating a written schedule, they know what they hope to be doing at different times. This includes time for rest, social activity, meals and exercise.

Without a schedule, they have to make multiple decisions each day about what to do next. When decision fatigue sets in, it’s easy to let the mind wander, particularly late in the day.

Compare that with the approach of Total Task Schedulers who experience what I call “awakeness.” They don’t become lost in time, arriving at the end of the day wondering what just happened. In fact, they are likely to know the purpose of the activity they are engaged in at that moment, plus all its temporal attributes: how long it is supposed to last and what due date it is meant to hit, if any.

As a result, they leave little time for mind wandering to set in, and for unhappiness to accumulate. Instead, they move purposely from one task to the next, giving it as much of their attention as possible.

Furthermore, having a plan for the day serves as insurance: they are less likely to fall into the trap of chasing their tails – being hit by one surprise after another, often instigated by other people. Without a plan, the average person is entirely off-balance all day, wondering about the stuff  she had kinda intended to get done but never actually wrote down.

We hate this feeling: it’s when the Zeigarnik effect is at its worst and we are at our least productive. It turns out that we are also unhappy.

The Power of Setting Deadlines

Is it better to break up an assignment with a deadline into smaller parts, each with its own deadline? And is it better to have someone else assign you a deadline than create your own?

These are the kinds of questions Total Task Schedulers typically ask themselves in their quest for greater productivity. Fortunately, a recent article by Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch sheds some light on both questions.

In an experiment, students were given a choice as to when to complete three papers, all of which were due by a certain date.

Dan Ariely

One group was given or imposed three evenly-spaced deadlines, while another was given the chance to set its own deadlines (apart from the final deadline). These students had the freedom to set all the deadlines to the very end. To make things interesting, there was a penalty attached for missing any imposed or chosen deadline.

Take a moment to guess… which performed best?

Klaus Wertenbroch

Well, some of the results may surprise you.

  • Most subjects set deadlines, even though there was a risk of doing so.
  • Only 12% chose the maximum freedom of setting all three deadlines for the last day.
  • Grades in the imposed deadline group were significantly higher.

In another study described in the same paper, students were given an incentive to find proofreading errors in three texts. Once again, there was a penalty for late submission. They were divided into three groups:

  • the first group was given or imposed evenly-spaced deadlines.
  • the second was given only the final deadline for all three assignments.
  • the third group created their own deadlines.

Some of the results were similar.

Once again, students preferred to space out their tasks rather than to set them all to the final deadline. Also, the first group performed best on the task, followed by the third, then the second group.

Also, the researchers performed a comparison between members of the first group and those in the third group who happened to create evenly spaced deadlines. Their results were similar, hinting that in the very first study, the difference in performance on the papers was due to the sub-optimal way in which the deadline dates were self-chosen.

On the other hand, the first group reported that they spent the most time on the task.  The second group spent the least.

The researchers’ conclusions?

  1. People create self-imposed deadlines when they suspect they might have a tendency to miss deadlines i.e. procrastinate. Even when there’s penalty for doing so, it helps them meet their goals.
  2. Externally imposed deadlines work even better than self-imposed deadlines.
  3. Self-imposed deadlines improve task performance in general, in the absence of externally-set deadlines.

As you may realize, Total Task Scheduling is all about creating self-imposed deadlines. The good news is that doing so makes perfect sense to people who are committed to high performance, and reducing their errors-in-execution.

What do you think of these results?

Procrastination, Deadlines and Performance: Self-Control by Pre-Commitment by Ariely and Wertenbroch

The CEO of Linkedin on Scheduling Nothing

The CEO of Linkedin wrote an interesting article entitled The Importance of Scheduling Nothing.

It’s a description of one of the principles I share in A Course in Scheduling.  In a nutshell, the idea is that a skillful Total Task Scheduler creates the ideal day first, including time spent for sleep and other restful, mindful activities.