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By Eric Barker
September 11, 2014
IDEAS
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Some days the to-do list seems bottomless. Just looking at it is exhausting.

We all want to know how to stop being lazy and get more done. I certainly want the answer.

So I decided to call a friend who manages to do this — and more.

Cal Newport impresses the heck out of me. Why? Well, I’m glad you asked. He’s insanely productive:

  1. He has a full-time job as a professor at Georgetown University, teaching classes and meeting with students.
  2. He writes 6 (or more) peer-reviewed academic journal papers per year.
  3. He’s the author of 4 books including the wonderful “So Good They Can’t Ignore You.” And he’s at work on a fifth.
  4. He’s married with a young child and handles all the responsibilities that come with being a husband and dad.
  5. He blogs regularly about productivity and expert performance.

And yet he finishes work at 5:30PM every day and rarely works weekends.

No, he does not have superpowers or a staff of 15. Okay, let’s you and I both stop being jealous of his productivity for a second and learn something.

Below you’ll get Cal’s secrets on how you can better manage your time, stop being lazy, get more done — and be finished by 5:30. Let’s get to work.

1) To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.

To-do lists by themselves are useless. They’re just the first step. You have to assign them time on your schedule. Why?

It makes you be realistic about what you can get done. It allows you to do tasks when it’s efficient, not just because it’s #4.

Until it’s on your calendar and assigned an hour, it’s just a list of wishful thinking.

Here’s Cal:

Experts agree that if you don’t consider how long things take, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

I can hear what some of you are thinking: But I get interrupted. Things get thrown at me last minute.

Great — build that into your schedule. It doesn’t need to be perfect. Things will change. But you need to have a plan, otherwise you’ll waste time.

Want to stop procrastinating? Schedule. Here’s Cal:

Does this sound too mechanical? Overly structured and not much fun? Wrong.

Research shows that it’s even a good idea to schedule what you do with your free time. It increases quality of life:

(For more on the schedule the most productive people use, click here.)

Okay, the to-do list is in the trash and things are going on the calendar. How do you prioritize so you’re not at work forever?

2) Assume You’re Going Home at 5:30, Then Plan Your Day Backwards

Work will fill the space it’s given. Give it 24/7 and guess what happens?

You need boundaries if you want work/life balance. But this also helps you work better because it forces you to be efficient.

By setting a deadline of 5:30 and then scheduling tasks you can get control over that hurricane of duties.

Cal calls it “fixed schedule productivity”:

What does research say prevents you from getting burned out at work? Feeling in control of your schedule.

Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can decrease your stress level.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

(For more on how to achieve work/life balance, click here.)

You’ve drawn a line in the sand and worked backward, giving all your tasks hours in your day. But how do you handle longer term projects?

3) Make A Plan For The Entire Week

I think you’ll agree that the last thing this world needs is more short term thinking.

You’ll never get ahead of the game by only looking at today and never thinking about tomorrow.

How do you write books, teach classes, meet with students, do research papers and be a good parent consistently? Plan the week.

Here’s Cal:

Are you rolling your eyes? Does this sound overbearing? It’s simpler than you think. What’s really necessary?

Just one hour every Monday morning. Here’s Cal:

And he’s right. Research shows you spend your time more wisely when you follow a plan.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

Maybe you think it’s enough to run down the week’s duties in your head. Nope.

Studies show writing things down makes you more likely to follow through.

(For more on how the most productive people get things done, click here.)

So you’ve got a fixed schedule and a weekly plan — but the math doesn’t add up. There’s just too much stuff. Cal has an answer for that too.

4) Do Very Few Things, But Be Awesome At Them

Maybe you’re thinking: I just have too many things to do. I could never get it all done in that amount of time.

And Cal concedes that you might be right. But the answer isn’t throwing up your arms and working until 10PM.

You need to do fewer things. Everything is not essential. You say “yes” to more than you need to.

Ask “What’s creating real value in my life?” And then eliminate as much of the rest as you can.

Here’s Cal:

You feel like you have no time but John Robinson, the leading researcher on time use, disagrees. We may have more free time than ever.

Via Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time:

So what gives? It feels like you have no time because it’s so fragmented with little annoying tasks that drain the life out of you.

So do less. And be amazing at those things.

(For more on what the most successful people do, click here.)

Your plans are in order and by doing less, it all fits on the schedule. But one question remains: what exactly should you be doing with your time?

5) Less Shallow Work, Focus On The Deep Stuff

All work is not created equal. Cal says knowledge workers deal with two fundamentally different types of work, Shallow and Deep:

And what’s the problem? Most of us are “drowning in the shallows”:

Nobody in the history of the universe ever became CEO because they responded to more email or went to more meetings. No way, Bubba.

Cal has it right: Shallow work stops you from getting fired — but deep work is what gets you promoted.

Give yourself big blocks of uninterrupted time to make things of value. What’s the best first step?

Stop checking email first thing in the morning. Tim Ferriss, author of the international bestseller, The 4-Hour Workweek, explains:

(For more on how to motivate yourself, click here.)

So how do we tie all this together?

Sum Up

Cal’s five big tips:

  1. To-Do Lists Are Evil. Schedule Everything.
  2. Assume You’re Going Home at 5:30, Then Plan Your Day Backwards
  3. Make A Plan For The Entire Week
  4. Do Very Few Things, But Be Awesome At Them
  5. Less Shallow Work, Focus On The Deep Stuff823

Schedules and plans sound cold and clinical but the end result couldn’t be farther from that.

You’ll be less stressed, create more time for friends and family, and make things you can be proud of.

Here’s Cal:

The offices of the world could use a few less cubicle drones and a few more proud craftsmen.

A PDF of the extended interview with Cal (including his research on how geniuses work) will be in my next weekly email. Sign up to get it here.

Join over 100,000 readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

6 Things The Most Productive People Do Every Day

8 Things The World’s Most Successful People All Have In Common

How To Achieve Work-Life Balance In 5 Steps

This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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