Fixed schedule productivity in academics

Fixed schedule productivity in academics

Being a college faculty member has never been a typical 9-to-5 job. But somewhere along the way, it became a job without any time boundaries at all. It's all too common to hear about faculty who work not only during the "work day" but into the evening, late into the night, and through the weekends --- giving up on rest, family, and friends because there's just too much to get done and not enough time in which to do it. Being a faculty member, on the tenure track or contingent, has come to mean work schedules that expand to fill each of the 168 hours we all have in a given week.

I don't like seeing colleagues sacrifice their lives, health, sleep, and family because "work". This has been a big motivator behind my GTD for Academics posts. Faculty like Meghan Naxer are starting to get this too:

My own practice of GTD that has enabled me to get lots of work done and yet hardly ever work at all at nights or on the weekends, is based on the concept of fixed schedule productivity.

What is fixed schedule productivity?

The way we usually work as faculty is to start with the work we have, and work forwards from there, grabbing whatever time is available to get the work done and stretching that time until it fits the work. Fixed schedule productivity is the opposite: We start with a fixed amount of time, and work backwards to optimize our work to fit the time. More precisely,

  1. Set a fixed goal of not working past a certain time, either a fixed number of hours per week, or a certain time of the day --- preferably both --- and then
  2. Work backwards from that fixed time goal to find productivity strategies to meet it.

Please note, it takes both steps. Fixed scheduling is not about simply stopping work after a certain time: It's also about changing how we work so that the time we have is better spent. It's about putting ourselves on a scarcity model of time, so that we do our work more creatively and efficiently. The idea reminds me of what Marissa Mayer said about how creativity loves constraint:

Once we stop acting like we can just borrow time unlimitedly for the work we are doing, putting ourselves on a fixed schedule can provide the impetus for doing work better and making better choices about the work we do.

What does it take to practice fixed schedule productivity?

I first came across the term "fixed schedule productivity" while reading Cal Newport's book Deep Work recently. Deep Work says that practicing fixed schedule productivity involves setting "drastic quotas on the major sources of shallow endeavors" in academic life and "ruthlessly capping the shallow while protecting the deep efforts [...] that ultimately [decide] professional fate" (p. 239) such as research and, for most of us, teaching.

I'd add that working on a fixed schedule also requires that we limit even some of the more important non-shallow things we do. For example, it's important for professors to peer-review articles submitted to journals. But do we have to review 15-20 of them a year? Probably not; depending on your situation, maybe 4-5 a year is "enough" in terms of promotion and tenure, and doing more will not improve your portfolio. Or committee work: Is it important to serve on committees? Yes! But we can't serve on every committee, and at some point you have to say "enough", or else you won't be of use to anybody.

So fixed schedule productivity requires:

  1. A clear knowledge of your own Big Picture. If you've never taken stock of where you personally want to go with your life --- over your entire lifespan, in the next five years, the next 2-3 years, the next 1 year, the next 90 days --- then you won't have a coherent framework for deciding what matters. This is a part of the Getting Things Done approach that a lot of people skip. I highly recommend Michael Hyatt's approach to creating a life plan, and taking an off-day (maybe right after you turn in final grades this semester) to work through it.
  2. A precise understanding of the requirements for professional advancement at your workplace. A comment I hear a lot is: Saying no to things puts me in danger of not getting tenure (or for contingent faculty, of losing my job), and I can't afford the risk. While this concern is valid, it doesn't follow that we should say yes to everything, "just in case". In fact overcommitting ourselves is going to hurt in the long run because we will simply have too much to do, and when this happens --- as we can attest by the work of some of our students, who are similarly saying "yes" to too many things --- the quality of all of it can suffer. Instead, it's on each of us to have a precise knowledge of what does, and does not count for employment, tenure, and promotion and then operate with those parameters in mind. This is a sensitive subject that gets me a lot of feedback when I post about saying "no". I'm going to take the entire next post to go into depth on this.
  3. Discipline. If you know what's important to you and you know how tenure or contract renewals are awarded, then it's up to you to make the right choices. This gets particularly hard when people are involved. You might need to say "no" to a colleague or a student who could genuinely use your help on something, but you simply can't accommodate them without compromising the work you're already doing. We may have a moral imperative to help people, but we cannot help everyone without becoming so overextended that we're of no help to anyone. There's a reason that when you're flying on an airplane, the flight attendants doing the security speech tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first before trying to help someone else put theirs on.

My approach to fixed schedule productivity

I started using a fixed schedule at some point between my second and third child. I realized that my habit of working nights and weekends on grading, prepping, research, and everything else was stealing time from both my kids and my wife, and it was neither fair nor sustainable. At some point I took stock of my Big Picture and came to understand that while my work is very important for me, being a husband and dad is just as important, and the stakes are higher.

So I resolved at that point that I will work with laser focus through the week, for 50 hours, and then stop working so that I can be fully present with my family when it's time. I give myself 50 hours a week for work, subject to the following rules:

  • Rule 1: Be in the office by 8:30am and out by 5:30pm.
  • Rule 2: When at work, the time is to be devoted entirely to work.
  • Rule 3: When at home, the time is to be devoted to family and rest. I.e. thou shalt not take time away from your wife and kids to work while you're not at work.
  • Rule 4: Absolutely no work on Sundays. (This is because I am Catholic and follow Church teaching about the Third Commandment and servile work on Sundays.)
  • Rule 5: No work on Saturdays unless absolutely necessary, and even then obey Rule 3.

Rule 1 gives me 9 hours on campus each day. I also grade from 5:30 to 6:30am every day (I wrote about that here), which doesn't violate Rule 3 because my kids aren't up and I would have been up at that time anyway. So that adds up to 50 hours in a work week. During those 50 hours, my job is to work with laser-like focus so that when the proverbial whistle blows, I can put it all aside, and go home and Not Work --- including Not Working on the weekends, every weekend.

Well, almost every weekend. There are definitely times where I have to build in some extra time to get things done; often I'll budget 6-8am on Saturdays for this since the kids aren't up (see Rule 3). I don't follow these rules 100% of the time. More like 90% of the time, which is still way better than the old days when I would just expand the time to fit a non-optimized workflow.

How does all my stuff get done most of the time within the 50-hour limit? That's where GTD comes in. You cannot do anything like a 50-hour fixed schedule and keep the same workflow that causes work to take 80 hours a week. I had to learn the practice of GTD in order to make fixed scheduling work. You can read all the details in my GTD for Academics series. The short version is:

  • I have an explicit, written-down vision of my Big Picture so I have a clear sense of my personal and professional goals on a variety of horizons ranging from Lifetime down to the next 100 days, and those are kept up to date through regular trimesterly reviews. I know what's important to me and how I want it that to play out in the long-, near-, and short term.
  • I have a big list of lists that contains specific projects and atomic-sized tasks for those projects, each task tagged with time, context, and energy so that I can slice the data to find the best next action I could perform at any point in time. Each of those projects were things I said "yes" to because they sparked my interest and made sense with my Big Picture. So I tend not to waste time working on tasks that are a poor fit for the moment, or on projects that are a poor fit for me personally or professionally. And this list of lists is kept current through regular weekly reviews.
  • When it's time to work, I start by asking: What is the next action that I could perform that best fits the time, energy, and context available? Answering that question is a process that involves my calendar (on which I have scheduled times through the week for the most important projects on my plate), my task list, and a personal sense of what I'm capable in the moment of doing. I don't just grade because there's grading to do for example. It's a mindful process of choosing work so that I am in charge of it, rather than the reverse.
  • I am ruthless about eliminating time-wasting behaviors. A certain amount of time not doing work is healthy; these are called "breaks". But anything beyond harmless break-taking is probably going to be found out and eliminated. So, in the moment during those nine hours on campus, I don't mess around much[1].


I was describing fixed schedule productivity with a Steelcase colleague who used to work in an architectural firm, and she literally laughed in my face. She informed me that this would never work in that environment because she had zero control over her schedule. Subcontractors would call out of the blue at 7pm and need something from her in the next two hours, and she just had to drop everything to go do it. Or, she'd be 90% done with a design project when the client would change their minds about the design, but the deadline was still the same. You could lock yourself in to 50 hours a week between 8 and 6 if you wanted, but that schedule would be routinely blown up by others.

So I am mindful that fixed schedule productivity requires a work context in which you have a sufficient amount of control over your time --- and not every faculty member has this. The examples in Deep Work for example tend to come from elite universities where faculty teaching schedules are 1/3 to 1/5 what they are at most places and where faculty tend to have more autonomy (and way less grading). This doesn't even begin to touch on contingent faculty who might be teaching five classes a semester at five different institutions and who could be let go from that position at almost any time and for almost any reason. I'm well aware that this kind of productivity is harder for some than others, and I think higher education has a long way to go before a majority of faculty are in a position where they can do the things I am describing here. (If you're an administrator reading this: It's on you to create a culture where faculty have the permission to have healthy work habits. Are you working on that right now?)

But I am also convinced that most faculty can begin to take steps in this direction, to assert some control over their work and at least commit themselves to optimizing how they work with the goal of, say, not working on Sundays[2]. In fact I think it's imperative for faculty to begin to reclaim control of their time to the extent that they can, in order to promote healthier faculty, who will then be better faculty.


  1. I'm not always "working" when I am at work. Sometimes I'm chatting with colleagues or students, or taking a walk, or going to a colloquium in another department. I have even been known to shut my office door and take a nap at my desk if I've had a rough night of sleep (especially when the kids were babies). I actually think it's unhealthy just to work while at work. Building relationships is in many ways just as important as getting papers graded. But, again, keep it in proportion and take breaks only in moderation. ↩︎

  2. Not necessarily for religious reasons, but just so you can have a day off for goodness' sake. ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.