Becoming more productive while working less


I don’t have time to learn.

Many people say that to themselves. I say that to myself too.

I haven’t learned much this year because I was on a tight schedule to create content. I had to create one article and one video every week for the blog. I also had to create as many Learn JavaScript lessons as I can.

And I was almost burned out. I was unhappy and depressed.

Learning is important to me. When I don’t learn, I start to feel guilty.

One day, I decided enough was enough. I had to change up my schedule to allow time for learning. I did some experiments over the next few weeks and found a way where I could give myself 1.5 hours to learn every day. The best part is, I created even more content than I did before!

I want to share with you my experiment and how I tweaked my schedule to allow time for learning. I hope it’ll help you find some time to learn as well.

My previous schedule

I start work at 9am and end work at 6:30pm. Here’s a breakdown of how I spend my time:

  • 9:00am to 10:30am: Work
  • 10:30am to 11:00am: Break
  • 1100am to 1230pm: Work
  • 1230pm to 2pm: Lunch break
  • 2pm to 3:30pm: Work
  • 3:30pm to 4:00pm: Break
  • 4:00pm to 5:30pm: Work
  • 5:30pm to 6:00pm: Break
  • 6:00pm to 6:30pm: Check emails

In short, I work for 1.5 hours, then rest for 30 minutes. And I repeat that for the entire day. I take some extra time off lunch too.

Why 1.5 hours?

I used to use the Pomodoro Technique to help me stay focused while working. In the Pomodoro technique, you focus for 25 minutes, rest for five minutes, and repeat for four cycles.

Both the focused duration and the rest period were helpful. But I felt that 25 minutes of focused time was too short. I wanted to focus for a longer period of time.

Through my tests, I found that I do my best work when I focus for 1.5 hours and rest for 30 minutes.

With this schedule, I created about 4 pieces of content each week without fail. Generally, 1-2 articles, 1-2 videos and 1 Learn JavaScript lesson.

The Interim Routine

I wanted to find 30 minutes to read and 30 minutes to go through courses I bought. If I can find one extra hour a day to learn, and still continue to produce the same amount of content, I’ll be a happy man.

What I realized with my previous schedule was: I couldn’t stay focused for four work periods. I was a dead fish once I completed the third work period.

In the fourth period, I would stare at my text editor, chat on Slack, check Twitter, look for food in the fridge, and do just about anything else than work.

I couldn’t get much done in my exhausted state.

It was hard, but I decided to cut my working hours to 3 periods (or 4.5 hours). This thought ate at me for weeks. I felt guilty for not working more!

But I gave it a go anyway.

My routine looked like this:

  • 9:00am to 10:30am: Learn
  • 10:30am to 11:00am: Break
  • 1100am to 1230pm: Work
  • 1230pm to 2pm: Lunch break
  • 2pm to 3:30pm: Work
  • 3:30pm to 4:00pm: Break
  • 4:00pm to 5:30pm: Work
  • 5:30pm to 6:00pm: Break
  • 6:00pm to 6:30pm: Check emails

Basically, I spend the first work period learning. I chose to learn during the first work period because I know I can’t learn after work. Once I begin working, I’ll burn myself to the ground, and I’ll be too exhausted to learn.

My hypothesis was spot on here.

I’m happy I could learn for 1.5 hours each day. And I was able to get the same amount of work done in 4.5 hours.

But I got even more stressed.

I don’t know if I can maintain the production speed for a prolonged period of time. Plus, 4 pieces of content per week was too little. I wanted to create more content.

I wanted to create at least 2 articles, 2 videos, and 2 Learn JavaScript lessons each week. The extra article and video are there to build up a content buffer so I don’t have to work till 11pm when life shits on me.

I was still short by 2 pieces.

I had to find ways to create these two pieces.

Around this time, I took a break and a brilliant idea struck me. And I overhauled my routine again.

My current schedule

In my current schedule, the working hours remain the same: 1.5 hours of learning and 4.5 hours of focused work. The difference is the type of work I did.

I realized that each content type requires different thought process and creation methods. How I create articles is different from how I create videos, and so on.

I got stressed up because I switched between tasks too much. I couldn’t get into deep work mode. I worry about making videos when I write articles, and I worry about Learn JavaScript lessons when I make videos.

It was messed up.

The idea I had was to focus on one content type each week. That means:

  1. 1 week of articles
  2. 1 week of videos
  3. 1 week of Learn JavaScript lessons

And the process repeats.

With this new process, I realized three big benefits.

First, I could produce faster because I had more context. I knew what the previous video was about, what the next video was about and what to say for the current video. (Same for articles and Learn JavaScript lessons).

Second, I was able to get a sense of the time I need to produce each type of content.

For example, if a video takes 15 minutes to record, I know it twice the amount of time (30 minutes) to edit. And it’ll take three times the amount of time (45 minutes) to convert the video into an article.

(I kid you not, I didn’t have concrete numbers like these previously. All my estimates were blind guesses).

Third, I was able to improve my delivery for each type of content.

  • For articles, I write smoother (and more like how I talk)
  • For videos, I talk better (and more straight to the point)
  • For Learn JavaScript lessons, I become more methodical in teaching

It was a win win win.

For my first round of tests (which took three weeks), I produced the following pieces of content:

  1. Articles: 5
  2. Videos: 5
  3. Learn JavaScript lessons: 7

That’s a big win! I’m producing almost 40% more content compared to before while working the same amount of time!

(Spoiler alert. This article you’re reading was created five weeks ago 😛).

Besides the improved capacity, each content type drove insights for other types. For example, when I created Learn JavaScript lessons, I found inspiration for articles where I can share about CSS (more to come in the next few weeks!).

Everything became smoother. Much smoother.

A challenge

I saw first-hand that productivity isn’t about having more time.

Productivity is about managing your time and energy.

  • Are you doing your best work with the available time?
  • Are you focused when you work?
  • Are you happy with what you’re spending time on?
  • Are you resting enough to recharge yourself?

If you answered no to any of the questions above, you can improve your schedule to fit more of what you want into your life. You can become more productive while working less.

Trust me, I didn’t believe I could fit another 1.5 hours of learning into my schedule. I thought I was maxed out already! But once I saw how it works, it completely blew my mind.

Now, most people will read this article and go, “Good for Zell”, and go on with their daily lives. This defeats the purpose of this article.

I wanted to share this article to help you rethink what you’re doing on a daily basis. Take a closer look at your life. Are you happy with it?

If not, maybe it’s time for a change?

So here’s a challenge. Write these down:

  1. What are you happy about?
  2. What are you unhappy about?
  3. What more do you want to do in your life?
  4. What less do you want to do in your life?
  5. What can you change to get a better life?

Then, I want you to share your thoughts with me in the comments below. I’ll read every one of them. Also, @me on twitter and use the #scheduleExperiment hashtag. Keep me updated about how’s it going.

Remember, your new schedule doesn’t need to be perfect. You can always tweak it along the way.

All the best!

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