Maximizing your productivity is a tricky balance. On one end of the spectrum, you may lack discipline, spending too much time hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, or doing other leisurely things. On the other end, you may be approaching workaholism, whereby you spend far too much time working and studying. Counterintuitively, this actually limits your productivity, as burnout is inevitable and you’re not able to achieve sustained levels of high intensity with your work.
These are the 5 foundations I’ve learned the hard way, that I wish someone told me sooner.
Quality Over Quantity
The first is the principle that the quality of your work time is more important than the quantity of your work time. In other words, it’s better to study intensely with a deep focus for 2 hours rather than study at moderate intensity for 5 hours.
We’ve all been there. We’re exhausted, a deadline or test is coming up, and we feel that we just need to push through the drudgery — it’s the right thing to do.
Except it’s not. The issue is that no matter who you are, no matter how disciplined, there is an upper limit to the number of hours of productive, focused work you can do in a single day. For some people, whose attention spans have been fragmented with social media, that may just be 1 or 2 hours. For others who have practiced deep work intentionally, it still won’t be higher than 4 or 5.
Understanding this, it only makes logical sense that if you want to maximize your productivity and effectiveness and minimize the number of hours you’re studying, then you should make the most of the deep work you can do in a single day.
This requires a shift in our perspective. Rather than congratulating yourself when you spend most of the day studying, reflect on the quality of your studying instead. Rather than feeling guilty if you only study for 4 or 5 hours in a day, acknowledge how intense you worked and, if you earned it, take the rest of the day off.
You must be careful not to fall into the all too common trap — feeling guilty, causing you to work more hours, which causes the quality of those hours to suffer, and the cycle continues. To avoid this, we turn to the next point, mastering your time.
Master Your Time
Mastering your time doesn’t mean to be a tyrant and spend every minute either working or studying. Quite the contrary. There are actually diminishing returns to the longer you work in a given day. Paradoxically, to achieve the highest degrees of productivity and effectiveness, you must plan time away from work. Being intentional about when you work and when you play gives you the best of both worlds — you can maximize your effectiveness when you work, again prioritizing the quality, but you can also maximize your leisure time.
I recommend you approach each of your days with a general idea of when you’ll be doing each type of task. First, focus on your most productive hours and when you feel sharpest. Allocate that window to deep work, and work backward from there.
I know for myself that I experience a slump during the mid-afternoon, so I don’t expect myself to get deep meaningful work done during this time. Instead, I use this period to run errands or do more administrative work like handling emails or my finances. When I was a student, I would be drained after a full day of class, so I’d use that time to get a workout in, then come home and eat, and only study after cleaning up my dishes. What works for you is going to be different than what works for me. Experiment, try different schedules, but be sure to be intentional with your time.
Similarly, be intentional with your time away from the books. To combat workaholic tendencies, I made a rule for myself that I couldn’t say no to social plans on weekends for the sake of catching up on work. Alternatively, you could stop working after dinner, which has the added benefit of allowing your mind to wind down before you call it a night.
This isn’t something that you’ll figure out and then never have to worry about ever again. Any given schedule may work for weeks or even years, but as your circumstances and environment change, so will your needs. Just as my schedule changed from a medical student, to a resident, to a physician entrepreneur, to someone who was locked in during COVID, your best schedule will also evolve with time.
The biggest threat to your productivity comes in one flavor — distractions. I’m not saying you need to become a monk and completely give up social media. However, during the few hours of the day where you intend to get deep work done, you must be ruthless in cutting out distractions.
Top performers that consistently achieve stellar results share a common trait — they are in control of their attention. And it’s not just the time of actively being distracted, but rather the break-in focus that kills your momentum and erodes your productivity. There’s a cost to task switching, and you’ll pay the price, even with brief distractions.
Distraction elimination comes in two flavors: device-specific and environmental.
In terms of device-specific distraction control, I recommend you disable notifications on your phone and computer. You can put it on airplane mode, put it in another room, and even use apps like Freedom or Focus to keep distracting websites in check.
In terms of environmental distractions, this comes down to where you work and how you work. If your housemates are a rowdy bunch and you cannot resist playing video games with them, then studying at home is probably not a good idea. But maybe with the current state of the world, you don’t have another choice. Think about how you can modify your environment to be conducive to getting work done — keep your door closed, put on noise-canceling headphones, or even wear earplugs.
When the world is back to normal, you can also consider working in a library or coffee shop if you find yourself more productive in those environments. As simple as this sounds, if you’re able to successfully eliminate distractions, you’ll be a large step ahead of your peers.
Track and Adjust
In my years of experimentation, I’m constantly surprised by how inaccurate my subjective feelings are. I’m reminded of the importance of tracking various metrics to have objective data, as our subjective assessments are wildly inaccurate.
In medical school, I used RescueTime to track how I spent time on my computer. I now use Screen Time on my iPhone to quantify how much time I spend actually working versus goofing off. I can’t lie to myself – the data is there.
By being mindful of my focus levels during Pomodoro sessions, I found that switching tasks after 2 Pomodoros was most effective in preventing burnout and sustaining higher intensity while studying.
What gets measured gets managed. If you want to fine-tune your productivity systems, be sure to measure the factors that will allow you to do so.
Understand It’s an Evolving Journey, Not a Final Destination
As you continue down the road of self-development, productivity, and other life optimization, understand that this is a life long journey. You aren’t working towards some destination at which point you can stop and say “I did it!”
Instead, take pleasure in the process. Find the joy in seeing yourself improve and grow. After all, life is about the journey, not reaching some imaginary finish line.
And lastly, avoid the temptation of comparing yourself to others. What someone portrays on social media may not be a reality. And besides, the only comparison that really matters is you versus you. How are you today compared to yesterday?
Thanks for reading and good luck studying. Much love to you all!