You know those half-days of work before you’re about to go on vacation? You show up to work, have to leave by noon, and have a lot of things to get done before you go — some of which you’ve been working on for weeks. It’s always amazed me how, in that 3-hour span, you finish what might have taken 2 days if there weren’t a pressing deadline, and often with higher quality results. You find a way to reach elusive people, get final answers to lingering questions, and cross off for good non-essential tasks.

Like most people, I generally consider myself to focused and disciplined when I work. But after I have one of these super-focused half-days, I realize how unproductive I am the rest of the time. Which is why Tim Ferriss’s time management ideas (chapter 5) in the 4-Hour Workweek resonated with me and so many other people. Here’s Ferriss’s core argument in his words:

There are two synergistic approaches for increasing productivity that are inversions of each other:

1. Limit tasks to the important to shorten work time (80/20).
2. Shorten work time to limit tasks to the important (Parkinson’s Law).

The best solution is to use both together: Identify the few critical tasks that contribute most to income and schedule them with very short and clear deadlines.

Ferriss recently tweeted about similar case for setting strict deadlines and focusing on what really matters: “fixed-schedule productivity” from Cal Newport. Newport, a post-doc at MIT, has a short version of his argument on his blog, but the longer, example-backed version from this guest blog post is better.

Here’s Newport’s one-sentence summary of the approach:

Fix your ideal schedule, then work backwards to make everything fit — ruthlessly culling obligations, turning people down, becoming hard to reach, and shedding marginally useful tasks along the way.

And here’s his more detailed summary:

The steps to adopting fixed-schedule productivity are straightforward:

  1. Choose a work schedule that you think provides the ideal balance of effort and relaxation.
  2. Do whatever it takes to avoid violating this schedule.

This sounds simple. But of course it’s not. Satisfying rule 2 is non-trivial. If you took your current projects, obligations, and work habits, you’d probably fall well short of satisfying your ideal schedule.

Here’s a simple truth that you must confront when considering fixed-schedule productivity: sticking to your ideal schedule will require drastic actions. For example, you may have to:

  • Dramatically cut back on the number of projects you are working on.
  • Ruthlessly cull inefficient habits from your daily schedule.
  • Risk mildly annoying or upsetting some people in exchange for large gains in time freedom.
  • Stop procrastinating.

In the abstract, these are all hard goals to accomplish. But when you’re focused on a specific goal — “I refuse to work past 5:30 on weekdays!” — you’d be surprised by how much easier it becomes to deploy these strategies in your daily life.

Even though they’re very similar (and I think 4-Hour Workweek was the inspiration for fixed-schedule productivity), I find Newport’s case more palatable than Ferriss’s — because the steps to follow it are more concrete and his examples are of people who work a normal workday. That’s not to say it’s easy to stick to, but I’m trying …