What’s More Productive: Counting Hours or Tasks Accomplished?

I’m a big fan of setting constraints to get work done. If you make work a scarcer quantity, you’re more likely to use time wisely and get things done than if it feels like an endless to-do list.

There’s two key ways you can do this: restrict your hours or restrict your workload.

Restricting hours is fairly simple: set aside a certain chunk of time for work and don’t work outside of it. This is a commonly advocated productivity method, from Cal Newport’s fixed-schedule productivity to Pomodoro’s for working in short bursts of time.

Restricting workload changes the equation. Instead of deciding on a set number of hours, you decide on a set number of tasks. You might decide to create a list of tasks for the day and keep working until you can get them finished. It also applies on shorter timescales when you might decide not to work until you get to a particular milestone and then call it quits.

I’ve gone back and forth over using both types of constraints over the years. This suggests to me that neither is a dominant strategy (better in all situations) but that both have their usefulness with different productivity problems.

When Should You Constrain Time?

The biggest advantage of constraining time is that it’s always unambiguous. If you decide to work for three hours and then stop, there’s no confusion there. On the other hand, if you decide to work until you’re finished an essay, there’s the chance that it might be done in twenty minutes or take three weeks.

This lack of ambiguity means that the constraint rarely fails because you were overly optimistic. It’s a lot easier to predict working a set number of hours than working until you complete a set number of tasks.

However, I’ve also found time constraints can encourage a sloppier attitude towards work. You might decide to spend all day studying in the library—but without tasks to constrain your productivity, you end up checking your phone or skipping hard problems to work on easier stuff.

My rule of thumb is that time constraints work best when:

  • It’s unclear the time and effort required to complete the task.
  • The work itself is ambiguous, and may require a lot of trial-and-error.
  • The work is continuous and can’t be easily divided into discrete chunks.

I tended to use this method during my ultralearning projects, because they often had long stretches of continuous work where it would be unclear how much time would be required.

When Should You Constrain Tasks?

The advantage of constraining tasks is that it focuses directly on the object of productivity: whatever you’re trying to accomplish. Done successfully, this means that it’s very hard to fool yourself into believing you’re working hard but you’re not actually accomplishing much.

The drawback of this approach is that tasks can often be ambiguous or hard to predict. If you fail to predict properly you might create to-do lists which are unachievable or those that are trivial. This can create more variability in your schedule, resulting in days when you finish everything quickly and days when you can’t finish it all.

I’ve found task constraints work best under the following conditions:

  • Tasks are discrete and fairly predictable.
  • You might be tempted to fill up time without making real progress
  • The tasks are frequently repeated, and therefore easier to estimate.

I’ve tended to opt for this method with a lot of my business and writing work. They tend to form discrete tasks that are fairly easy to anticipate how long they will take. Constraining the tasks encourages me to get them done quickly, with minimal delay and procrastination.

What Constraint Should You Use?

I find myself flipping back and forth between the two constraints. I tend to use task constraints as my default, since much of my daily life is filled with the small, repeatable tasks that are well-handled by that system. But I switch to having chunks of time for particular projects when it’s clear I’m not getting much done just setting up the tasks.

What do you use to control your productivity? Do you prefer making to-do lists and focusing on tasks? Or do you prefer to set a schedule and focus on hours invested? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Why Most People Get Stuck in Their Careers

During this week, Cal Newport and I want to share some of few of the most useful and surprising lessons we’ve learned from teaching our career mastery course, Top Performer, to over two thousand students. We will only be posting this first lesson publicly. If you want to get the other lessons (for free), please join the newsletter before we send them out.

One of the most common complaints we’ve heard is from people who feel stuck in their careers. They’re working hard, but they don’t know why they’re not getting ahead. Or worse, they don’t even know what they should be doing with their careers.

Sound familiar?

It turns out a big reason people get stuck has to do with a small distinction people rarely make when pursuing their careers: the difference between knowledge and meta-knowledge.

Meta-Knowledge

Doing well in your career requires two crucial factors: first, you need to be able to do your work well. This requires knowledge. If you’re a programmer, you need to master the languages you work with. If you’re an entrepreneur you need to know your market and how to serve them. If you’re a lawyer, you need to have a rich knowledge of the law.

However, this is only the first factor. The second part is that you need to have meta-knowledge.

Meta-knowledge is knowledge not on how to do your job, but knowledge about how your career works. That means you need to know which skills are the ones to invest in and which ones you should ignore. You need to know how to be able to demonstrate your skills to other people and the types of signals which carry weight in moving you ahead.

This second factor is often invisible and many people can go their entire careers without getting a very good picture of how people succeed beyond the station they find themselves in. One of our students, Chris L., didn’t even realize that he was missing it, “I was frustrated specifically because I thought I was doing a good job, and I see people who I don’t think are doing a good job and they’re getting ahead of me. I work hard, but nothing happens.”

How Do You Get Meta-Knowledge?

Getting knowledge about how your career works isn’t easy, but it can make a huge difference. Instead of guessing, you can know with confidence which skills are worth investing in and which are not. You can know which positions are stepping stones and which are dead-ends.

You can get meta-knowledge by doing good research. This kind of research rarely comes from school or books, so it’s the kind of knowledge people often lack. Instead it comes from other people.

Talking to people who are ahead of you in your career and comparing them to people who aren’t is often a very successful strategy to isolate which skills and assets you need to develop.

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential was to avoid just asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

In Top Performer, we’ve worked hard to develop a system of doing research geared towards doing just that–extracting useful meta-knowledge about what matters in your career and avoiding the usual fluff and platitudes like “work hard” or “have good communication skills.”

What If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going in Your Career?

Another surprising, but useful, lesson we’ve pulled from teaching Top Performer is that many people avoid building meta-knowledge on the idea that they have to decide what they want to do first. If they aren’t sure which direction to go in their career, they need to finish soul-searching before they can work on their ambitions.

But this feeling of being lost or unsure of where to go in your career is exactly a problem of meta-knowledge!

By researching multiple career paths and exploring what it’s actually like to work in them, you can get a much better sense both over where you want to go and also which skills and assets you might develop that will assist you in many future career trajectories.

Make 2017 the Year You Master Your Career

In one week, Cal Newport and I will be reopening Top Performer for a new session. In the class, we have dozens of lessons dedicated to understanding and developing the skills and assets that will create a career you love.

For the rest of this week, we’ll be offering more lessons like this one for free. But the other lessons will only be posted to the newsletter, so if you’re interested in learning more, please sign up below:



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