Rules for Working Intensely


Cal Newport likes to distill the components of productivity into the following formula:

Work Accomplished = Time Spent x Intensity

We all have 24 hours per day, excluding the occasional leap second. That plus the need for sleep puts an upper limit on the Time Spent component of the formula. Intensity, in theory, has no upper limit. You could spend a lifetime getting better at concentrating. So it would seem that the Intensity component is the one to target for improvement.

There’s some truth to that analysis. Cal’s fixed-schedule productivity technique starts by making Time Spent a constant. Intensity is the only component you’re allowed to adjust.

But as you make your way toward that gloriously fixed schedule, it’s helpful to track how many hours you’re actually working, as well as how intensely you’re focusing during those hours. To do that, you have to follow a few rules.

Here are four rules to make use of the Work Accomplished formula.

Clarify How You’re Spending Your Time

If you’re a current or future software developer, you can split your workday into three types of work:

  • Time spent at work when you’re not actually working (e.g., lunch with colleagues).
  • Shallow work (e.g., email and meetings).
  • Deep work (e.g., designing and coding)

The first activity may result in career benefits as you connect with your fellow team members. So you should definitely make time for it. But it’s too vague to plug into a productivity formula. So I’m going to ignore it for the purpose of this discussion.

If you take the Work Accomplished formula literally, you can substitute numbers and evaluate it. Let’s do that. We can measure Time Spent in hours. Why not measure Work Accomplished in hours as well? As in: “I got 8 hours of work done today.” That makes Intensity a dimensionless scaling factor. Let’s assume we want to use only integral values.

To keep things simple, I think it’s best to define all shallow work as having Intensity = 1. So if you spend four hours processing your work inbox or attending meetings, then you have accomplished four hours of work. That’s the minimum amount of work you can accomplish by working for four hours.

Deep work, on the other hand, can be done at various levels of intensity. If you’re in a quiet room with all of your notifications turned off, you could give your work a baseline intensity of 2. If your mind is also free of distracting thoughts, that could bump the intensity up to 3.

The point is not to get caught up in exact numbers for Intensity, but instead to be mindful of how your environment and mindset can affect your productivity.

Measure Your Work Time

While Intensity requires only an approximate value, Time Spent can be measured quite accurately. If you work at a computer, you can get in the habit of using a time-tracking program to measure when you’re working and for how long. And it’s easy to measure at least two levels of intensity — one for when you’re working on things like email, and the other for when you’re coding or doing other deep tasks.

Another tried and true method of time measurement is the Pomodoro Technique. In addition to measuring time (in 25-minute blocks), it provides a built-in way to practice focus. Starting a Pomodoro is a cue to your brain that you’re entering a period of concentration. For that reason, I avoid using Pomodori for any shallow work.

Since the Pomodoro Technique is so popular, there are many software tools that support it. Switching tools every once in a while can keep things interesting, and remind you that focus time is special. Recently I have been using an app called Forest. The Forest version of Pomodoro works like this: When you start one, you plant a virtual seedling in a virtual landscape. If you complete the Pomodoro, your seedling grows into a full tree. If you interrupt the Pomodoro, it shows up as a sad-looking leafless husk. As you complete Pomodori, you accumulate virtual currency that you can use to unlock different species of trees.

Set Time Goals and Work Toward Them

Once you have some measurement history, you can use it to set realistic goals for both time and intensity. Based on your time and Pomodoro tracking, you’ll know how much time you’re spending per day on deep vs. shallow work, and how much work of any kind you’re doing. Then you can decide what adjustments you want to make to your schedule.

The first step is to set a goal for overall work time. If your work schedule runs for eight hours per day, you won’t actually be able to spend a full eight hours on work. But if you track your time, you can find out whether 5.5, 6.25 or some other number of hours is a reasonable target.

Once you come up with a target for total time, you can measure how many Pomodori you can squeeze in between meetings and email. It’s easy to over-estimate those as well. Some people track their entire schedule around Pomodori, but I find it more useful to reserve them for focused work. So once again, if you can fit 5 hours (300 minutes) of actual work in an eight-hour day, you won’t be able to do 12 Pomodori $(12 * 25 = 300)$. You’ll get some work-related visitors during the day, and you can’t ignore your email forever.

Eventually you’ll have enough history to pick good target for total work and focused work. The purpose of the Work Accomplished formula is to illustrate how you can increase your productivity without increasing your work hours. So the point is not to plan as many work hours as possible, but rather to find the right number based on your schedule and goals.

Once you can predict how much total work and focused work you have time to do on a given day, set it as a goal and do what you can to meet it. Pick goals at the beginning of the day, or the night before, and record them on a spreadsheet (my preference) or on paper. Then hit your targets.

Practice Focusing

Using a technique like Pomodoro has two benefits. First, it helps you get more done in less time, since it encourages you to focus on a single objective. Second, it provides focus training for your brain. The more you practice focusing on one thing at a time, the easier it gets to focus.

According to the intensity levels I defined earlier, working on one thing at a time just gets you to the first level of focused work. Once you eliminate external distractions like email alerts and background noise, the only remaining distractions come from inside your head.

Experts on meditation have thought a lot about internal distractions, so I’ll refer you to them for the details. But the most basic lesson is to be aware of your distracting thoughts, and practice putting them aside so you can get back to what you’re focusing on.

The message of the Work Accomplished formula is that you can increase your productivity over time without increasing the number of hours you work. It’s harder to do than just working more hours, but the benefits should be clear.

(Image credit: Jim)