I started a new job last summer.

It’s great. The work is challenging, meaningful, and varied. It’s a leadership position, and I’m learning something new every day. I love it.

But the job is a lot busier than my last one. There are so many worthy projects, in fact, that I could probably log 60 hours a week and still have work left undone. That’s not an option—I have a family, and sacrificing family time for one’s career is a road to ruin. Yet, as I realized a few weeks into this job, a standard 40-hour week is often insufficient to accomplish my professional goals in this position.

What to do?

I decided to take a page from computer scientists Radhika Nagpal and Cal Newport and embrace fixed-schedule productivity: Newport’s name for the practice of setting a strict weekly limit on hours worked and adjusting commitments, expectations, and personal habits accordingly. In Newport’s words:

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

I’ve settled, quite happily, on 50 hours per week. I work 8-5 Monday-Friday, spend evenings with the family, and log another two hours from 8-10 pm, once the kiddos are in bed. No work on the weekends. Fifty structured, planned, laser-focused hours has proven to be plenty of time to get my work done, and here’s why.

If we think of professional productivity as a process with inputs (time, energy, etc.) and outputs (completed work), we realize that time is the scarcest input and thus the limiting factor.1 It is always in short supply, and if we don’t decide up front how much time we’re willing to spend on our jobs, we’re apt to borrow it from other areas of life.

Time works just like money in this way: budgets curb overspending. Without a budget, folks tend to spend more than they can afford.

In addition to keeping my life balanced, fixed-schedule productivity keeps me focused on high-priority tasks and projects at work. With a fixed number of weekly work hours, I have to be careful when considering new commitments and stay focused in my daily work, since I know I’ll be stepping away at a set time.

As usual, structure improves productivity. If you tend to work longer hours than you’d like, consider using fixed-schedule productivity to put a real finish line on your workday. Then let that finish line motivate you to do your best work.

  1. This is Peter Drucker's idea, and his writing on time management is as good as it gets.