How should we structure our schedule when it comes to big, important projects?

As I’ve argued in the past, we should schedule long chunks of time for our most important work. Long stretches dedicated to a single project usually produce much higher-quality work than an equivalent number of minutes spread out over many work sessions. Two hours, three hours, an entire morning—personally, when I spend that kind of time writing, tweaking a website, or just grappling with a thorny intellectual concept, I’m often surprised at how long I can remain productive. I often feel like I’m doing my best work during these periods.

On the other hand, I’ve also wasted entire mornings in a state of distraction, making meager progress on a major project while finding myself hopelessly distracted by trivial nonsense. Sometimes, I just give up.

What’s the deal?

Why do big chunks of time yield both productivity and sloth?

And if we’re going to go to the trouble of scheduling these long, unbroken blocks of time for our most important work (which isn’t easy, by the way), how can we make sure we actually get our money’s worth?

Planning, precision, and context awareness

Having a plan for the day plays a major part. When I’ve got a plan for my day—and these days, I almost always do—I’m much more likely to use my time wisely. Without an hour-by-hour schedule of the workday, I’m just not likely to get that much done. But having a daily plan isn’t sufficient—I blow off my daily plans all the time. There’s got to be another variable here.

I think there are two, in fact: precision in defining our work and context awareness with regard to the larger project at hand. Project managers call this “knowing what ‘done’ looks like” and “taking a 30,000-foot view.”

My college students frequently fail to do these things, and my track record isn’t sterling, either. This kind of preparatory thinking is easy to skip—Let’s just get to work!—but like most preparation, it saves time later.

Instead of “working on the client’s press release” or “making a list of funding opportunities,” take a few minutes to consider what your project will look like when it’s finished. Picture it in as much detail as possible. Then, work backward to your present point. Define each step as clearly as you can, giving extra attention to the first few steps immediately in front of you.

Laying this kind of firm foundation will increase the chances that you’ll use your time wisely, especially those valuable long stretches necessary for doing your best creative work.