Deliberate Work

Chris Parnin
5 min readNov 29, 2017

I make sure I allocate time every week to work deliberately on an important goal. I have used for the following work schedule for the past one year. Productivity methods are drawn from ideas such as Deep Work and Getting Things Done. As a result of this work schedule, I’ve been able to publish 12 papers, and submit 12 grants this past year.

Mondays and Wednesdays used for deliberate work.

How do I select a goal? At the moment, tenure is my primary goal. As such, I currently select tasks that directly support that goal, such as writing research papers or grant proposals. Occasionally, I will use the time to work on coding infrastructure for a project or a course. Due to family and personal constraints, I am only able to work from 9:30am–5pm during the week (no weekends). These constraints mean I must deliberately use my time on goals and work that matter.

On a deliberate work day

There are several strategies I use to organize a deliberate work day.


I typically associate one day a week with a particular work location and task. For example, on Mondays, I will walk to a nearby coffee shop and work on writing tasks. On Wednesdays, sometimes I will take a bus downtown and work on coding tasks. I sometimes use two different locations to break up the day, which allows for a nice break between major tasks.

A personal goal I maintain is to be able to walk into work several times a week. I deliberately allocate time in my schedule to be able to walk and from my place of work.

Getting into focus

I never start work right away. Instead, I use a special mode of my Tasks Lights tool, an ambient relax mode, which makes sure that I spend at least 5 minutes in some sort of state of mindfulness. I then use the pomodoro timer mode to kick start work, by using the time to make sure I have my environment setup and a concrete task to work on in service of my goal.

Then I work for 2–4 hours on that goal.

I largely ignore email on a deliberate work day. I disable email sync on my phone, so that I can only access email if I deliberately perform a refresh in order to retrieve or check for email. Occasionally, I will use the “Pause Inbox” feature with the Boomerang plugin for Gmail in order to stop myself from checking email. My research students can reach me on Slack for quick questions or if I have quick questions.

Heatmap visualization tracking weekly focus sessions using Task Lights.

Clearing space

Generally, no meetings are scheduled on deliberate work days. However, I will occasional schedule calls with remote collaborators at the end of the day. I try to maintain at least two deliberate work days a week.

Stopping/Task Switching

For tasks like writing, I’ve learned to recognize my own internal motivation and energy levels and knowing when to stop. Instead of trying to push on listlessly, I will often switch to a secondary task for a different project. Research suggestions this is how most successful open source developers work on multiple projects, by working most of the day on one project and then switching in the afternoon to a secondary project.

Other Days

If I am not deliberately working on a goal myself, then I want to use my time to make others productive. That means I am spending time teaching classes, and training and mentoring students. While I would like to avoid as much meetings as possible (A Year Without Meetings), there are several strategies I use to help.

I avoid use of reoccuring meetings for projects. There are several things I try to do instead. Status is communicated asynchronously through Slack and tasks are tracked in github issues. Research ideas and sources of inspiration are frequently posted in Slack project channels. Progress is measured by commits (or other artifact updates). Instead of starting students on tasks from scratch, when possible, I try to scaffold projects with a simple proof-of-concept or exemplar set of papers. I try to work along with students on tasks by co-writing or coding components.

I allocate time to group learning. As a group, students will conduct activities, such as flash reviews of papers, reading sections of drafts aloud, brainstorming abstracts, practicing talks, performing tasking exercises, and holding tutorial sessions on tools and technologies. For example, for the tasking exercise, we think of a concrete deadline (paper submission), and then plan backwards from the due date to identify tasks, milestones, and time constraints associated with the project.

I meet with PhD students. Mentoring is important: Students need to learn about other aspects of research and the profession that cannot be easily learned by just doing research tasks.

Implications and Issues

With deliberate work days, my capacity for tasks becomes more clear. I also get better at predicting my output for a day and lowering risks of not being able to finish a task on time. It is easier to say no to myself and others when you know the fixed time you have to work on tasks. Finally, I never rush myself.

There is a large cost to deliberate work.

  • Email is rarely answered. Instead I try to find other channels to communicate. However, this is incompatible with roles involving high-levels of coordination with many parties (conference organization, editors, etc.).
  • This works well for creative tasks and for people with flexible work schedules, otherwise, this may not work well in other settings.
  • This can break down when multiple projects which need big pushes at the same time. Anticipating collisions is important.
  • Making big pushes on one or two projects a week can mean that other projects may stagnate or some students are not getting the right level of feedback and direction. This is a difficult balancing act.
  • Defending the space for deliberate work can be difficult. Meeting requests, “shallow” tasks, and other forces constantly compete for it.

Work frequently and deliberately on goals that matter.