How I completed a graduate level course while working full time: a self-discipline framework

It’s 9 pm on a Tuesday. Two hours of studying done. I’d gotten home from work at 6 pm, had a quick dinner, and got started on Euler equations. 18 more hours this week to go…

Frankly, on many occasions I felt exasperated to face pages upon pages of macroeconomic derivations after an already full day of squinting at code and data. I was overclocking my mental capacity, perhaps at the risk of burning out.

Thankfully, in the past several years, I have been developing a framework to carry me through large undertakings. Examples include passing CFA Level 1 with six weeks of study, as well as coding a vertical slice of a video game.

Some statistics of the time I spent towards my goals, in the 12 week span of applying this framework for master’s:

Total completed hours on goals Avg completed hours per week Completed hours / Target hours
181.5 15.13 91.21%

The Framework - Introduction

Motivation

The reason for time management in the first place is to achieve some goal within the time allowed. It’s basically a constrained optimization problem!

Indulge me with the metaphor - in this case our actions and efforts toward a goal would be the model’s “inputs”, and the outcome of our efforts, the “outputs”. As is the nature of the universe, we sadly don’t have a closed form solution to know the exact outputs just from the inputs. Say you put in 20 hours of study - we don’t have an equation that perfectly predicts your exam score based on the 20 hours of study.

But generally, one would agree that spending more time on a goal would yield better results. I will discuss efficiency later, but regardless, inputs like “time spent” are what we have control over.

From various iterations of this framework, I’ve found that focusing too much on quantifying the outcome might end up being demotivating and harmful. That is the exact opposite of what I want: the framework is really to keep myself performing at my best, consistently. Hence the title “self-discipline” framework, instead of “time management” - while both aspects are addressed, sustaining self-discipline is the more impactful to me out of the two.

To illustrate: say I set one goal to read 16 papers from arXiv in the next 2 months (2 papers a week). Pretty reasonable, right?

However, this introduces too much uncertainty. If one particular paper is on a topic I’m not as familiar with (e.g. NLP), it will take me longer. Prior to starting each individual paper, there is no way for me to know how much time reading that paper will take. I might watch additional videos or read supplementary text on an algorithm that is only briefly mentioned in the paper. Suddenly, the time I’ve spent has ballooned. Determined to hit my goal, I spend 3 more hours than anticipated, digging into the time for other goals. Likewise, my determination to complete another goal that has ballooned might eat into the time I wanted to spend on reading this paper. Uncertainty is devastating when there are multiple goals competing for limited time.

When focusing too much on the goal, and with such a goal setting method that introduces high uncertainty, I become discouraged when I don’t achieve “x amount completed of goal y”. It’s easy then to just “forget” about that particular goal, and it fades out of the weekly routine.

Enter input based goal setting: the real purpose of the goal isn’t how many papers I read - it’s absorbing more knowledge I can use. Input based goal setting reframes the problem in terms of what you really want to achieve in life. It doesn’t matter what the volume of papers read is; what matters is that that I proceed toward my life goal. Of course, more hours spent on reading papers WILL result in more papers being read, and reading more papers generally results in more knowledge.

It is with the above understanding of how I maintain my motivation and self-discipline, that I have been designing and applying this framework. To boil it down in its simplest form:

The inputs

The outputs

Simply: anything I want to achieve! I’m serious - almost everything is possible. In this case, it’s a master’s degree…

The Framework - Input setting

Here I’ll tell you all the juicy details about the inputs listed in the previous section.

12 week year mindset

I’ve been promising a discussion on efficiency - this is it! The 12 week year mindset is pretty much how I maximize efficiency, not just input quantity. This deserves its own blog post, but the foundational basis are as follows:

  1. When a deadline is close, our productivity goes up (exponentially)
  2. Focus on the most important things: Pareto principle aka 80/20 rule

1. is where the “12 week year” mindset comes into play. Instead of saying “I’ll do x amount of y in a year/this year”, set that time frame to 12 weeks. It works like a charm! You’re way less likely to push things off with the reasoning that “it’s only March, I still have 9 months to finish my personal project”. Now it’s “3 weeks have passed, I only have 9 weeks left to finish my personal project… that’s only 2 months!” Being able to see the end in sight increases motivation and efficiency.

2. is the selection of what goes into your 12 weeks. With the time constraint so short, you can only afford to focus on the essentials. Fortunately, it is often the essential 20% or so that contributes to 80% of the outcome. Frankly, for this article, I will be spending 30%~40% of the time writing the first draft, and the rest of the time making the formatting look better and tweaking very minor things. I’m not arguing that polish is unimportant, but with priorities sharp in focus, I am less likely to get distracted before I get the first draft down. Without this mindset I might be tempted to start editing or formatting when only halfway done the draft (Italics? Actually nah, bold. Actually, italics.) and be distracted by tasks that should be further down in the sequence.

By incorporating the 12 week year mindset, I maximize my efficiency, motivation, and focus. It’s a no-brainer - if you’re not making the most out of each unit of time spent, you might as well be throwing that time in the trash. Keep your deadlines close, and your priorities clear.

Dynamic scheduling

Do it however you want: Google calendar, Outlook, pen and paper… it. doesn’t. matter. Just have a schedule. Before each week starts (I use Sundays), plan out the time you intend to block out for your goals.

But it doesn’t stop there. This is the most crucial part: If you don’t end up using the pre-allocated time, immediately move the time you skipped to a later part of the week.

This builds accountability - no longer is an undone task just a mysterious disappearance from the calendar, but you immediately see how the rest of the week is going to get busier if you slack off now.

Let’s say I had scheduled 3 hours to study macroeconomics (code name: G3) on Monday. I then get too exhausted and only study 2 hours. Before bed, I’ll do my daily journal (optional for the reader), and also add one hour to, say, Wednesday and deduct 1 hour from today, Monday. Hence, all the green blocks remaining on my calendar are what I’ve actually done, which should add up to the total amount of hours I scheduled the previous Sunday.

At the end of the week, I sit down and have a review meeting where I tally that week’s inputs. During the same meeting, I schedule blocks for the next week. You can see that I’d been slacking the week of the screenshot - a huge chunk was rescheduled for Sunday evening, but I managed to get it done. Felt great!

However, don’t worry if Sunday night comes and you have way too many blocks to possibly finish in that week. Still tally up what you owed, and either add it to the next week’s blocks, or adjust your next week’s goals. Observe your completion % over time and iterate - are the goals perhaps too high or low? Maintaining your mental and physical health are essential to performing at optimal levels - 1 day spent recovering can be worth 3 days of focused work.

This dynamic scheduling method reinforces accountability and it is an essential component for me to keep motivated and resist slacking. Knowing that slacking today results in a packed weekend is a strong motivation to get things done when I promised myself I would.

One last note: It is important to me that I plan my goal schedule week by week, not recurring for the entire 12 weeks, or other type of batch / recurrence. This allows for immediate feedback, and forces me to evaluate my performance, instead of going on autopilot and then forgetting about it.

Pomodoro timer

Lastly… the pomodoro timer. Focus 25 minutes on the allocated task, then 5 minutes break. When I say focus, I really mean it. No phone, no email, no checking websites outside of what is needed for the immediate task. I’m dead serious about this - if I take a phone call, use the washroom, or slip and check social media, I pause the timer. I’m not kidding, the reason I never forget to pause the timer is that I want to maintain my data quality at the end of the 12 week year!

The reason I love the pomodoro timer method is that it optimizes mental state - if you’re exhausted from staring at a monitor/book for 3 hours straight, that isn’t efficient. Allow timed breaks, take a walk, get some water. Trade breaks for higher efficiency and endurance. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. This is how I could stay focused even after a whole day of mentally intensive work. (I use pomodoro at work as well, but only when the task allows, e.g. meetings can’t really be “pomo-ed”.)

A quick note: to me, the pomodoro timer isn’t something to depend on, but rather a way to kickstart entering the “flow state”, where I am at my most focused. By all means, one can be productive and focused without setting a timer and tracking it in such detail, but I find that the ROI of this methodological approach is significantly large.

With all the above 3 components as my framework, I put in my time, and at the end of the 12 weeks, I take the data and cut it apart.

My postmortem of this 12 week year

Graph of input time for studying (code name G3).

This graph is only for my master’s studies (G3), but there were other goals I was progressing on as well.

To note: The trough week of March 11th included a midterm, followed by a week and a half on vacation to Seattle and San Francisco, hence missing data points (the latter week of my vacation, March 18th-24th, wasn’t part of the 12 week year).

Some things you can notice: When I don’t hit my goals, I note it down just the same as my successes. No hiding! Again, this is to reinforce honesty, but I am not a tyrant to myself, either. I adjust my goals week by week, iterating to find the optimal amount. As shown from the “G3 goals” line, my goals are not a uniform rate for the entire 12 weeks. Similarly, for goals other than G3, when it’s close to my G3 midterm, or if unanticipated difficulties arise, I reduce the time for other goals during my scheduling meeting on Sundays. I do not reduce my goals during the middle of the week. If I thought myself capable of doing it at the beginning of the week, it was also a promise to myself - no take-backs!

An interesting observation from the graph that chilled me: In the weeks before the final exam, I went ham. I set the weekly G3 goal to 20 hours and went at it without fear that I would give in to any other temptations. The framework made it easy. Can you see now why I call it a “self-discipline” framework?

But this brings up a point of introspection - on those 20-hour weeks I actually drove myself to near burnout. I didn’t even hit 100% of my goals. However, when I had those high goals, I studied the most in terms of hours. I’m still finding this balance: more hours, and therefore accelerated progress towards my goal, or setting a lower goal to make sure I don’t burn out?

Finally, here are the remaining takeaways from my internal postmortem:

Conclusion

To achieve anything, putting in more time brings you closer to the desired outcome. In addition, the efficiency and quality of the time spent matters, especially in the long run. You want to be around to achieve goals years into the future, and not be burnt out! Work smarter, not just harder.

I use this framework to ensure my accountability, consistency, and sustainability. I can’t stress enough how confident I am in learning something new, or taking on new responsibilities, because I know if I have vetted a goal against my priorities, and it makes it to my 12 week year schedule, I can do it. Hope this was informative!

Related articles about "education"