During my 5 years studying at medical school and then 7 years training to be a surgeon I built a 7-figure business in my spare time so I faced some pretty serious time management and academic challenges and I ended up reading every book on productivity and trying every learning technique out there and most of them had absolutely no impact on my grades or work output.
However, after lots of experimentation, I found 7 productivity habits that are rarely discussed and which might sound pretty counterintuitive but which completely changed my approach to work and studying and helped me get top grades in surgery while scaling a business at the same time.
⏱️ Work Less To Achieve More
Productivity habit number one is called work less to achieve more. Working fewer hours may seem counterintuitive, but working less is one of the most impactful changes I've made. Let me share how reducing my work time positively impacted my output when studying for postgrad surgical exams.
Here's a breakdown of my typical day when studying, which involved waking up at 5:30 a.m., working on my business, then driving into work to do clinics or operating lists and then getting back hitting the gym till 7pm and then studying for surgical exams until around 11 or 12pm. Despite feeling productive the work I was doing on my business wasn't my best and I found it difficult to retain what I was studying despite using active recall and encoding techniques.
The key to success in academia and business is effective work, not just putting in more hours. We need to study smarter rather than harder because the quality of work is a function of time spent multiplied by our ability to focus.
When we're studying or working on an important task we need to be fully focused in order to make learning stick and produce our best work.
I'll show you my current typical work day later in the video but I just want to drive home that the whole hustle culture stuff is pretty misleading. Elon Musk has a history of pulling all-nighters and sleeping under his desk to get work done. But now he makes an effort to sleep at least six hours per night, as he found that even though he was awake more hours, he got less work done as he was sleep deprived.
According to a study by Stanford Professor John Pencavel, productivity declines after working more than 50 hours a week, which translates to around 7.2 hours a day. By working for less than 7.2 hours a day, you increase your energy and focus, making it more likely for you to enter a state of deep focus. This allows for a more profound understanding of the material you might be studying.
In fact according to Human Performance Psychologist K. Anders Eriksson who wrote the book PEAK and who is responsible for research citing the 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert; most people can't engage in more than four hours of deep work per day.
Therefore, if we're planning 12-hour all-nighters, we're setting ourselves up for exhaustion rather than productivity.
The other key point that's worth mentioning here is that not all tasks take up the same amount of energy. For example when I'm running my businesses I'll deliberately schedule work tasks like meetings for later in the day as they require less energy and concentration.
In contrast if we're studying for an exam we need to have a high level of concentration for most work sessions in order to engage with the material and make learning stick and this is why it's so important to manage our energy throughout the day which brings us to...
🐸 Manage Your Energy
Productivity habit number two which is to manage your energy and it follows on nicely from working less to achieve more.
Renowned mathematician Terence Tao explains in his famous article on time management from 2008 that his ability to do math varies daily. Some days, he can work on a problem for an hour; on other days, he needs a nap.
This variability in energy stems from the need for periods of deep focus that require more energy than other tasks and because we're all human and our energy levels naturally vary throughout the day with our body's circadian rhythm and insulin release around meal times.
For me I find that I'm most alert and have most energy in the morning. Assuming I'm getting up at 6:30 or 7 I'm at my peak at 10am and then around midday I start to tire.
In his book Willpower psychologist Roy F Baumeister talks about decision fatigue and states that our daily willpower supply is limited and once we’ve used up all of our good decisions, we’re done for the day. We're then more likely to procrastinate because our Willpower to overcome distractions is depleted.
For this reason I'll tackle difficult tasks early in the day when my energy is at its highest and I have the most willpower to avoid putting hard tasks off.
There are a couple of other factors that impact our energy levels throughout the day and our ability to focus, work and learn effectively. These are often overlooked in favour of trying to get as much work done as possible when it comes to productivity and that's where habit number 3 comes in.
💤 Prioritize Health
So productivity habit number 3 is to prioritize our health and this is something that I have been guilty of neglecting when I'm trying to get as much done as possible, especially around exam time.
According to Stanford Doctor William Dement, there are three main ingredients to a healthy life – sleep, exercise, and nutrition.
When I've skipped the gym, pulled all nighters or snacked unhealthily because I didn't want to spend time shopping or cooking my energy levels dropped, I felt pretty rubbish and my work just wasn't that good.
So how long should we be spending on looking after our health to maintain our energy levels during a regular day.
Well here's a conservative approximation of how much time we need to dedicate to these three activities every day:
- Sleep – about 8 hours. According to The National Sleep Foundation most adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night. We also might need about 30 minutes to fall asleep and then another 30 minutes to get out of the bed in the morning.
- Exercising – about 1 hour. According to Harvard Medical School, most of the studies recommend a manageable 30 minutes of moderate physical activity every day – this can be going for a brisk walk, swimming, stair climbing, tennis, dancing, etc. Also, you might need an additional 30 minutes to go to shower or to prepare for the activity – so that brings the total to 1 hour.
- Food – about 2 hours. Good food cannot be rushed. Precision Nutrition recommends dedicating about 20 – 30 minutes for each meal. Also, it might take some time to prepare the food as well, whether you cook at home or go to a restaurant. If we assume 3 meals per day with 30 minutes for each that is 1.5 hours. Lastly, there are various snacks that you might take, which might take about an additional 30 minutes.
When I'm planning out my week around any work commitments sleep, exercise and eating are what I call my non-negotiables. They're the things that I absolutely have to prioritize every day in order to be at my best.
Now there are a couple of things I'll do here that help me to optimize each of these three health components.
When it comes to sleep I won't drink any caffeine after 5 and I won't work past 7pm. This is then my wind-down time when I'll relax and prepare to get a good night's sleep. I'll then often put on a Calm sleep story and get into bed around 10pm to make sure I get a good night's sleep.
For exercise I'll alternate between days of high intensity interval training and heavy lifting which gives me a dopamine hit and days of yoga and rest. I'll spend around an hour at the gym every day and I deliberately chose a gym that is in walking distance so it doesn't take ages to get there.
For food, this might be a bit controversial, but because I hate shopping and I'm not the biggest fan of cooking either I actually use a meal prep company which saves me a tonne of time everyday. Now the trade-off here is that it's more expensive than shopping yourself but I find that the value exchange for me is worth it as I save time on things I don't enjoy. Alternatives here are doing a single weekly shop and then meal prepping on a Sunday yourself which is cheaper and it what I did when I was a student.
Before we look at how we can factor all of this into our daily routine I want to talk about a specific health productivity tip which is very counterintuitive but which is evidence based.
Non-sleep deep rest (NSDR) is a term coined by Andrew Huberman and it simply means switching off your brain and taking time to relax. This might be practicing mindfulness, it might be taking a short-shallow nap or it might just be lying still and focusing on your breathing.
Not only does this help you manage your energy but if done following a period of intense focus such as when we are studying it may actually boost our ability to learn.
Two papers in the Cell Reports journal showed that a 20 minute NSDR protocol after an intense period of focused learning accelerates neuroplasticity in our brains by 50%. This helps us to learn faster and boost memory retention.
A study out of Denmark, using brain imaging, showed that a 30 minute meditation script, increased dopamine resting levels in the brain area called the striatum by 65%. Putting people into a state where they're ready for action when they come out.
Based on what Andrew Huberman calls the Neuroplasticity Super-Protocol I'll typically do a quick 60-second guided breathing exercise before a deep work session to help me focus and then after an intense work period or study session I'll switch on a longer 5-10-minute guided meditation track on Calm or my Peloton app. If you're a student there are some learning tools like Shiken that actually have this built in to help you to learn more effectively. And it's really cool as it's evidence-based and I find it gives me way more energy throughout the day.
Now we've identified these non-negotiables that help us to get the most out of our day let's look at how I optimize my daily routine and habits.
📅 Benjamin Franklin's Daily Routine
Productivity habit 4 is called Benjamin Franklin's daily routine. Benjamin Franklin is best remembered as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and he also invented the lightning rod, made significant discoveries in physics and population studies, wrote best-selling books, composed music and and lots more. He was a pretty productive dude but just how did he achieve so much?
Well one thing that gives us a bit of insight is taking a look at his daily routine which I first came across when I read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
I expected his daily routine to be a reflection of his incredible output: long, unrelenting hours of work, and a complex system. But in fact it's a great example of effective time blocking.
The beauty of Ben Franklin's routine is in its simplicity: there are two core questions and six blocks of time.
The two core questions that guide the day:
- Morning Question: What good shall I do this day?
- Evening Reflection: What good have I done this day?
The six blocks of time that form its structure:
- Block 1 (5-8am): Rise, wash, and address Powerful Goodness; contrive day's business and take the resolution of the day; prosecute the present study; and breakfast.
- Block 2 (8-12pm): Work.
- Block 3 (12-2pm): Read or overlook my accounts, and dine.
- Block 4 (2-6pm): Work.
- Block 5 (6-10pm): Put things in their places, supper, music, or diversion, or conversation; examination of the day.
- Block 6 (10-5am): Sleep.
So even back in 1785 blocking out time for deep work seemed intuitive and we can see Ben Franklin even uses 4-hours as the perfect time for deep work.
For me time blocking is absolutely essential if you want to be productive. I find time-blocking helps build habits by working at the same time each day and by blocking out time in my calendar everyone on my team knows not to disturb me when I'm in deep work mode.
The other big benefit is that it helps me to group similar tasks together into blocks of time. So rather than losing time to task switching I'll focus my energy on similar tasks such as writing or research or studying a certain topic in a block.
When it comes to studying scheduling study blocks daily diversifies learning while maintaining focus. When revising for surgical exams I'd focus on one hard topic in the morning and then block out time for a different topic later on in the day.
Now one quick extra point I'll add here is that when I started time blocking in med school my natural ability to concentrate and focus was much shorter than it is now as I've built it up like a muscle over time and I can now focus and work for longer periods of time without getting tired or distracted. I found that taking micro-breaks within time-blocks to be really helpful here. A little bit like the Pomodoro Method where you work for 25-minutes and then grab a 5-minute break, I might pause at convenient points of work and then start back up again.
When I was revising I'd usually do this after hitting a target I'd set myself such as a certain number of active recall questions completed and then use the break as a reward and we'll look at this break and reward mechanism in more detail in a second.
But next I want to talk about how we should be priortizing what we're doing in our 4-hour blocks of time. This isn't really talked about very much and it's a pretty important productivity concept as we want to make sure our focused, time-blocked sessions are used for our most important tasks.
🧠 Apply the 80/20 Rule
Productivity habit number 5 is the 80-20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle. This is a familiar concept that says that 80% of outcomes result from 20% of all input effort for any given event.
In business, a goal of the 80-20 rule is to identify inputs that are potentially the most productive and make them the priority. When I'm thinking about all of the things I could be working on I try and think what's going to produce revenue and what do I enjoy doing. This simple mental model helps me prioritize my day and not waste energy on things that aren't going to help me.
So I actually reverse the 80/20 rule and think what is the 80% on my to-do list that I need to either cut out or delegate. By saying no to tasks that aren't going to directly help us we can massively free-up our time and work less to achieve more.
For me personally I've told my team that I don't do any meetings in the morning when I'm in deep work mode and if anyone does want to call a meting there needs to be a key outcome set so that it's not just wasting people's time.
When studying it's the same thing. We need to focus on the core, high-yield topics that will make the biggest difference to our grades.
For instance there might be a specific threshold topic that when unlocked makes it easy to understand everything else for a particular subject.
For me when learning cardiology in 1st year at med school, this was understanding physics and how the body pumps blood. By deeply understanding this concept I could then figure out most other things related to cardiac disease even if I hadn't directly revised them for an exam as I knew the key principles. And this is what top 1% students do. They don't memorize everything they focus their time on understanding the key concepts which when unlocked help them to figure everything else out.
And this goes for how we study too. When I had limited time to study for surgical exams around my day job rather than spending 80% of my time using ineffective study techniques like just reading text books I used evidence-based techniques like active recall to test myself using question banks and past papers so that my study time was as efficient as possible.
Tools that save us time in exchange for money are important to mention here as well. If 80% of your time is spent on summarizing your notes and an AI tool could reduce that to practically 0% isn't that worth paying for?
I always thing in terms of my own hourly rate. How much is an hour of my time worth? If the cost of a tool comes with all the information you need to complete a task and makes it easy like Duolingo for language learning or something like Shiken or Quizlet for general learning saves you time and energy I'll always default to paying for it as I can make more money but I can't make more time.
🤔 Get Curious & Say Yes
Productivity habit number 6 is called Get Curious and Say Yes.
Whatever it is we're working on we're more likely to prioritise it and stay focused if we find it genuinely interesting and fun.
When I was studying topics I wasn't particularly interested in during medical school like epidemiology one of the early encoding hacks I used was to try and first get curious about a topic by relating it to something that interested me.
For example I used to google a specific disease or injury and then see if anyone famous had suffered from it. By reading news articles about that person and the disease it helped me to remember the signs and symptoms and was more interesting than just being presented with it as something I had to learn for an exam.
Curiosity boosts learning efficiency, and encoding can be improved by linking new concepts to ideas that we understand already that we enjoy.
In business it's the same thing but I now have the luxury of being able to delegate anything I don't find interesting. For example I don't really enjoy managing loads of people or completing admin like company accounts but luckily we have some great team members who do enjoy those things.
Once we've become interested in what we're working on and aren't having to work on things we don't enjoy we can say yes and really get into deep work.
If we find a specific task both challenging and enjoyable we'll get into what's called a flow state where we're at our best. It's a bit like a video game. I love working and I'm able to work with a high focus for 4-hours pretty easily. I'll also add in breaks as a reward to keep me motivated and on track.
💼 Work With Others
Productivity habit number 7 is something that I first figured out when studying for practical and spoken exams in surgery and that is that working with friends enhances camaraderie, accountability, and effectiveness.
Like we just talked about if we can make work fun it no longer feels like work and working with others is a really great way to do this.
When I was studying for surgical exams around my busy day job as a doctor I teamed up with one of my friends who was sitting the same exam and we synced up our study timetables so that we went to the gym together and then worked together either in the library of testing each other. We'd then grab a drink at the end of the day and we both passed our surgical exams on at the first attempt
I find that if I work in isolation I sometimes zone out or am more likely to get distracted whereas when you have someone working with you there is way more accountability and fun. This is also the idea behind study with me videos where even just seeing someone working hard for a period of time kind of motivates us to work for that same period of time too.
In business it's absolutely essential. I find it really fun working with my team either remotely over zoom and slack or in person in the office to strategize and execute on what needs to get done.