Generating First Class Work in Your Engineering Career By Purposely Relaxing

Sustained delivery of first class work in one's engineering career can only occur through purposeful relaxing. That means scheduling margin into your daily, weekly, and annual schedule so you can refresh, regenerate, and rearm for the next project.

“I can do a year’s worth of work in nine months, but not twelve.” – J.P. Morgan

Generating first class work requires one to purposely schedule down time into their daily, weekly, and annual workflow.  This may seem impossible for some.  A colleague of mine recently clocked over 350 hours during a 5-week period. That’s back-to-back 70 hour work weeks for over a month.

OK, probably not something unusual for engaged professionals.   I’ve been there before during deployments, where the only thing to do was work or work-out.  Seriously, anyone who’s deployed know’s about 2-a-day workouts!

While clocking a lot of hours is necessary sometimes, it cannot become standard operating procedure.  If it does, you’ll put yourself on a glide-slope to burn-out and a whole host of health issues.  And of course, professionally, your engineering career will suffer.

None of us want to be generating economy class deliverables, right?  Generating first class work in your engineering Career by purposely relaxing.

Get Over IT By Having A Process to Vet Tasks

The fact is, in our engineering careers we’ll never be rid of tasks.  You can take the normal default mode of accepting everything that comes to you, then stressing, then becoming over burdened.

But why do that?

The better option is to use some type of triage process to determine what you’re going to focus on.  You need to get over IT:  indiscriminate tasks.  Only by doing this will you create the confidence you need to actually relax.  

Two methods I’ll offer for moving beyond indiscriminate task acceptance are:

The Eisenhower Box

This method of task triage is attributable to the 34th President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower.  No stranger to task management, Eisenhower employed a streamlined method for assessing the tasks he faced.  Without it, he’d have been crushed under the shear weight of the work he faced each and every day.

Eisenhower’s strategy for taking action and organizing tasks was simple, which is probably why he stuck to it and it worked. He used a simple decision matrix…and applied the model to everything.

It divided actions into four possibilities.

  1. Urgent and important task – things to do immediately

  2. Important, but not urgent – thing to do later

  3. Urgent, but not important – things to delegate to someone else…or put into a workflow if you lack someone to delegate it to

  4. Neither urgent nor important – things to eliminate.

By employing this type of task assessment at the start of each day, or whenever you do a task review (at least weekly I hope!), you can make a conscious decision about which tasks you’ll focus on.  By doing this, you move beyond indiscriminate task overload.

The Ivy Lee Technique

I read about this method of task refinement and achieving peak productivity on James Clear’s blog recently and it resonated with me.  So much that I’ve modified my Omnifocus task management system to allow me to apply the technique in determining my most important tasks that I focus on each day.

Like you, I have way too many tasks to accomplish in a single day.  Making yourself crystal clear on what tasks you’re going to accomplish in a given day, along with ensuring that you tackle the hardest one first, will unlock your amazing potential for accomplishing goals, projects, or other important work in your life.

Lee’s simple method for achieving peak productivity followed just five steps:

  1. At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.

  2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.

  3. When you begin work tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.

  4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

  5. Repeat this process every working day.

There is discipline wrapped up on this method: the discipline of not responding to pop-up tasks or what i call “bright, shiny objects”.  Those are the simple, unimportant or non-urgent tasks that creep into our agenda.

4 Options for 1st Class Work In Your Engineering Career

I like options, who doesn’t?  During my career in the Air Force I was routinely called upon to present proposals to general’s and other senior leaders and I became good at generating “courses of action”, a fancy way of saying “options”.  

So here are four courses of action – options – you can take to generate 1st Class work in your engineering career:

Option 1:  Diminishing Returns.  As I’ve already mentioned, when you put yourself into sprint-mode for an extended period of time you will burn-out.  As engineers we should get this. Can you run any machine at maximum output indefinitely?  No.  We take our automobile in for service every 10,000 miles.  Airliners undergo phase maintenance at prescribed intervals.  These are machines, designed to provide maximum output for periods of time and they undergo pre-scheduled breaks to ensure that they continue to deliver.

You are not a machine.  

As you put in 100-hour work weeks, the likelihood that you are maintaining a good diet, sound sleep practices and a physical training regimen is slim.  Most people cannot maintain good diet and exercise routine while clocking 15-hour work days (why… has to do with willpower and the mind losing the ability to generate good options when it’s tapped-out on work tasks…topic for another time).  And even the superhuman engineers among us eventually burn out.

When burn-out happens, your engineering career will suffer from lackluster work, inability to focus, increased mistakes and weakened decision making ability.

Option 2:  Sustained Optimal Performance.  You also cannot sustain or maintain continuous optimal performance.  The reason has more to do with the realities of work and life than one’s inability to produce optimally.  Sustained optimal performance is an ideal, a theory, and like all ideals/theories it exists conceptually but not in reality.

Everything in the universe operates on a cycle.  Our bodies operate on Circadian rhythm that follows daily, monthly and yearly cycles.  This biological cycle affects our ability to focus on tasks, our creativity, and in the end the amount of work we can produce.  

That’s why I do creative tasks, like writing this article for you, in the morning.  My daily cycle is such that my ability to focus on creative tasks diminishes as the day proceeds.  So I knock out writing first thing, when my mind is at the optimal setting for creating.  It’s also why I write all of my articles for a month over a one-week period, then take the next three weeks off.

The optimal solution would be to simply sit down and write each article each week and submit just in time to bring it to you each week.

Just in time delivery works for manufacturing and delivering your new shoes, not for creating in our engineering careers.

Option 3:  Non-Performance.  I had to throw this option in!  Whenever I provide options on a proposal I always provide the “Do Nothing” option.  The reason is that doing nothing is always an option.

However, in your engineering career doing nothing isn’t an option.  So consider this one a throw-away!

Option 4:  Performance Sprints.  I think that this is the performance cycle that is most sustainable for the long-haul in an engineering career.  There are periods of time where maximum effort is required.  These must be followed with times of less than optimal performance.  I don’t mean that you let your quality level drop, I mean you schedule ‘margin’ into your output.

You purposely relax.

Or put another way, intentionally under schedule yourself with producing so you can refresh, regenerate, and rearm for the next sprint.  Doing so gives your mind and body the chance to recover from maximum output so you can provide your maximum level of work again and again and again.

Delivering 1st class work in your engineering career will only be sustainable over your entire career when you intentionally introduce periods of relaxation.  No one will do this for you.  

If you don’t purposely relax according to the schedule that works best for you, you might just find yourself on a permanent sabbatical.  The better route is refresh yourself before your performance drops so you can deliver awesome performance repeatedly.


Clear, James. “The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity.” The Ivy Lee Method: The Daily Routine Experts Recommend for Peak Productivity. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2015.

Pavey, Sarah. “Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle: Using Time Effectively, Not Just Efficiently.” Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 July 2015.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is an engineer, infrastructure program manager, coach and author. He has extensive experience in leadership, management, engineering and strategy earned from a career as a civil engineering officer in the U.S. Air Force.  He now coaches engineers by enabling them to create an engineering career and life of fulfillment at The Engineering Career Coach.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at