My Favorite New Productivity Hack for 2015

In this day and age, a lot of us have a new stressor in our work lives.

Traditionally, working folks knew what they had to do and how to go about doing it. Tasks were concrete. Plumbers laid pipe. Farmers tilled soil. Mechanics spun wrenches. Tailors cut cloth. Bakers simply baked.

Today, though many of our tasks in the “information economy” are a lot squishier, more ephemeral. We plan, we make decisions, we research, we write, and we email—a lot. And no one has taught us how to do these things effectively. (Hat tip to Matt Perman, author of What’s Best Next, for helping my thinking on this.)

Yes, we have classes in keyboarding (formerly typing) and in writing. But in the meta-process of prioritizing for one’s day, choosing what to work on, and deciding how much time to give a task?

We are largely left to fend for ourselves.

But a couple weeks ago, I found a new tool that I’m finding quite helpful—the pomodoro technique.

I first heard about this from this article, I think. But here’s the deal:

  1. List your tasks for the day.
  1. Pick the three most important ones.
  1. Turn off everything you don’t need for the first one (email, social, browser tabs, your phone, etc.—go into lockdown.
  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes. (The one used by Cirillo who came up with the technique was a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, which is pomodoro in Italian.)
  1. Work on that one task and nothing else.
  1. When the timer dings, stand up and step away from your desk. Resist the temptation to do “just a little bit more.”
  1. Take a couple minute break. Get a drink of water. Go for a two-minute walk. Whatever.
  1. Back at your desk, repeat the process on your second task.
  1. After four 25-minute sessions, take a longer break. Get a snack. Make some coffee. Pop by your colleague’s desk for that question they had. Or time your sessions so they end about 10 minutes before a meeting (so you do four in about two hours, including the breaks, both big and small).

And so throughout your day, you have a bunch of 25-minute sessions focused on your most important tasks. You might get one thing done in just 25 minutes. You might not get another one done despite giving it three sessions.

I’ve found this really helpful:

The time limit focuses me.

I have one thing and one thing only to do, and it’s named and defined. Distractions are put aside.

Email and social media get their specific, limited time.

This constrains our time-sucks more effectively than the self-discipline most of us have, I bet.

This gets me to take breaks.

I find I stay mentally stronger for much longer with the breaks this gives. And you might finish something just 11 minutes into the session. That’s fine. Just take your break and carry on to the next one.

 25 minutes is a great amount of time.

It’s short enough that there’s not much mental inertia to overcome. “Well, I guess I can work on that thing I dread. It’s only 25 minutes.” But it’s also long enough to get a sizable chunk of something important done.

I have to clarify what I’m doing.

I need to direct my energy to the most important projects. The demand to define what you’re doing—what’s important—might be the biggest benefit of this technique.

Try it and let me know what you get done.