Wishing you had one extra hour every day to get more done? Probalby yes. Would you be even more productive if you had 30 hours a day? It seems so, but, actually, I am pretty sure that the answer is negative.
The most intuitive idea is that if you had more time you would get more things done. We tend to believe the intuition that if we had twice as much time, we would be able to produce twice as much output. If humans were machines, that would pretty much be the case. But humans are not. We don’t scale linearly. Our brain just does not work that way. Can we try to get more with less? Produce more with less time?
Try to look at your regular day. The minute you start doing something productive, you are getting bombarded with notifications from all angles. All those countless apps compete for your attention. That’s how they earn money. And that’s how you actually lose it. Every time you check your email or notifications that your phone desperately pushes in your face, you lose precious time. That is the time when you are not doing anything productive. You get into a cycle of switching your attention back and forth between the important things that need your attention and the unimportant ones that want it.
I experienced exactly this same pattern day after day, getting increasingly frustrated. Those little things that distract you feel harmless, but in fact they are vicious animals that eat your time. It is so easy to get caught, starting with innocent email and ending up scrolling through the endless depths of the Internet.
The problem is not only in those little distractions. A bigger problem is that our brain cannot switch tasks immediately. It needs some time to switch context (just as CPU needs some time to switch between tasks and load data into cache). That time added on top of those little things increases time waste dramatically without us actually realizing it.
OK, so we are strong people who can isolate ourselves from distractions (right?). Let’s mute the phone, turn off email notifications, close the door, and just do our work. Feels better, right? You work non-stop for several hours, arriving to lunchtime with plenty of things done (code written, etc). But what is that feeling in your head? The head feels heavy and the thoughts are slow, just like after a long exam. After getting back from lunch you notice that the work you did (code you just wrote) is total garbage and you need to spend just as much time overhauling it.
Does it look familiar too? What happened? I am not a “brain expert”, but I think you would agree that it is important to keep brain fresh. Focusing on one thing for a prolonged period of time gets brain tired and develops a tunnel vision.
Did you ever notice that taking a break from solving a hard problem and switching to something else, like taking a walk, gives you a new angle on the old problem and reveals solution that seems obvious, but was not apparent before? This is the essence of Pomodoro Technique - alternating periods of extreme focus, when you focus only on your tasks, with periods of rest - when you switch your attention to something completely different and give your brain a chance to refresh.
Develppped by Francesco Cirillo, the technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by a short break. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato’, named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
When using this technique, you completely focus and your task for 25 minutes, ignoring any distractions. After 25 minutes, you take a 5 minute break, when you can check Instagram, go for a walk or coffee - anything that helps your brain to get refreshed. Then, get back to work and so on.
Another benefit that it provides - it makes it easier to make your productivity quantifiable. You can count how many pomodoros you did in a day. One pomodoro is 25 minutes, plus 5 minute break. It means that in a typical 8-hour work day you would expect to pull 16 pomodoros. Try it yourself. You might be surprised that the number is nowhere close. In my experience, while working for a huge corporation, with countless meetings and a big open office, sometimes I struggled to complete even 6 or 8 pomodors a day! It means that less than 50% of my time was actually productive. After a few weeks of following pomodoro technique, I was consistently over 10.
There are hundreds of books written on productivity and countless seminars are held each year. There are multiple productivity techniques that really work and I am sure you have your favourite one. But they are not silver bullets. They can’t magically transform you from a slacker to achiever. It is all in your head and your attitude. These techniques are there just to help you.
Also, you need to be mindful. Don’t get too far. The work is not only about how many pomodoros you can accomplish. You should not get overly obsessive with pomodoros. It can lead to anxiety and wrong priorities (just writing code, completing more pomodoros, rather than attending a design meeting where you might understand that this code you are writing is not needed).
I practiced pomodoro technique for a few months. It helped me to develop an ability to focus on my tasks and to turn off distractions. Additionally, it trained me to take breaks from my work. Now, I don’t even need a timer - I developed a habit of taking breaks to refresh my mind; it feels like a second nature. It is great to use techniques, like Pomodoro, that help you develop new habits. But they should not be followed blindly. Take the best out of them, while staying rational and mindful.