by Susan Caplan McCarthy
If you work at your computer, chances are that you welcome in small distractions throughout the day. You decide that you can’t proceed with a task until you look up a few facts online. You feel the need to check a news feed … or the weather … or to see if your cousin posted pictures of the vacation you just remembered she came back from three days ago.
The Pomodoro Technique and the 52-17 Rule both include sprints of focused work followed by brief breaks. Time blocking can also help you stay focused by limiting the time you work on a project before switching to another activity.
The Pomodoro Technique
This technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and gets its name from the tomato-shaped timer he used to improve his productivity. As a productivity technique, it doesn’t get simpler than this:
The 52-17 Rule
This productivity tool from Japan has you work in a focused way for 52 minutes and then take a 17 minute “break” where you do something of a more physical nature – take a walk, clean the house, drink some tea or coffee. You could even meditate or read a non-work-related book – but no scrolling through Facebook or any other social media, and no answering emails. The goal is a 17-minute break from work.
Repeat throughout the day. I know, the 69-minute blocks seem a bit odd, but the fact that it doesn’t align with an hourly clock is probably a good thing. Have you ever gone to start a project, glanced at the clock and thought, “well, starting at 9:52 is strange, I’ll just round up and start at 10,” for no good reason? Ah, anything to justify a bit of procrastination.
You can repeat 52-minutes of focused work followed by a 17-minute break as often as you wish throughout the day.
Does Timing Yourself Really Help You Get Things Done?
I like the theory of timing yourself to keep you focused. If I know that I have to finish something by a particular time because I then have something else on my schedule, then I’ll push to get the task done. (I do this during my weekly cleaning routine because otherwise I’ll dawdle.)
However, the 25-minute segments associated with the Pomodoro Technique seem to end just as I get involved in a task. And, for whatever reason, I can’t get myself to set a timer for 52-minutes although I know it would be a good thing to insert more breaks into my day. How about you?
Do you adhere to a pattern of focused work followed by a brief break during part of your day? Do you set a timer or work to finish a task and then give yourself a break? Tell us about your experience in the comments below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Do you spend your day doing one thing after another, crossing items off your to-do list, only to find yourself crawling into bed and wondering what you actually got done?
I was laying in bed, night after night, with my brain spinning, wondering how I could be so busy and yet feel unproductive. It felt that no matter what I did, I should have done something else.
I was busily unproductive.
The Danger of the To-Do List
A big problem with to-do lists is that all those tasks jumble together. You look at the list (that probably has more than three tasks listed, otherwise you wouldn’t have bothered to write it down) and decide to do those tasks that look like they’ll be the easiest to do.
Easiest to do probably doesn’t mean the most important to do.
Chances are that you added tasks to your list when you thought about them and then you didn’t review what had to be done, and in what order, before jumping in with the goal of crossing things off the list.
Also, your to-do list probably doesn’t include everything you have to and want to do, which means that you can’t really look at your list and decide what are the most productive things you should do.
Build a Better To-Do List
In his classic book on productivity, Getting Things Done, David Allen has you get a grasp of everything you need to do by – listing everything you need to do in an activity he calls a brain dump.
By “everything,” he means everything, from brief phone calls to larger multi-step projects. Don’t worry about the order you list things as you add it all to your list using pen and paper or typing it into a word document.
Sort Your To-Do List
You know how when organizing you want to sort similar items together, so you have a better sense of what you have? Well, you want to do that with the tasks on your to-do list as well.
At this point you want to group similar activities as you rewrite your list. You’ll be creating several lists labeled, for example, “errands,” “phone calls,” “appointments,” “home,” “kids,” “work,” “vacation,” etc.
Are there specific due dates associated with any of these tasks? List them.
When you think of something else that you need to get done, list it on the appropriate to-do list.
Review Your To-Do List
If you’ve ever made a to-do list and then set it to the side, you’re losing the second most important aspect of the to-do list (the first being, write it all down) – review your list.
Now, you may be used to reviewing your daily to-do list, but that’s usually filled with the tasks you want to do right away, ignoring the long-term and ‘maybe’ projects on your list. Once a day (or once a week, depending on how often you plan what you want to do), review those sorted-by-theme to-do lists.
You want to ask the Getting Things Done question – What’s my next action? – for each thing you have listed that isn’t itself the action. “Schedule a physical” is only a next action if you know your doctor’s phone number. If “schedule a physical” really means that you need to find a doctor, then your next action may be asking friends and family if they’d recommend their doctor.
It’s those next actions that get transferred onto your daily to-do list because it’s clear what you’re going to do.
Do the Important Stuff
If every day you accomplish nothing more than the tasks that get you through the day (and likely must be repeated the next day or next week), you’ll feel that dissatisfied sense of being busily unproductive.
You also want to identify one-to-three larger projects that involve multiple steps – declutter your house, write a memoir, plan a vacation, etc. When you work on a next-action related to a goal, you’ll feel a greater sense of accomplishment. Yes, that project might require 30 or 100 hours to complete and working on it for a few minutes a day might not feel like a big deal, but all those next steps carry you to your destination.
It’s working toward the things that are important and meaningful to you that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment when you climb into bed each night.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.