With productivity, whatever works is whatever works for you

Like most people in this day and age, I struggle with productivity. The world we work in seems fine tuned to provide endless distractions. Getting through the working day without being sidetracked is an achievement in itself. I have tried a number of techniques to improve my productivity, often without success. In recent years I have adopted two methods which work, or more accurately, they work for me.

A quick breakdown of the Pomodoro technique and Post-it notes...

The Pomodoro technique is a time management system developed in the 1980s. Like all great ideas it is very simple. You simply divide your day into 25 minute sections. The full version is rather more complicated, but the important thing is that it doesn't need to be.

The full (overly?) complicated version.

The core process of the Pomodoro Technique consists of 6 steps:

  1. Start your task
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work on your task uninterrupted for those 25 minutes
  4. When the pomodoro is complete mark out what you have done on a piece of paper
  5. take a break
  6. every 4 pomodoro take a longer break.

That's the short term behavioural pattern. In theory if you do this then over time you should able to add more to the method.

Reviewing your work

If you continually follow step 4 you will eventually get a record of how long individual tasks take.

Reduce or eliminate interruptions

The whole idea of the 25 minute section is that you should be able to finish each one before returning phonecalls, or dealing with emails, etc.. If you use your breaks to deal with these tasks then your workflow will be that much smoother.

Refine your estimates

In theory, the results of the Pomodoro sections should begin to give you an idea of how long future tasks will take.

Structure the Pomodoro

Once you are used to working with these blocks you might want to refine each period. Perhaps use the first five minutes to review the previous Pomodoro.

Incorporate the Pomodoro sessions into a structured timetable.

Once you are getting along with the system you can start to estimate just how many Pomodoro sessions you can deal with in any given day; when they should occur; and how much variation you can incorporate.

Examine your efficiency

Because the timetable is so well so well deliniated and the indivdiual sessions so short. You should be able to get a better grasp of how you are being prodctive or non productive throughout each day.

So does the Pomodoro technique work?

Well that is the big question isn't it. In my case it did and it didn't.

I tried doing the most pure version of Pomodoro as set out above. I found that some aspects worked for me whereas others did not. For example, I found that the 25 minute time slots were too short. When I switched to 40 minute sessions I found myself being a lot more productive.

I didn't bother marking down the results at the end of each session. Instead, I used a ten minute break to get off my desk, stretch, make a cup of coffee or just deal with my emails. Reviewing the work that I had just completed seemed pointless.

I did find that taking a longer break after 4 sessions also worked well. A half an hour in the late morning seemed to work well with my working rhythms.

The longer term methodology was also problematic. I did manage to reduce the number of interruptions by making sure that I continued to the end of each session before answering emails or making phone calls.

The system did allow me to create a more structured timetable based around the sessions. On those days that I followed the sessions I was extremely productive. What I have not managed to do is to use it to improve estimating.

When all is said and done, parts of the technique have proved useful to me and I will continue to practice it. However, I would not have been able to maintain it if I had to follow every step religiously.

Planning with Post-it notes

The Pomodoro technique is all about getting through the day with a minimum of interruptions and maxing out your productivity. The Post-it note method is more about how to plan your day in the first place.

The other Post-it note method

When you mention the Post-it note method, people assume you mean brainstorming. They picture a wall covered with Post-it notes all containing a single idea which then are grouped together in an an attempt to find some kind of coherent work flow.

45431905 - many different colors paper notes on the wall

But this is the other Post-it method and its a lot more straight forward.

Write a to do list. However, don't write it on a piece of paper. Write it on a Post-it note. I know that it sounds ridiculous. A Post-it note is tiny. You could hardly fit anything on it. That, of course, is the point.

Inevitably it will be a short to do list. More importantly it will be a manageable list. If there are too many items to fit on the note there is always tomorrow.

The beauty of this is that it gives you a short functional list of things which you should definitely be able to accomplish in a day. As a result, you avoid spending time writing out a huge list of things which end up leaving you demoralised and demotivated.

The second part of this method is equally straightforward. If you complete everything on the list then you stop. That's it. Your day is done. Go and enjoy yourself.

This may seem like a bizarre attitude but it works. I don't often finish my Post-it notes early. Some times I don't finish my Post-it note at all and some of the things have to be held over until the following day.

However, what does happen is that I approach each day with a seemingly manageable set of task which I am always confident about getting through. This is a good mindset to have.

So those are my productivity techniques and they work. More importantly, they work for me. Maybe they would work for you too, but if they don't it doesn't matter, you just need to find the methods that do.

It's just a case of taking what you need and disregarding the rest.

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