On Productivity

It’s hard to get the most out of your time, especially when there is a project that just has to be finished before a certain deadline. If you’re anything like me, that deadline will be looming all over you and killing every inch of motivation you might have had. I had this unpleasant experience trying to get through writing three academic papers at the same time.

There are literally thousands of posts out there that all claim to have discovered the holy grail – the one sure-fire way to “boost your productivity”. I’m more of a pragmatist, and subscribe to Stephen King’s motto: butt in chair, hands on keyboard. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any cool tips to make life easier, but honestly, without any actual butt-in-chair time, nothing will get done.

Like I discussed a while back, I love using a to do list. In the morning I write down my list, and when everything is crossed off, I can relax for the rest of the day. However, when your to do says “write 1000 words on thesis”, this can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve tried breaking it down, writing down little chuncks on my to do list instead, but my brain won’t be tricked in that way.

To get through big projects like that, I’ve used the Pomodoro method to good effect. The basic idea is this: you set a timer for 25 minutes, work those 25 minutes without ANY distractions. Then you get to take a break for 5 minutes, and start another 25 minute streak. You do this a few times, then take a longer break. Repeat for as long as you need it.

I’ve been using a slightly modified method of this. I kept the 25 minutes of distraction-free work, but instead of putting a timer on my break, I let myself take a break for as long as necessary. Having just a 5 minute break made me feel rather stressed – think “I can’t make tea because I only have 30 seconds left” and “I’ll just stare at Facebook for another minute because I don’t have enough time to do anything else”. Ugh. Way too much pressure.

Working for 25 minutes without any distractions takes some will-power. I have to resist the urge to check Twitter, or read an email, or talk to someone on Facebook. After a few repetitions, I feel the need to do any of these things less than I did before. Having such a clear-cut slice of time makes it easier to just focus on the task at hand – getting those words down on paper. Knowing that I can stop again in just a short while makes it much easier to stay motivated. I just have to get through a small amount of time, rather than looking up at that ginormous number of words that have to be completed that day.

Honestly, working like this was a complete life saver when I was juggling all of these writing projects. I had short, intense bursts of concentrated work, spaced out with plenty of breaks. This method isn’t for anyone, and can’t be applied to everything, but if you get unmotivated by knowing how much you still have to do, you might want to look into this.

6 thoughts on “On Productivity

  1. I agree, it’s so daunting when you have many things to do with a deadline. I find the Pomodoro technique very effective, too. The lists are helpful, too, unless there are too many things on them and I end the day with half the stuff not done yet, feeling horribly under-accomplished.

  2. I used Pomodoro last semester for my exams and I was surprised how well it worked for me! I will never not use it again! It great. I’m doing it like you and have my own breaks though. 5min is really not enough. You can’t do anything and at first I just started working again before the break was over because I was bored LOL

  3. Oh, man, I’ve always had trouble when it comes to being focused. Because of this, I tend to procrastinate and tend to work when I’m closer to deadlines, and by then, I’d be so stressed out and everything. I didn’t know there was something like this tool at my fingertips! I’d love to give this a try to give myself the necessary motivation and willpower to get things done. Awesome for featuring it, Celine!

    Faye at The Social Potato

  4. Red Iza says:

    It looks like an effective technic, but taking a break on internet wouldn’t do it for me – that break would last forever ! Going outside, breathe some fresh air, drink a good tea, that would be great 😉

  5. Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever thought so much about productivity. I was sooo good at it through most of my academic life, so it was never an issue. But now… Twitter! iPhone! ALL THE THINGS. When I finally go back for a Master’s, I think I’m going to struggle a lot more. I like your suggestion of setting a timer for a no-distractions work period, but I also agree with you that setting a timer for break would completely ruin any benefits. I can definitely see myself staring at the clock and freaking out about how little time I have left.

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