Interruptions. Distractions. A co-worker barges into your office. Your phone pings you while you’re on a phone call. It’s non-stop. Ever wonder if your job title shouldn’t be “professional juggler”.
At ACS, we build a better world every day. Literally. This time management technique will help you build a better life and take control of your workday.
Time management is tough, especially for multi-taskers. Why?
Because “multi-tasking” is actually just being scattered. Think about it.
If texting while driving is as likely to cause an accident as drunk driving, what are you missing when you multi-task?
Aside from making fewer mistakes, could you be working more effectively? The answer is yes. What is the biggest thing multi-taskers miss out on?
They don’t maintain a state of flow. Flow is an optimal state of productivity. It requires complete concentration and single-minded focus. If we allow ourselves to be interrupted, we can’t maintain that state of mind. To avoid interruptions, you need to take control of your time. Why?
If you don’t manage your time, other people will manage it for you. Letting other people disrupt you lets them dictate priorities. So how do busy professionals find time to focus and do one thing at a time to completion?
They start their day with an Hour of Power. They use the Pomodoro Technique, a popular mono-tasking discipline. It gives them the perfect excuse to take control of their time and it’s easiest to implement before everybody else gets into work.
An Hour of Power is a distraction-free bubble when you focus on doing one, and only one, task to completion. I use it to plan my day, work on tough tasks, and do other work that requires complete concentration. I know that if I’m disrupted, it can take 15-20 minutes to get back into a state of flow. This isn’t surprising.
Science has shown that doing one thing at a time, or monotasking is the most effective way to work. Monotaskers make fewer mistakes and stress less. They achieve a state of Flow and get more done.
So how do you minimize distractions, so you can focus like a laser?
First, Eliminate the Opportunity for Distraction
We all have triggers. They are like landmines. If they explode, they derail our day. Here’s how you make sure you don’t step on one.
1) Don’t check your email.
If you take away one thing from this article, make it this. This behavioral tweak is a game-changer.
It’s tempting to look at your email inbox when you first get in. The problem is if you look at that first email, you’re probably setting off an avalanche of distractions. If you open your email, it will trigger a chain of events that can be impossible to stop thinking about until they are resolved.
So don’t do it.
Likewise, don’t check texts, social media, or the news. Save them for later when you’re done with your Hour of Power.
2) Treat the first hour of the day like a meeting with your boss.
Would you answer emails, texts, or phone calls if you were in an important meeting? Probably not. Your boss would probably be pissed that you weren’t paying complete attention to what they were saying. Guess what?
You are your own boss. You control your time.
But what if somebody interrupts you with something “important”?
Just say these magic words: “I’m in the middle of something important. Let me finish this, and I’ll get right back to you.” When your Pomodoro sessions are complete, just make sure you follow up, so they know they can give you space and you’ll still take care of their needs.
Remember, if you respond, rather than react, you’ll stay on track.
3) Find a place where you can work without interruption.
When you meet with your boss, you go someplace you won’t be interrupted. Maybe it’s a park, coffee shop, or a meeting room with a door you can shut for privacy.
The point is, find your Fortress of Solitude where you won’t be interrupted. Then you can pay complete attention to whatever you are working on.
4) Turn off all notifications and text alerts.
You control your devices. They don’t control you. Most people have it the other way around. But you’re the captain of your own ship, so don’t let their Pavlovian pings hack your head.
If you hear or see a notification, it’s almost impossible to not respond. So, don’t give your tech a chance to tempt you.
Once you’ve built these boundaries, it’s time to do your first Pomodoro!
I’ve turned the technique into a work ritual called The Magic Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomorodo Solution
The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the ’80s. He began working in 25-minute sessions, he called pomodoros. He tracked his sessions using a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, so he decided to name them “pomodoros” which is the Italian word for tomato.
The basic technique is deceptively simple.
First, you need a timer. Like Francesco, I prefer a timer that I can twist with my hands. The physical act of twisting that timer signals the beginning of my work ritual. Its ticking is both a soothing white noise and an auditory trigger that reminds me to stay on track.
Digital timers work too. There are tons Pomodoro apps on the market. I’ve used the PomoDoneApp to track my progress for years. Pomofocus.io is an example of a free web app that requires no login and has no ads. Both are easy to use and work on both my phone and computer.
Here’s how to do your first Pomodoro:
1) Twist your kitchen timer to twenty-five minutes.
I recite this spell to set my intentions: “As I wind, so I bind. Now distractions leave my mind.”
2) Work on just one task for the whole session.
Once you commit to your course of action, like working on a contract or writing a blog post, don’t do anything else for the whole session.
3) At the end of the twenty fives minutes, stop what you’re doing and take a five-minute break.
This is one of the hardest parts of the discipline and there is a whole art to
taking breaks. In short, don’t just sit in your chair. Movement is your friend.
It helps you think. So stretch, use the restroom, get some tea or coffee. Better
yet drink some water. Just make sure you don’t start something you can’t
quickly finish, or it might suck you over the event horizon of a cognitive black
hole you can’t escape.
4) Track your pomodoros with an X on a spreadsheet, next to today’s date.
If you use an app, it will automatically track it for you, but I like having a double record because sometimes I forget if I made a mark on my spreadsheet. This visual record will create a graph that shows you consistent you were, how well you focused, and how much progress you made. But here’s the rub.
If you allow your session to be interrupted for more than 20 seconds, it doesn’t
count as a completed Pomodoro. That might seem harsh, but you learn quickly to
5) Repeat this cycle of action.
If you complete four pomodoros in a row, you’ve completed a Set. Pat yourself on the back. That’s a major achievement in the modern workplace.
Completing a set earns a twenty-minute break.
Sounds easy, right? It is…in theory.
Here’s how you fine tune the system and overcome some common obstacles to building your new habit.
Challenges to Successfully Using the Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is at once easy and hard to do. It’s hard to change how you’ve been working, especially if you work in a place that is crisis-driven by multi-taskers. Here are some bumps you might run into and how to deal with them.
It’s hard to focus when people are hacking your attention.
In 2005, the smart phone gave psychologists and software
companies unprecedented access to our personal lives. Since then, they’ve been
doing anything they can to get in our heads and hack our attention. The result
is we spend too much time answering texts or checking email and social media.
Unfortunately, we get positively reinforced for doing these things, and its built deep neural roads in our subconscious. If you are like me, the ruts will be hard to get out of. It takes time to build new roads of behavior and begin breaking the cycle of tech addiction.
Taking a break can feel like having your fingernails pulled out. It’s hard to put on the brakes.
Just do it.
I can’t say enough about breaks. There is a whole art to taking a good break.
Just remember, they aren’t “doing nothing”. They are active in a Wu-Wei way.
Wu-wei is the action of non-action. Sometimes doing nothing is a great way to accomplish more. Taking a break gives your subconscious time to time to process and movement helps you think more clearly.
If it helps to justify taking a break, consider this: Sitting is the new smoking. It’s destroying your body. Seriously. We didn’t evolve sitting. We’re made to move.
So, stand up and stretch. Get a brief walk in because moving gets blood moving and helps you think more clearly.
By pacing yourself better, you’ll give prevent repetitive stress injuries and maintain your body.
You might not appreciate them when you’re well rested, but you’ll appreciate them when you’ve done 12-16 pomodoros in a row. (Just wait till you have your first full day of pomodoros. It’s going to feel awesome.)
How to Negotiate Interruptions
If a co-worker barges into your office, or you absolutely must answer a call, just say these magic words: “I’m right in the middle of something important. Can I get back to you in __ minutes?” Fill in the blank with the amount of time left in your Pomodoro.
It’s a polite but powerful communication technique that will help you stay focused.
Remember, if you don’t manage your time, other people will. Just make sure you follow up so they feel comfortable that you will always get back to them.
Track Your Time
Feeling lazy and don’t want to track your pomodoros? I get it. Been there, done that. But trust me.
Just do it.
It’s part of the discipline and it matters. Each line of marks you make builds a graph of your productivity. It reflects your focus and discipline and is your track record for the week or month. It also helps you compete against yourself and get better.
Use Realistic Expectations When Setting Goals
You’re building new habits so start small, with easily achievable goals. Most importantly, be consistent in your practice. It took me weeks before I could complete one pomodoro session every day, for five days straight.
When you do it, give yourself a gold star. It’s a big accomplishment.
Your next major accomplishment will be doing two pomodoros every day for five days straight.
Then it will be doing a full set of four pomodoros every day for a week.
Each of these achievements earns a gold star.
Each one is a merit badge that reflects your progress towards a new life and dedication to disciplined focus.
The first time I did 16 pomodoros in a row felt amazing. I
felt like I had run a mental marathon and knew that I had done something few
people ever will.
Don’t worry. You can get there too. One pomodoro at a time.
A False Sense of Urgency
“Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine.” – Bob Carter
When somebody interrupts you, ask yourself, “Is this really urgent, or can it wait a few minutes?” Chances are it can wait. Use the communication tools I’ve given you to pushback.
To Wrap Things Up
Anybody can turn the first hour of their workday into an Hour of Power. When you monotask, you work without distraction, you get into a state of flow. You will do better work and finish what you start. So, find your Fortress of Solitude where you won’t interrupted. Then twist your timer and focus on the task at hand. Don’t skip your breaks. Track your sessions to get a feeling of accomplishment. Build your work habit with small, consistent wins every day. You’ll run into challenges, but that’s part of any learning process.
I’ve used this practice for years now. It helped me write a million words in five years and achieve more than I thought possible.
It’s not easy to stick with it, but step out of your comfort zone, and commit to trying it for a month. It’ll be hard at first.
It’ll get easier, I promise.
Interesting in learning more? There are tons of articles and books written on the subject. I’m also available for coaching. I’ll give you a free hour of my time, just to support the cause and help you change your life for the better.
May the Force be with you.