The process of writing for the RescueTime blog isn’t much of a mystery to me anymore. I’ve worked out, after forty or so of these posts, more or less what I’m dealing with. I know what goes into an article, and the tone I aim to hit. And I generally know how much time it will take me.
It’s a few solidly focused hours on a good day. Other days, those few hours can become half a day. On a bad day, that half a day becomes a full day. Hey, they can’t all be good days.
Often I find those differences can be attributed to what I call The In-Between Times: the times when yes, I’m technically at my desk and working, but my mind is drifting. Distracted. Pulling up one YouTube video for research and then—clicking on another one in the sidebar and falling down a rabbit hole. Or I’m waffling about, not even looking at anything in particular, just waiting for inspiration to strike. I write a little bit, then open another application. I write a little bit more, and then pull out my phone. The writing gets done during the “write a little bit” sections, and that’s fine. But there are sometimes gulfs between those moments. Hours spent distracted. Telling myself I’m “thinking” or “percolating,” or “letting the muses speak to me.”
It’s not exactly an efficient use of my time. If you break it down by the minute, it looks as if I’m committing gross time theft—on myself. But it’s what I’ve got. It’s my “process”, if you will.
This week, however, was different. This week, I wrote this article—the one you’re reading right now—in 38 minutes. My fastest time yet. When I finished, I looked around to make sure it actually happened—that it wasn’t a dream.
And it wasn’t because I was trying some new-fangled productivity strategy I tell you guys about from time to time. In fact, the strategy that changed the game for me may be one of the oldest on record. It’s the pomodoro technique.
A quick intro
If you’re not familiar with the pomodoro method, there’s not a ton to explain. You set a timer for 25 minutes, and work without stopping until the timer goes off. Then you set a timer for five minutes, and rest—or, more accurately, do whatever you want. Absolutely devour YouTube videos and chili cheese dogs in those five minutes if you want. But when the break timer goes off, set another for 25 minutes and get back to work. That’s it. What could be simpler?
You can modify the lengths of time to your preferences (I’m partial to setting the first timer for 12 minutes as a warm-up, or extending the rest timer to 10 minutes) but the principle remains the same. Longer timer for work, shorter timer for rest, repeat.
I had heard about this for years. People swore by this method and were often very passionate about it.
For some reason it never clicked for me until the advent of the RescueTime Guided Focus Sessions. The sessions follow the format of the pomodoro method, timers and breaks and all, with the added benefit of helpful guidance, a shared co-working experience, and coaching from our expert team of productivity enthusiasts here at RescueTime. I wrote about the experience here. And you should check it out for yourself here.
There’s really not much more to explain, except the myriad of ways it’s helped me this week. It sounds straightforward because it is. But in that simplicity there really is something that I would have to call magic.
This technique changed everything
I don’t know how else to put it. There is no secret trick here. It’s exactly what I just wrote. And yet—it changed everything about my workflow.
Every day now, I sit down and give myself a task. I have a clear-eyed objective. And to begin, I set a timer for twelve minutes. Those first twelve are considered a success if I type more than two words, or don’t check my phone, or if I don’t fall asleep sitting there.
There’s something about starting that timer, and turning on some lofi hip-hop, and making my work window full screen, that just puts me into the zone. I type with something that could be described as intention. And my work really and truly gets finished.
The level of effectiveness is so high that it feels like cheating. As if “there has to be a catch, right?” But there isn’t a catch.
Even if you’re a stickler for counting active time versus inactive time, there really isn’t an argument for this method being ever-so-slightly “time-inefficient.” You may feel like you’re setting rest timers and taking breaks all the time, but you’re still actively working 83% of every hour.
Sure, that’s less efficient than this mystical and wholly impossible “work four hours straight without stopping” we all secretly believe we could do “if we needed to.”
And you know what’s even less efficient? Losing entire days to tasks that—apparently—take thirty minutes.
12 + 25 + 1
I really did write this post in 38 minutes. I’m going back now after the fact to type this section and the intro—sorry to break the fourth wall. (And of course, there’s more work that goes into this blog, and making things look sharp and grammatically correct and inserting hyperlinks and all that.)
But the real meat of the work, the work that has traditionally taken the most time to complete, just getting words on paper (or as the characters in Succession called it last Sunday, “the chowder”)—that work went from taking hours to being done in minutes. And I still can’t get over it.
I just followed the steps. I sat down with an objective, I turned on a timer, and I started typing. After those first twelve minutes, I had written the outline and took a good stab at the first draft in each section. When the timer went off, I was in the groove to the point that I really didn’t want to stop.
So I rolled straight through the break and into my first standard-length timer. When the timer went off again, I realized I was basically done. So I scrolled through what I wrote and adjusted some commas. One extra minute. Thirty-eight total minutes.
Then I had to figure out something else to work on for the rest of the day.
A warm up or a quick sprint or the whole marathon
The great thing about the pomodoro technique is that—more than anything—it forces you to get the ball rolling. If you’re one of those people that enjoys sitting down and working for four hours straight when you’re able to, this can be a great way to kickstart your day. Or you can be like I often am: metaphorically panting and struggling over the finish line, counting down the seconds left on each timer before you can whip out your phone again.
It’s all a part of the same process to overcome inertia. It’s all in search of the same productive positive work.
I put the same amount of care into my work that I usually do—make sure it passes the same strictures and standards that I always want it to. But it just happens at a different nice pace now. Reading it back, I honestly think it even turned out better than usual. It feels more focused, and with less fluff. I remember the energy my fingers had when typing it.
Even if you’re not feeling it
This may be my favorite part: if you’re really not feeling it, which of course is normal, you can just sit there. Even doing just that is technically healthy for you.
It’s the equivalent of putting all the junk food on a top shelf, out of sight and out of mind.
In my house, I have to physically climb on the counter reach the things I put up there. So if I want to cheat on my health food routine, it takes premeditation and effort. Of course, I do climb on the counter from time to time. But it means I don’t cheat every time I walk by the fridge. And it means I consciously know I’m doing it when I’m doing it.
The same goes for your pomodoro session: if you’re sitting there, ineffectual and bored, the most natural and easiest next step you could take is to just start working. If you did it right, your phone is across the room and your distracting apps are closed (or blocked by the RescueTime Assistant). So your options are sit—bored with nothing to do—or do some fulfilling work.
Flow into the magic
I humbly recommend you try this method this week or weekend. If you’ve got a project hanging over your head that you’d love to make progress on but can’t seem to focus, or something really pressing where you need a system you can trust, try this. You may even find the flow state. Or possibly a little magic. Maybe try it among friends in a RescueTime Guided Focus Session.
Good luck, and happy pomo’ing!