I’m continually evaluating ways to stay productive in both my professional life as well as my personal life. Over the past two years I’ve come to rely on Mark Forster’s AutoFocus system (v4) in conjunction with the Pomodoro Technique to manage my time effectively.
Adopting these processes has helped me become more productive and helped to reduce the amount of stress and drain I experience throughout my work day.
AutoFocus really just starts with a long list of the things I need to do. The system itself is actually a method for managing that list.
Building the List
I start the process by listing out in no particular order the tasks I need to get done. Once I’ve listed out everything I can think of I draw a line across the bottom of the list. As I think of new items to put on the list they are written below the line.
Moving through the List
I start my day by reading through each of the tasks that is above the line. I don’t stop until I’ve read through them all. I then pick one of the tasks and work on it. If I read through the whole list and cannot start on any of the tasks, then I read through the list of tasks below the line and start on one that is ready.
If I read through the list of tasks above the line and don’t work on any of them, then I highlight them. Next time I read through the list above the line I either have to work on a highlighted item or cross it off and either leave it off, or add it onto the bottom of the list.
Once all items above the line have been worked on then a new line is drawn at the bottom of the entire list and the process repeats itself.
In addition to this workflow, here are some extra tips that I’ve found extremely helpful
- Always read fully through the list before starting on a task
- After completing a task, always come back and read through the list
- Keep separate lists for work and for home/personal projects. Don’t allow one to interfere with the other
- If I find myself continually crossing off a task and re-adding it (and it’s not a recurring task like ‘Check e-mail’) then either this task is too large in its current form and needs to be broken down, or it’s not high enough priority to be on the list.
I wouldn’t use AutoFocus for team project management. And I wouldn’t use it for long-term planning. This is more of a day-to-day management tool. Items you’re unlikely to find on my list are: Buy a vacation home. Manage retirement. Start my own business. These are all long-term goals or plans that are composed of hundreds and thousands of tiny tasks which AutoFocus can help me manage.
The Pomodoro Technique
When I worked at Adchemy one of my co-workers turned me on to The Pomodoro Technique which is popular among pair programmers as a way of time-boxing programming sessions to avoid burnout. But it’s equally effective working on your own.
The technique is very simple. It simply dictates that you work for 25 minutes focused exclusively on a certain task. After that 25 minutes is up, you take a 5 minute break. This can be a 5 minute physical and/or mental break.
A good pomodoro is a little tricky to pull off. First I should note that I really only use Pomodoro for tasks at the computer. I don’t use it for gardening. Since I only use the technique at the computer, it’s nice to have an app for it. This is my favorite.
It has a lot of configurable options
And it even has some statistics to show how effective I’ve been throughout the day.
Here are some tips I recommend for a successful pomodoro
Close all programs on your computer that aren’t essential to the task at hand, especially anything that’s likely to distract you including non-essential chat windows and e-mail. I do leave my IM connection open, but I will generally sign out from non-work accounts or mark myself busy on those accounts to minimize their distraction.
E-mail is a constant attention drain. I generally close my e-mail client during a pomodoro and open it back up during a pomodoro break to catch-up.
Reset the pomodoro when you’re distracted. If you do find yourself getting distracted, either by your own wanderings, or the outside world intruding, then simply reset the pomodoro and restart later.
Honor the 5 minute break. One of the seemingly more annoying things about the Pomodoro Technique is the arbitrary time limit. What about when a pomodoro ends right when I’m in the middle of typing a line of code? Well, I find the best thing to do is finish the immediate train of thought I’m on and then start my break.
The time limit is not that arbitrary to begin with. There are studies which state the average sustained attention span of a healthy adult to be around 20-30 minutes.
Despite the annoyance of having to take a break in the midst of working on a project, I find that if I stick with a strict pomodoro schedule throughout the day I am less mentally drained at the end of it. I also notice less of a decrease in my mental capacity as the day goes on.
Use the break for mental and physical respite. The first thing I do when a pomodoro ends is I usually refill my water glass or coffee cup. Getting away from the computer and moving the legs is a good physical and mental break. I usually use the remainder of the break to peruse e-mail or my news reader before starting in on another round. Since I work from home I also occasionally use the breaks to do some brief physical exercise, a few push-ups, sit-ups or deep stretches help me maintain some semblance of decent posture and increase blood flow to the brain. Also, if the sun’s out and it’s warm I’ll usually step out my backdoor to get a little vitamin D intake.
If I ignore the pomodoro technique and work on a project until I can’t see straight my hunch is that the final several hours of that work were largely distracted and unproductive.
AF4 + Pomodoro
So how do I use these techniques together? You may have already guessed it. For most tasks on my list I devote a pomodoro to them. If I finish the task before the pomodoro is up then I start on a new task and take a break once the pomodoro is completed.
If a task requires more than a full pomodoro, then I usually put a checkmark next to the task for each pomodoro. If I spend more than four pomodoros on a task then I consider breaking up the remainder of the work into new tasks. That’s a sign that the task I have written down is more involved than I initially anticipated.
I hope you find one or both of these techniques useful in your own life. If you find tips or tricks which improve your productivity, please share them!