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Boosting My Productivity

December 18, 2014Filed under blog#email#inbox zero#pomodoro#productivityMarkdown source

This fall, I have had a lot on my plate: building, continuing to work for Quest Consultants, and doing a pastoral ministry internship. I needed to be more productive—a lot more. Happily, I have been, and it only took three small changes.1

Use a To-Do List

Making a list of items to accomplish has been incredibly helpful. I started using OmniFocus in August for class due dates and any work tasks not tracked in other ways.2 At that point, I organized everything—a bit too much, actually. Over the last couple months, I took some good advice I have seen in a number of places:

  • Do not over-organize. Most tasks can go in a simple inbox.
  • Hit your due dates. Making it a habit to hit every due date will help you not to miss important tasks.
  • Do not put due dates on things that do not need them. You will eventually stop paying attention to them—and also to the due dates that do matter.

I try to knock out a few small things from my Inbox every day, and hit all the due dates I set for myself. I am missing fewer things, getting more things done, and getting them done sooner than I did before. I like my app, but I know people who have just used an old-fashioned planner. The trick is to find a strategy that works for you.3

Email Is Not A To-Do List

At some point, I got in the habit of using my email as a to-do list. In theory, seeing a list of unanswered emails every day should have motivated me to respond to them. In reality, they just sat there and slowly piled up. At best, they nagged at me. At worst, I basically forgot them.

When I started using OmniFocus, I killed this habit. Now I make a task for anything I need to act on, and I delete or archive everything else.4 If the task is time-sensitive, I put a due date on it; otherwise, my third rule above applies. I also have a repeating task reminding me to empty my inbox at the end of each day (“Inbox Zero”). Having an empty inbox at the end of every day removes a certain amount of mental baggage: I have a task for everything I need to act on.

Take breaks

Finally, I have started using the “pomodoro” technique. The basic approach is to work steadily for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break.5 After four such cycles, I take a slightly longer break—usually 15 minutes. On each break, I walk around and do something unrelated to whatever I am working on. I also write down a brief summary of what I did on that cycle.6 There is nothing complicated about this: I just use a simple timer to track the work and break cycles.7 I have seen a dramatic improvement in my ability to sustain my concentration on my tasks throughout the day since I started.

There are a few reasons for that improvement. First, I have dedicated break times, so I know that I can go check social media, read tech and news sites, etc. later. That makes it easier to concentrate on work for the blocks in between; the distractions can wait. Second, it puts a limit on those break times. We have all been surprised to find we have lost an hour reading online; using a timer helps prevent that. Third, getting up and moving around helps keep my brain active—I can tell that the movement considerably improves my alertness and concentration.

These breaks have other benefits, too. There is mounting evidence that sitting all day is terrible for our health. Even exercising as much as I do cannot fully counteract a sedentary lifestyle. However, there is also evidence that getting up and moving on a regular basis does help. Walking briskly, I usually manage a fifth or a quarter of a mile on a five-minute break. That adds up over the course of a day: if I am disciplined about walking on my breaks, I regularly walk 2–3 miles in a day, even with lunch and other non-walking breaks in the mix.

I have also found the breaks spiritually helpful. One of the requirements for my pastoral ministry internship was to memorize Ephesians. Five-minute breaks are perfect for memorizing and reviewing Scripture, so I was able to be productive on those breaks, even while letting my brain relax from my other work. It is similarly useful for dedicated times of prayer throughout the day. The combination of scripture memory and prayer has been invaluable in combatting sin and stirring up my affections for Christ.

In short, I get a triple benefit by doing pomodoros. I am more productive when I am working, my body will remain healthier because I am less sedentary, and I am growing in holiness and intimacy with God. Of all the changes I made this semester, incorporating pomodoros into my day has been the most important, and I plan to make it a regular part of my life henceforth.

  1. This is just what I do. It may not work for you. It may even drive you crazy.

  2. I.e., things not covered by JIRA, Trello, Bitbucket issues, etc.

  3. While OmniFocus suits me, I would recommend Todoist to most people instead: it is less expensive and easier to use, and while it does not do everything OmniFocus does, it can easily do everything most people need.

  4. I archive order confirmations, messages from friends, and work conversations, and delete everything else.

  5. Why the 25/5 pattern? That seems to be a limit in human cognition; it lines up closely with research on student attention spans in the classroom.

  6. This helps me see what I have done over the course of a day and gives me a sense of progress. It is also extremely useful when writing up a weekly report for an employer.

  7. I have used Tomighty and Pomodoro One, which are both free and work well. The app is not the point, though: an old-fashioned kitchen timer will do just as well.