Over the past couple of months I've been embarking on a series of one-week, systematic experiments regarding the way I work. The idea behind the project was to test for myself the best strategies for successfully completing my work. As an independent worker, very little of my work life is dictated by outside forces. While that sounds great, it also means I have almost an infinite number of (bad) ways to work.
My experiments ranged from using software to block distracting websites, using software to block distracting apps, strictly following the Pomodoro Method, specifically focusing on taking better breaks throughout the day, doing the most challenging task of the day first, and deliberately trying to burn myself out. Here's what I learned.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique can be great. Some of my most productive weeks was when I was using this method. The key to using it productively is having an app or timer that automatically switches between the 25 minute work blocks and the 5 minute rest blocks. If it's up to you to manually switch between the two and start the timers, it starts to break down. If you have an iPhone, the 30/30 app is perfect for this.
The tricky thing about the Pomodoro Technique, though, is that using it extensively for a long period of time eventually erodes its effectiveness. By my fourth week in a row of following it I noticed myself ignoring the timer more often and even resenting the technique. Somewhat confounding this experience is that during this final week of using the Pomodoro Technique I had shifted from the highly monotonous work I was doing the previous weeks (transcribing and coding interviews) to more creative work (writing, mostly). That leads me to believe I have the most success with the Pomodoro Technique when I'm having to "make" myself do something I'd rather not be doing. Transcribing was not an enjoyable task for me so having an outside force (the Pomodoro timer) organizing my work was a welcome addition. When I'm doing something I want to do (like writing) having the outside force feels like a burden.
Beyond the Pomodoro Technique, I discovered that working on the hardest task first thing in the morning ("eating my frog") for at least 15 minutes is a huge productivity/well-being booster. I'm almost never so busy that I can't spend 15 minutes working on something that may not be connected to the overall goal of the day. This forces me to spend at least 15 minutes (and often much longer) working on something important and non-urgent. These important and non-urgent tasks are usually the ones imbued with the most meaning and yet are often the easiest to skip. Eating my frog every morning helps make sure I'm moving forward the projects that actually matter and it helps keep my stress level down. I like starting every day by asking myself, "What's stressing me out the most right now?" and working on it for awhile.
Burnout Is Serious Business
I've written about it extensively already, but the week where I deliberately burned myself out was kind of scary. I realized that the most insidious aspect of burnout is not the fact that you're tired, but the fact that you come to resent your work. Being tired is a physical malady that can be fixed with rest and rejuvenation. Resenting your work is something that can have much more lasting ramifications. I'm going to work hard to make sure I don't reach this point again. If I do, I hope I'm able to recognize it early enough to prevent any kind of serious damage happening to me and my work.
Creating a Productivity Toolbox
I think when I started this experiment I expected to land on one strategy or type of working that I could unequivocally call "the best." Instead, I realized that the best way to work depends on a multitude of factors. My current energy, the type of work I need to finish, how I feel about the work, and how much time I have to work all interact with each other and result in a strategy of execution that can vary widely. Monotonous tasks I don't feel like doing benefit from the Pomodoro Technique. If I'm feeling a lack of structure and don't know where to begin the Pomodoro Technique can be helpful as well. Free-wheeling with my work is best done when I'm doing something I'm highly motivated to finish. Doing creative work in the morning and scheduling calls and meetings in the afternoon seems to be the best way to make sure my most important and difficult work get my highest quality of attention. Most importantly, this whole experiment has made me very comfortable with the idea of continuing to experiment with how I work.
I still have a million questions about my optimal work style but I know I have the tools at my disposal to do a good job answering them. How does my physical environment affect my work? How does my physical fitness affect my work? How do my personal relationships affect how I work? The questions are endless but answering them will just continue to add tools to my productivity toolbox.
Is your productivity toolbox bursting at the seams with solutions to your problems or does the one hammer you have in there result in everything looking like a nail?
Photo by David Poole