A Look Back on My 2013 Summer Productivity Experiment

Today's "article" is actually several. It's also long (almost 5,000 words).Time to put your reading pants on.

Last year I did something I called the Grand Summer Work Experiment. The basic idea was to use a different productivity strategy each week and write about my experiences (kind of like A Year of Productivity but on a smaller scale).

What I'd like to do today is share the articles I wrote during this experiment last year. It's long, but it's also a very detailed look at my thinking over a year ago as I experimented with different ways to be more productive and feel better about my work. I think there are some nuggets in here that could be applied to your own work as well.

Let's go!


Introduction

I'm obsessed with the process of work. I want to understand how people experience work and how that affects their well-being. I want to understand how to improve the way people think about their work and utilize it as a vehicle toward living a fuller life and not as something to be avoided. How do our values, strengths, goals and personalities impact and change due to the way we work? A seemingly good place to start with all of these questions is with myself.

This brings me to my grand summer work experiment which I'm calling The Grand Summer Work Experiment (give me a break, I'm a scientist-in-training, not a headline writer). The general idea is to systematically adjust the way I work over the summer, take careful notes about how it affects various components of my life, and share what I've learned with all of you. I'll commit to one change every week before deciding whether to permanently add it to my repertoire or try something else. Every once in awhile I'll throw a wrench into the whole process and try something completely new.

Hopefully this will give me some more personal experience and data (albeit from a sample size of one) about what different work styles are like. By the end of the summer I will have ideally tested out a multitude of changes to my own personal work style and identified what works (and what doesn't) for me.

Sound good?

Experiment #1: Pomodoro

For the week of May 27th through June 2nd I followed a strict Pomodoro Technique style of working. The basic idea is to work in 25 minute increments followed by a five minute break. After the fourth work session you then take a longer (30 minute) break. One set of four work sessions counts as a "Pomdoro." The philosophy behind the system is that building in regular breaks throughout your day helps keep you fresh and alert. The longest you have to commit to working on anything at one time is 25 minutes and then you get a short break. One of the key rules of this style of work, however, is to respect the 25 minute on, five minute off, pattern no matter what. If you're in the middle of something at the end of a 25 minute work session you should still stop. Similarily your five minute rest session should not expand beyond that 5 minute (or 30 minute if you're on your final rest session of a Pomodoro) break.

I did my best to stick to this routine for the past 7 days and here are a few things I learned:

1. 30/30 is an awesome app: If you have an iPhone and want to use the Pomodoro style of working download this app immediately. It's a customizable to-do list app/timer that automatically advances to the next item on a list and starts a timer. If you set up your 25 minute work sessions and five minute rest sessions (+ final 30 minute rest session) all you have to do is hit the start button once in the morning and follow the timer for the rest of the day. I think using a timer that doesn't require you to manually start a new session of work is really important. It's much easier to start letting your sessions spill over their boundaries when it's up to you to set the new timer. When you're following an automatic one, though, it's much easier to just do what it tells you.

2. Making an iPhone stand out of an index Card is super handy: If you don't have a stand for your iPhone I recommend making one out of an index card. The combination of 30/30 and an easy way to look over at the timer has been great. One of the best aspects of Pomodoro I learned over the past week is that a 25 minute work session means you never look at the time remaining and think, "Damn, that's way too long." Every time I've glanced at the timer, even when working on something boring, I've been pleasantly surprised by how little time is left. This has been huge in convincing me to get started on less than exciting tasks.

3. Having a list of "easy" tasks is important: Every once in awhile you'll finish a major task and still have some time remaining in a work session. This awkward block of time may not be the greatest for starting a new task that will take a long time to finish. Therefore, this is the perfect time to knock out pre-established "easy" tasks. In the couple of minutes remaining in a session you can fire off a couple emails, look up a fact you need for something later, or even make a list for your trip to the store later. I tag tasks like this in Things with the "@easy" tag and then search for them when I have an awkward block of time to finish up.

4. 3 Pomodoros per day is ideal: One full Pomodoro is 100 minutes of focused work with 45 minutes of rest. Completing three Pomodoros gives me five hours of highly focused work. At first I thought that was lacking ambition. Then I realized that the quality of attention and focus I bring to my work when I'm working in this style is so much higher than normal. With no distractions, a counting down timer, and a list of pre-determined work I get much, much more work done than I normally do. Additionally, it's more draining to do three high quality Pomodoros than it is to work like I used to for eight or more hours. I also don't count meetings, coaching calls, or other mandatory errands as part of my Pomodoro time. Once I add those in I often end up closer to the standard 8 hour work day. Figure Out Your Work Ahead of Time: A key part of working under this style is to have your work figured out ahead of time. I've been a huge proponent of front-end decision making for a long time and I'm glad I already had that habit when I decided to try Pomodoro-ing. You want to be able to move from task to task without having to think about what you should be doing. For me, this was partially determined during my Weekly Review. At this time I pre-determined which projects would be worked on which days of the week. During the week, the last thing I did before shutting down for the day was determine what I was working on tomorrow. I'd make a checklist on an index card and have it sitting next to my computer so I could get started on my first Pomodoro the following day with as little friction as possible.

Room for Improvement

Moving forward, I have a couple areas that need more work.

1. Stay strict: Unfortunately 30/30 allows you to easily pause a session by tapping the screen. A couple of times I found myself utilizing that feature with less than pure intentions (i.e. "Just one more game of Starcraft 2," or "I'm not quite done reading this chapter.") This style of work completely loses its punch if I'm willing to ignore the 25 minute on, five minute off, routine.

2. Take Better Breaks: It may seem like you can't do much in a five minute rest session. I seemed to use most of my breaks as an opportunity to check social media -- which isn't necessarily a bad thing. That's why these breaks exist. However, I wonder if there is a better way I can spend my breaks in the future? I like Tony Schwartz's work on renewal rituals and I wonder what I can do in those five minutes that will help me bring a fresher and clearer mind to my work.

3. Be mindful of scheduling commitments: Meetings in the middle of the day will mess up working in this style. It sucks to have to pack up and go to a meeting in the middle of a Pomodoro. Last week I had at least two meetings or phone calls to attend to each day. This week, I've so far kept all my commitments segregated to Wednesday. I don't anticipate getting many Pomodoros finished on that day, but the remaining 4 days should be highly productive.

Experiment #2: Pomodoro + Self Control

For week #2 I continued with the Pomodoro method but also forcibly blocked myself from distracting websites during work hours with a piece of software called SelfControl. The idea behind this tweak was to ensure I didn't take my scheduled breaks by continuing to sit at my computer or get sucked into time-sucking websites that would spill over my allotted break times.

In terms of my Rescue Time data my results were somewhat mixed. I spent less time on Facebook (significantly so) and Reddit during work hours but slightly more on email. I spent less time in my News and Opinion and Social Networking categories (slightly) but my overall Productive time went from 53% to 50% of the time spent at my computer. My efficiency score was identical for both weeks (56%).

Subjectively, it was less of a close call. Monday through Wednesday were great but the rest of the week was a borderline bust. On Wednesday I had a 10+ hour day filled with 4 coaching sessions, 2 phone calls, and 2 meetings. I did this on purpose in a kind of mini-experiment to see if I could collect all my coaching/meeting/phone call commitments into one day, therefore leaving the rest of my week open for uninterrupted work. It was definitely tiring, but overall I enjoyed it. I liked being able to stay in one mindset all day long instead of trying to jump back and forth between writing, coaching, administrative tasks, etc.

However, something I need to be aware of and work on more in the future is how I attack the day after a marathon day like that. I'll let the words I wrote on Thursday night in my journal describing how my day went:

What a bust of a day. I'm not really sure what my problem was. I had SelfControl on all day so it wasn't really a matter of just mindlessly surfing. I just found other ways to not do what I probably should've been doing.

While Thursday wasn't great, I do think I learned something valuable. Also from that evening's journal entry:

At some point today I realized it wasn't going very well and I just started to accept it to a certain point. I tried to do some less mentally intensive stuff and worked on reading a book quite a bit. In terms of how I can avoid doing this again in the future, I think the key is really making sure I'm well-planned with enough work the day before. I only had a couple of items on my list for today and when I did them or eventually realized they couldn't be done I ended up mentally tapping out, for the most part. If I don't want that to happen I should be a little more audacious in my planning.

Friday started similarly to Thursday but instead of wallowing in it all day I recognized what was going on immediately. I had a ton of errands to run so I decided to knock all of those out. Was it the most important work I could've been doing? No. Did it need to get done? Yes, eventually.

Experiment #3: Pomodoro + Self Control + Concentrate

I'm going to continue blocking myself from distracting websites during the day. I don't think that was really the problem with my lack of productivity at the end of the week. An unintended consequence may be that I found other ways to waste time that didn't involve trying to go to a website I had blocked. To that end, I'm trying out a new app this week called Concentrate. Not only does it block specific URLs but it can also block specific programs. I think this might help me avoid finding computer-based distractions even more. My complete challenge for week #3 is to continue working under a strict Pomodoro style while blocking myself from distracting websites and other apps on my computer. I shoot for 3 full Pomodoros of focused work each day.

To a certain extent, I understand I'm addressing the symptom of distraction (blocking myself from websites) instead of developing the personal abilities that would allow me to resist the urge to even be distracted in the first place. However, I'm a big believer that willpower is a finite resource and doing things to prevent myself from having to use it (like completely blocking myself from certain websites, thus rendering it beyond the need for willpower) is a good move. Eventually I hope to get to the point where I don't need the crutch of a piece of software, but for now I'm embracing it.

P.S. It has also come to my attention that I think my long rest session in my Pomodoro routine is too long. For some reason I thought it was supposed to be 25 minutes long but I think it's only supposed to be 15. I'm going to continue with the 25 minute rest session for the remainder of this week but might play with that duration in future weeks.

Thoughts on Experiment #3

Last week's Grand Summer Work Experiment was kind of a bust and I'm not 100% sure why. I don't think it had anything to do with my experiment for the week (using a program to block distracting URLs and distracting programs). I think it was more a function of the work I had to do. I'm working on an academic poster to be presented at a conference in two weeks and I need to transition into a phase of the project I'm not really sure how to do. Essentially, I avoided doing difficult or unclear (yet highly important) work for the majority of my so-called "productive" time last week. If I run into that problem in the future I need to figure out how to battle through it, though. It seems like the best way forward would be to recommit to sticking to the Pomodoro Technique and truly clarifying the work that needed to be done (maybe using the Natural Planning Model to gain clarity on the project?).

Pomodoring Myself Dull?

The other thought I'm having about my productivity experimentation is that perhaps last week was a function of rebelling against too much structure. I felt myself resisting using the Pomodoro Technique (and didn't use it at all except for Monday) and I'm not sure why. A couple times I found myself thinking something along the lines of, "Dammit, I'm an independent worker with a lot of flexibility… why do I have to follow this timer?" This leads me to think that instead of having one style of work that I stick to 100% of the time I'm wondering if I need to be cultivating two or more distinct styles based on how I'm feeling and what the day calls for. I'm already discovering that using the Pomodoro Technique doesn't work when my day is carved into little chunks because of coaching calls or meetings. Maybe the differentiation of my working style has to be even greater than that? Maybe I should rotate between highly structured Pomodoro-style productivity and a more free-wheeling, play it by ear style of productivity on a weekly basis?

Experiment #4: Better Breaks

This week I'm going to continue working Pomodoro-style (at least for Monday through Thursday -- Friday is my long coaching day). I'm also going to continue blocking myself from distracting URLs and distracting programs. Like I said, even though last week was a bust I don't think it was a function of the experiment I was trying.

The new experiment for this week will be focusing on taking better breaks. Instead of just sitting at my computer or even taking my phone over to the couch to read an article, I'm going to try to completely change my context. I'll try to get outside, just sit quietly for a few minutes, or lay on the couch and listen to some music. I want to figure out what the best way truly is for me to regain energy and be able to continue working with a high level of focus. I may even take a look at The Power of Full Engagement again to brush up on advice about energy restoration rituals. I think the breaks in the Pomodoro Technique are super important to the success of using it so I want to make sure I'm gaining as much as possible from them.

This may be a bigger thought for another day, but I also think many of us have already taken care of all the low hanging fruit in regards to the active improvement of our productivity. However, I think the way we rejuvenate and restore ourselves is something that most of us take for granted when in reality it may be just as ripe an area for cultivation than the more "active" productivity tips and techniques we like to talk about the most. That's an idea I'll probably flesh out some more in the future.

But for now, my timer just dinged so it's time to go sip some coffee on the balcony.

Thoughts on Experiment #4

Last week's experiment was to continue with the Pomodoro Technique, continue blocking myself from distracting websites (using the software SelfControl), continue blocking myself from distracting programs on my computer (using the software Concentrate), and taking "better" breaks.

It's hard to distinguish whether subpar weeks in terms of work are due to the techniques I'm employing to get the work done or the work itself. Like most things, it's probably a combination of both (which unfortunately makes my experiment a little bit more difficult to analyze). For example, last week I found myself rarely using the Pomodoro Technique even though I was supposed to. For whatever reason, I lost my taste for setting 30/30 and following a timer during my work day. Since I rarely used Pomodoro last week I didn't get many opportunities to take "better" breaks.

I did try to get away from my computer a little bit while taking breaks but often found myself thinking that five minues was too short of a time to really bother doing anything other than just flipping over to Twitter or checking my email. One thing I have been doing relatively consistently for the past week is taking a long break in the afternoon to workout, hop in the pool, meditate, and take a 20 minute nap. I know that I'm borderline useless in the afternoon anyway so it seems like a good time to knock out these other tasks. I usually get a second wind in the evening to knock out one final batch of work.

What's the Issue? Technique or Content?

It's possible that I'm just getting tired of working in this structured way or it's possible that I'm simply tired of the project I'm working on. My primary project has been the same for the past several weeks and it has been mentally draining. I'm finally wrapping it up this week and I'm more than ready to move on to something else. Maybe that means my productivity will increase and the lackluster couple of weeks I've had are due to the nature of the work. Either way, it's still beneficial to systematically add and remove various pieces of a work routine to get a sense of how they affect me and my work.

Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story

It's also interesting to note that my Rescue Time numbers improved almost completely across the board from last week. I spent less time on distracting websites and more time being productive as compared to the week before. Granted, the week before was really bad so maybe it's not that big a deal to have improved. Even though my numbers were better, I didn't really subjectively feel "better" than the previous week. Which leads me to the interesting conclusion that feeling good about my work is much more than just not spending a lot of time distracting myself or being unproductive. The absence of unproductiveness does not equal feeling good about my work. I have to actually have accomplished something, even when not wasting time on Facebook or Reddit, to really feel good about my work week. This makes me think that I should minimize the amount of effort I put into worrying about distractions and really focus on moving important projects forward (which seems obvious as I write it). That seems to be the key to feeling good about my work and is definitely something to keep an eye on as I move through the rest of the summer.

Experiment #5: Taking A Week Off

This week, I'm taking a break from my summer productivity experiment to work however I choose. I know Pomodoroing wouldn't be the best choice this week because it seems like each day is punctuated with coaching calls and meetings. I'm also going to be at a conference starting Thursday morning so my true work week is only going to consist of three days. I'm just going to work however I feel like working for this week (which I suppose is an experiment in itself) and will jump back into a specific challenge starting July 1st.

Experiment #6: Eat a Frog Every Day

Last week I started each day by "eating a frog" as my first task. The frog I ate every day was not of the amphibious variety, but the most dreaded task currently hanging over my head. The general advice of doing the hardest thing first is pretty well-traveled, but I've never really adopted it until last week. I'm certainly glad I did.

My commitment was just to work on my frog for the first 15 minutes of my work day. By committing to a very small chunk of time I lowered the psychological barrier that tried to keep me from doing it. A lot of the time, once I got started I'd end up working on it for far more than 15 minutes. Whether I just made it the minimum 15 minutes or carried on for a longer block, the end result was always that I felt much, much better about my work. Over the course of last week I wrote, edited, and delivered a freelance article that had been hanging over my head for a couple weeks.

This is something I'm going to adopt into my typical work day from here on out. I didn't really perceive any drawbacks. A couple times I felt like I didn't have time to work on the frog when it was unrelated to the other things I needed to do in a day, but really that's just a lame excuse. I always have 15 minutes available to work on something even if it is unrelated to the overall mission of the day.

Experiment #7: Insanity

This week I'm going to do something stupid. I'm calling it Insanity Week. Basically, if I'm awake I'm going to be working. Mostly, I'm interested to see what my limits are. Will I hit a wall? Will I be able to focus at the end of the week? I have a couple coaching calls later in the week, so I'm not interested in completely frying myself to the point where I can't be a good coach, but I do want to push my limits in terms of the amount of work I do in a short amount of time (i.e. see yesterday's announcement about the "competition" I'm engaged in). I'm still going to take breaks throughout the day to refocus and rejuvenate, but they're going to be short and efficient. Hopefully, this experiment will help me better understand what I'm capable of if I really have to put my head down and finish a crap ton of work in a short amount of time.

Final Recap

[Note, halfway through the Summer Experiment series I did a "productivity competition with my friend Garrett, which is what I'm referring to here.]

Today is the final article in the series and serves as a recap for the previous week. I also decided to pair up my next Summer Work Experiment work style experiment with last week's competition so this article is really a recap of the competition and my experiment. I decided to do what I accurately called Insanity Week. Basically, the experiment was to push myself to my breaking point to see what I was capable of. This resulted in 15+ hour days Monday through Thursday and falling flat on my metaphorical face on Friday.

My goal for the competition was to draft an entire e-course by Friday. Despite driving myself into the ground with an unrealistic work schedule that left me a sputtering mess by Friday morning, I did manage to finish the draft. It clocked in around 12,000 words. Including the other writing I did last week, I ended up writing about 14,000 words. There were a couple other projects I moved forward in the past seven days and had a few coaching calls and other meetings. All in all, it was definitely a productive week.

I didn't use any special work techniques or tricks during the competition. No Pomodoro, no specific strategies other than putting my head down and working as much as possible. One day I worked at Starbucks for awhile. It was also incredibly hot and my "office" (brother's bedroom at my parents' house) has no air conditioning. It worked alright -- but as I type this Monday morning I have my Pomodoro timer going. I think last week's completely free-wheeling and structureless schedule has pushed me toward wanting greater structure today. Weird how my brain works that way.

As I look back on the previous week, a couple things pop out at me. In no particular order:

The quality of your work is capped or multiplied by the quality (or lack thereof) of your leisure.

AND

Burnout will make you tired, which really isn't a big deal. But it will also make you resent your work, which is far more dangerous.

I think both of these came through very clearly in the past seven days for me. The feeling I had Friday morning, and a little bit Thursday afternoon, was not how I wanted to be approaching my work. Instead of celebrating the fact that I had entirely drafted an e-course in the past four days (an e-course that I was seriously not considering doing this summer because it would be "too much work") I was mad about it because I was tired and grumpy.

Working more hours can feel more productive, but they rarely are. Subjectively, I think I know that but it was really driven home in my Rescue Time data this week. As compared to last week, I spent a higher percentage of my work time on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit than I did the week before. I spent a lot more time on Writing Activities but I also spent a higher percentage of my time on General News and Opinion, Social Networking, and Entertainment than the week before. Finally, my total Productive & Very Productive time fell from 48% to 45% as compared to the previous week. Is it worth burning myself out and resenting what I do for a living for these numbers? Hell no.

As a final note, I want to thank Garrett for partaking in this with me. I always love doing little experiments and competitions in the spirit of learning more about who I am and how I work. I'm super impressed with what Garrett has accomplished over the past week. He has a real job with real people who are relying on him to do certain things at certain times. In all reality, being productive shouldn't be hard for me. I'm almost completely on my own schedule and work for myself 90% of the time. There really isn't a more optimal environment for me to be in. Garrett works in a newspaper's newsroom -- not exactly the most placid place to write, yet, he has it figured out.


I'm thinking about doing another version of this project for this summer as well, but want to use different experiments. What do you think I should try over the next couple of weeks to improve my productivity?

Photo via freephotouk