Between checking social media, reading the news, responding to emails, and now working remotely, it’s never been easier to get distracted. Smartphone addiction is real, lots of scary things are happening in the world, and it can feel impossible to dig into the day and stay focused on what needs to get done.
I used to swear by the Pomodoro Technique, until I tried these other productivity hacks and found they turned my day around.
What is the Pomodoro Technique and why did I stop using it?
The Pomodoro Technique is a classic way of structuring your day into small intervals, with breaks in between. Each interval is called a Pomodoro, named after the tomato-shaped timer used by the founder Francesco Cirillo. The method was groundbreaking for many, offering space to come up for air in between short bursts of intense focus.
With the Pomodoro Technique, you work in cycles, taking miniature breaks in between each interval to reset. However, if something interrupts your Pomodoro, or focus time, then you either have to ask the distraction to hold off until your break time, or else stop your cycle there, and begin a new one.
What I Tried Instead
The Pomodoro Technique is an effective tool for taking control of your day – but it’s dependent on the idea that you have control in the first place. Sometimes, distractions come up that just can’t be postponed. I found that the Pomodoro Technique assumes a rigidity of time that isn’t always realistic, particularly when working remotely. So for the era of social distancing and working at home, I tried these other productivity hacks.
Freedom & Self Control
Freedom and Self Control are two apps that block out online distractions. Freedom works for more operating systems, like Firefox, Chrome, Windows, and iOS, and uses a paid subscription model. Self Control is free but only works on Macs.
Both of the apps set limits on what your computer can access for amounts of time — meaning you can block Facebook, Twitter, or whatever you usually browse for a set period and really focus. Freedom even offers the option to block out the whole Internet, if you’re working on a document or spreadsheet already downloaded to your computer.
One of the main benefits of distraction-blocking apps is that they can’t be adjusted once the time period starts. So I found that while they were enabled, I decided I might as well settle in and get to work. Of course, they don’t work to block out real-life distractions, but because they’re still enabled when you step away from your computer, it’s easier to settle back into work than if you had to reset the timer and start your interval afresh.
Batching is an incredibly simple but powerful idea. Basically it means that you group all the tasks you have to do that are similar into one time slot, and accomplish items by category. So instead of writing an email, then outlining a project, then stopping to make a phone call, or run an errand, it’s a way of streamlining your day into batches. You might set aside one full morning to finish up personal finance tasks, like paying bills online or setting up a budget and then leave the afternoon free to focus on research for a project.
The beauty of batching is that it lets your brain kick into high gear for similar tasks. Doing a bunch of nitty-gritty tasks all at once is a way to maximize the time when you feel particularly detail-oriented, without going back and forth into communication or big-picture mode. It can be particularly satisfying to get a whole bunch of similar things done in one go – but beware, because I also found that it can also make tackling something you’ve been dreading that much easier to put off till later!
The Pareto Principle
The Pareto Principle is a way of observing inequality – when applied to productivity, it means that 20% of the input creates 80% of the result. With that in mind, I tried this method of structuring my to-do list to accomplish only what I decided was in the top 20% of “must do” for the day. Instead of structuring my time, I structured my priorities.
It turns out, the Pareto Principle had a huge impact on how my day went, and how successful I felt at the end of it. Unlike Pomodoro or other methods that gamify productivity, using the Pareto Principle freed my mind up to focus on what felt most important – and to scratch that off my list right at the beginning of the day. Getting that out of the way in the morning freed up my afternoon to focus on secondary deliverables, and made me feel like I was in control of my own workflow. Applying the Pareto Principle minimized the impact of disruptions and distractions over the course of the day since everything I felt was the most important I had already prioritized.
During these changing times, it makes sense that we might need to redefine productivity and look for new ways to restructure our workflow. Trying out these new productivity hacks gave me the space to have a more rewarding and more accomplished day, without the pressure to control how every part of it went.