Time in hand, and a flexible appreciation for it, is the simple secret of survival farming, which works out to be just keeping up with the work. Successful farming, of course, requires much more, including temperament, intuition, technical competence, business acumen, and a fair measure of good fortune. But a sense for time and the rhythms of nature, much like the sense a boatman working his way through surf must have, resting and preparing in the lulls, watching the waves and being in place, ready to pull when the right wave lifts: this sense will probably keep a grower going in the temporary or permanent absence of other gifts.
Joseph Novitski, A Vineyard Year
Seek the rhythm of your attention
As rowing a boat is constrained by the waves, creative work is constrained by attention: you’ll go father if you work with its surges and lulls, rather than against them.
But attention behaves less like random waves, and more like a muscle: we can control it directly, and become quite skillful at doing so, but it gets tired, and needs rest.
So, how much work will tire it, and how much rest will restore it? The answer to these two questions determines the best cadence for its use.
Start With The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is a practice for making the application of attention more sustainable and productive. I found it quite effective, and I recommend it to anyone who reads, writes, or researches.
There’s only one part I came to disagree with: the suggested cadence of work. The basic structure felt right, but the specific lengths of time were all wrong for me.
The suggested cadence of the Pomodoro Technique is to continuously alternate a work period of 25 minutes with a “short break” of 5 minutes, except after every fourth work period, which is followed by a “long break” of 25-30 minutes.
I found I was able to greatly increase my productivity and focus by making four specific changes to this cadence.
1: Increase the length of a work period from 25 minutes to 50
I use the Pomodoro Technique for three primary kinds of work: reading, writing, and software development.
I find reading easy enough that I can do it for much longer than 25 minutes at a time. If the text is especially difficult or thought-provoking, I just read more slowly.
Writing and software development both suffer greatly from frequent interruptions. For both, it can take me quite some time to build up a momentum of work: when I stopped at 25 minutes, I frequently felt as if I had just finally gotten started. By contrast, after 50 minutes I typically feel that I’ve accomplished something concrete and could use a break.
Besides my personal anecdotes, formal and informal studies also suggest that a work period around 50 minutes is correlated with high personal productivity.
It’s possible that work-periods of 25 minutes fit other kinds of work, or that other people find easier to concentrate for that length of time. I don’t know you, but not only am I confident you can learn to concentrate for 50 minutes instead, I bet you can learn it faster by actually practicing at that length.
If your work is composed of tasks which take much less time to complete than 50 minutes, fill the work period by batching similar or related tasks together. For example, you could schedule several meetings or calls back to back, or decide to work on all the assorted tasks required for an overarching goal.
I call these extended pomodoros “tocks,” a term I stole from Bethany Soule at Beeminder.
2: Increase the length of a short break from 5 minutes to 15
Five minutes is too short a time to truly restore your ability for sustained focus. I’ve worked in offices where 5 minutes was only enough time to go to the bathroom if you refused to speak to anyone while you were doing it. I might just be slow or easily harried, but to me, even a brief stretching routine can feel rushed with only five minutes to do it in.
In a 15 minute break, I have been able to:
- Process all notes made in the course of the previous tock.
- Take a walk of tangible, deliberate leisure
- Have multiple meaningful, unhurried conversations
- Meditate, and write five things I’m grateful for, and send an email to someone I care about
- Hang laundry to dry
- Fold and put away dried laundry
- Thought through plans for my current work and the day ahead
Earlier, I said that attention is like a muscle. Like a muscle, you can use it before it’s fully rested, but its output will get worse and worse. I’ve found 5 minute short breaks to have this effect.
Cal Newport (Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You) advises work and rest periods of similar length.
Since I was already calling my work periods tocks, I started calling these breaks “ticks.”
3: Shorten the work cycle from 4 work periods to 3
With these lengthened work and rest periods, when you finish your third tock in a row, three hours will have passed. Your ability to focus will have degraded, and will start degrading even faster, no matter the frequency and quality of your breaks. You’ll need to step away from your work and recharge.
What’s more, you’ll need to eat: a good protein-rich meal every 3-4 hours will help prevent your becoming distracted by hunger, as well as help muscle growth. For the best results, eat one before you start working, and after every cycle.
I call a complete cycle of three tocks and two ticks a “cell,” a name Dorian Taylor uses for roughly the same period of work, which he argues should be the unit of scheduling and billing time for creative professionals.
4: Increase the length of a long break from 25-30 minutes to 2-3 hours
Everything I said about lengthening short breaks applies double here. An extended period of effort requires an extended period of deep rest to recover. Being fully recovered will greatly improve the quality of your work, and will make it much easier to enjoy.
I mentioned you should eat a meal during your long break. Meals should not be eaten in a half-hour. They are an opportunity to socialize, to savor a sensation, and generally enjoy what’s best in our lives. Cooking, whether for yourself or others, is also part of this opportunity for human enjoyment.
A two-hour break is plenty of time to cook a meal from scratch, eat it, clean your dishes, see to many other things, and come back to your desk rested and raring to power through another block.
Fitting it in: schedule 0-2 cells per day
A prototypical daily schedule with this cadence will loosely mimic the 9-5 of full-time work: you’ll do a cell before lunch, and a cell after. There may be certain days of the week when you will prefer to schedule only one cell, leaving aside time for less structured activity, or no cells at all, giving yourself a holiday or weekend. People with tight schedules - such as students obliged to go to class, or managers obliged to go to meetings - will probably be able to schedule at most one cell per day.
In those periods where you want to work, but can’t fit a complete cell, batch work which requires less focus, as described in point #1 above.
You may even want to try special “maniac days” where you attempt three cells in a day, maybe with shorter meal-breaks. Frankly, I don’t recommend it, but I know it appeals to some people.
If you have more than one project that you’re working towards at a time (guilty), you may benefit for reserving certain cells of the day or week for certain purposes. For example, I prefer to spend my morning cells writing or developing, and leave reading and answering emails for the afternoon, when my energy flags.
Only you can know the perfect schedule for your purposes, but I suggest you choose a consistent one: instead of moving your cells around depending on the day, have them start at the exact same time, or not at all. Use a calendar, alarms on your phone, whatever it takes. It’s your responsibility to finding out the time of day when you can do your best work, and for convincing yourself that’s what that time is for.
Inevitably, you’ll look at the time and realize you missed the start of a cell. Don’t panic. Deliberately and calmly sit down and begin to work.
Inevitably, you’ll look ahead a few days (or, less fortunately, a few hours) and see things which you want to prioritize over your planned schedule. Friends and family will be in town. Concert tickets will become available. Your kids will see an ad for the county fair. Whatever you it is, if you know that its at least as important to you as your work, feel no guilt, and focus on it just as completely as you would anything else. Accept that you’re a finite being, with finite time, and there will be more time to work. If you can trust your schedule, and your ability to get real work done during the time you set aside for it, you will improve your ability to relax and enjoy all the time set aside for other things.
At the time I’m writing these words, My cells are scheduled 8:30-11:30 and 3:30-6:30. I take a 4 hour break in the middle of the day to have time for both lunch and going to the gym when it isn’t crowded.
But of course, before you try any of this, you should be sure that you’ve chosen the right thing to be productive on.