1. Work in short bursts.
Go back to High School for a second. Did you ever have an English teacher assign you a 10-page paper at the beginning of the semester?
I did. And man that thing would loom over me.
I would try to get started. I really would. The first place I would get stuck was the research stage. I’d read article after article on the subject. After 4 to 5 hours of somewhat aimless ‘research’, I’d take my teacher’s advice and try to write an outline.
The outline helped focus my attention, but then came the real work. Filling the outlined topics and subtopics with the sentences and paragraphs needed for an ‘A’ or at least a ‘B.’ This stage seemed to take ages. The process was not fun. It was also intimidating. So like the thousands of Advanced Placement English students that have come before me, I procrastinated. I often waited until the last day to complete the remaining 9 pages.
The week before the due date was the worst. I would come home from school every night determined to knock a few pages out. Something would always come up.
- I should study for that math test.
- I didn’t get the best night’s sleep, catching up on rest is more important right now.
- I had a tough day at school… I deserve an episode (or three) of the Simpsons to unwind.
On the last day, I would get home from school and head straight to the den where I could focus. I would take my abundant research and shaky outline and start to fill the white pages with the two or three thousand words needed to appease my teacher.
It took me 3 to 4 hours to get my terrible first draft out. Some liberal re-writing of the ‘research’ was likely involved.
Then I printed the essay out to make my revisions on paper. I repeated the print and revise process 7 or 8 times. The ideas become more clear. The sentences made more sense.
The painful writing and revision process would go late into the night. I’d pass out for a few hours. My alarm would then go off early to give me time to make the final edits.
I did not always bear this burden alone. I solicited the help of my Mom for the grammar and spelling and Dad for the overall structure. One time I even made my little sister listen to me read the paper out loud to make sure it made sense.
Zack finishing his paper was a family ordeal.
After in 7 to 8 hours of focused, intense, urgent work (plus the hour or so my parents and sister chipped in), I would be done. And yes, I 100% fudged the spacing in Word ® to make it over the 10-page finish line.
The memory of the 5 or 6 intense writing sessions still haunts me. It didn’t seem like there was any other way. But, of course, there was.
If High School Zack knew about this one strategy, the months of stress that the 10-page essays (and other large, ambiguous projects) gave him, would have been severely mitigated. The strategy is called The Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique  is a style of working that helps you power through distractions and get big projects done in short bursts. It also provides breaks to keep you fresh and motivated.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a task to be accomplished.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the timer rings
- Step away from the work and take a 3 to 5-minute break
- Every 4 timed sessions, take a 15 to 30-minute break
If High School Zack had done one 25 minutes session of writing Monday through Thursday or one block of 4 timed sessions once a week, the essay would have been done 4 to 5 weeks into the semester. High School Zack wouldn’t have to stress for weeks about how he should be writing the paper. He also wouldn’t have to go through the night of pain and suffering trying to get the 9 to 10 pages out in one go.
The Pomodoro technique works by addressing two common productivity stumbling blocks:
- Parkinson’s Law
- Big Project Syndrome
The paper was broad and intimidating. The size and perceived difficulty of the paper caused Big Project Syndrome to come into effect. I would never want to start writing because I had no idea when it would end. My brain didn’t like the idea of working hard for indefinite amounts of time. So it would find all kinds of excuses to focus my attention on more manageable tasks.
The 15-week timeline also worked against me. The size of the assignment (in my mind) grew and shrank to the relative amount of time left.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” – Parkinson’s Law
How can the Pomodoro technique help you with your work?
You can use the timed session to create content for your social media. You can use it on other work that tends to expand or drag on. Hint: email.
The timer gives you a short finish-line to shoot for. The work avoidance of Big Project Syndrome is less likely to take hold because you know you only have to work for 25 minutes. It also doesn’t let the work expand further than necessary.
Here are a few of my favorite ways to Pomodoro:
- Set a 25-minute timer on my Amazon Echo
- Ask Siri to set a 25-minute timer on my iPhone
- Put in headphones and listen to 25 minutes of focus music
- Set the BreakTime app on my MacBook Pro
2. Put important work on your calendar.
“What is important is seldom urgent,” Dwight D. Eisenhower liked to say, “and what is urgent is seldom important.”
As a business owner, you should spend as much time as possible working on important tasks. The problem is, in the moment, urgent tasks seem important. So let’s get clear on the difference.
- Urgent tasks: Demand your attention right now. Tax deadlines, emails with lots of exclamation points, smoke coming out of the hood of your car, you or a family member requiring a trip to the emergency room and so on.
- Important tasks: Contribute to your long-term vision. Sometimes they are also urgent, but typically they are not. Staying fit, date night with the wife, creating a personal or business budget, weekly planning, long-term planning, and so on.
Urgent screams “Now!” Important quietly states, “This would be good for future me.” Urgent puts you in reactive, hurried, narrowly-focused mode. Important puts you in calm, rational, responsive mode. It seems like an easy enough distinction. But in the moment, it’s easy to conflate the two. Checking your email so often that it’s getting in the way of real work is a common example of confusing the urgent with the important.
That’s why Ike had a hack for telling the difference between the two.
- Big Project Syndrome is when the brain avoids getting started on large difficult projects.
- Parkinson’s Law is when work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
The Pomodoro technique helps you overcome these productivity stumbling blocks.
Now it is time to take Ike’s advice and decide when you will do your timed work sessions so the urgent doesn’t continue to take over. You decide your ‘when’ the same way you would schedule any other meeting. You put it in your calendar.
When the appointment is on your calendar, you have a black-and-white reminder. You and those you work with will know important work is to being done. This work will contribute to the long-term goal of growing the business.
There is no reason to delay using this strategy. Open your calendar and decide right now. You can set up a daily routine.
Or look out over the next two months to find 10 or so times you can schedule yourself to work on your important work.
Here are a few pointers:
- Consider the time of day. If you are like me, booking a focused work appointment is less useful in the afternoon when I’m generally not firing on all cylinders.
- Ask others for their support. Let employees, business partners, clients, family members and other people who need your time know that you should not be interrupted during your important work appointments.
- Keep your appointments! Avoiding email and other urgency traps before your important work can help with this.
- Reschedule missed appointments. Things come up. When they do, take 30 seconds to open your calendar and find a new time for you important work session.
- Avoid interruption hotspots. If people are likely to chat you up or ask you a question when you are in the conference room, don’t go there.
3. Block distractions.
What distracts you the most?
One of the most common distractions I hear about is “other people.”
- Scheduling your important work.
- Putting it on your calendar as if it were a meeting with an important client or advisor.
- Letting other people know you are not to be distracted during this time.
- Putting yourself out of reach.
nips this excuse in the bud.
Would you answer a phone call during an important meeting with an investor? Would you look at your texts messages when your accountant is going over this year’s tax strategy? Would your email be open when working with a customer?
Probably not, right?
Hold your important work appointments to that standard. You may need to have few conversations with the people in your life to make this a reality. Most will be understanding, if not outright supportive of your important work appointments.
And, for the moment, let’s assume they do.
The calendar appointment gave you a 10-minute warning to get prepared. Your 25-minute timer is set. You know exactly what needs to be done. You know the result you are looking to achieve and the steps that will achieve it. It’s go time!
Now 25 minutes have passed. The alarm goes off. It’s time for a break. What happened? Were you 100% focused on your important work? No? What got in your way?
Discover your distractions
Was the siren call of Instagram too strong? Did an email from a potential business partner flash across your screen? Did nature call? Was it too hot or too cold? Could you not help but listen in on the scandalous conversation next to you at the cafe you chose to work from?
Whatever distracted you, take note. After a few Pomodoro sessions, look at your lists of distractions. Then consider ways you can prevent this in the future.
It might look like:
- turning off instant notifications from your email
- putting your phone away
- closing all unnecessary computer programs
- closing all the tabs on your browser
- using headphones to block out audio distractions
- taking care of your biological needs before you start
- turning off or blocking the internet
Removing distractions will increase the quantity and quality of the work you are producing during your scheduled, timed important works sessions.
Here are a few pointers to consider:
- Write your work, time of day and distractions down in one place. You might start to see patterns in your distractibility. The time of day or type of work may play a big role in your ability to stay on task.
- Get enough sleep. Lack of sleep is far and away the biggest killer of focus.
- Consider mediation. Did you know that your mind wonders about 50% of the time?  Meditation is the practice of noticing the mind wandering and bring in back to the present moment.
What you can expect.
In life and in business, you don’t find time. You make it. The more time you make for the important, the more opportunity you will give your future self.
I hope these 3 strategies help you. If you want more productive goodness, head on over to zacharysexton.com. I post a weekly podcast and have in-depth articles on how you and your team can maximize your limited time energy and attention.
 The Pomodoro Technique was invited in the 1990’s by Italian author and entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo. He named the system “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work on as a university student.
 Killingsworth, Matthew A., and Daniel T. Gilbert. “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Science 330.6006 (2010): 932-932