In the last year, I:
- Created and produced 30 full length video courses for Pluralsight
- Wrote 56 blog posts
- Produced 40 episodes of the Get Up and CODE podcast
- Created 50 YouTube videos
- Published a book
- Spoke at 4 events
- Billed over 100 hours of contract work
- Created a full product, that I am about ready to launch
- Ran 5 kilometers 3 times a week, every week
- Lifted weights 3 times a week, every week
I’m not saying this to brag–although I am certainly proud of these accomplishments. I am saying these things to prove that I know what I am talking about when it comes to productivity.
Being super productive
Right now–as I type–I have a timer ticking down. The clock shows approximately 14 minutes before I’ll take my next break. I live and die by this clock.
You may have guessed it, but the clock is a Pomodoro timer. For the last year, I’ve been religiously using the Pomodoro technique to not only stay on task, but to plan out my days and weeks.
If you aren’t familiar with the Pomodoro technique, the concept is remarkably simple. So simple, that I first dismissed it as ridiculous. But, thanks to my good friend Josh Earl’s success with it, I decided to give it another try.
You basically set a timer for 25 minutes. During that time you pick a single task to accomplish and work on that task, uninterrupted. After 25 minutes you take a break for 5 minutes and then begin again. After 4 cycles, you take a longer 15 minute break. (There are some variations on this, but that is the basic idea.)
Like I said, it seems pretty simple and unremarkable, but I can’t even begin to express how powerful this technique is for getting things done.
I’m lazy by nature. I have to constantly fight against the side of me that wants to procrastinate and slough off my work. The Pomodoro technique helps keep me focused by forcing me to work uninterrupted for a period of time. It also gives me a measure to compare myself against and realistic targets to aspire to achieve.
My week beings on Monday. On Monday morning I wake up and go to the gym to lift weights. When I get back, I have a protein shake and get to work.
The first thing I do when I get to my desk on Monday is start my Pomodoro timer and open up my “Weekly Plan” Trello board. I use this board to organize my week. It has nine columns. Seven columns for the days of the week, one column for today, and one column for done.
My first task of the day is to create the rest of the tasks that I think I can get done that week. I start off with a checklist of things that I know I need to do every week:
- Blog post
- Podcast episode
- YouTube video
- Newsletter email
- Buffer social network posts
Then, I add cards for the current projects I am working on for that week.
Once I’ve got all the cards I can think of on the board, I start tagging each card with a color that represents how many Pomodoros I think that task will take. I have three categories:
- Green: 1 Pomodoro
- Yellow: 2 Pomodoros
- Orange: 3 Pomodoros
If something is going to take up more than three Pomodoros worth of time, it needs to be split into multiple tasks.
Next up is planning the week. For each day of the week–unless there is something that will take up most of my time–I figure I can get about 10 Pomodoros done. This may not seem like a lot, but believe me, it is. I drag cards into the columns until I have filled up each weekday with 10 Pomodoros worth of cards. For weekends, I usually just drag in about three or four.
My estimates are always on the high side, but they are pretty accurate, because it is fairly easy to estimate based on half hour intervals–especially when many of your tasks are repeated each week. (For example, a blog post is estimated at three Pomodoros.)
I have a similar ritual every single day. The first thing I do, after exercising each day, is to open up my Trello board again and this time plan the day.
New things come up and other things need to get shifted around, so planning for the week alone is not sufficient. Often, I’ll have different tasks that I had vaguely identified at the beginning of the week which I’ll give more clarity to later on.
I first drag things over from the appropriate day into my “Today” column until that column is filled with about 10 Pomodoros worth of work. After that, I’ll take a look at the today columns and think about anything I might have missed that needs to get done that day. Finally, I’ll sort the “Today” column based on priority–I want to make sure I am always working on the most important things first.
Once I’ve got the day sorted out, I go back to the rest of the days in the week and move around cards until everything is balanced again. If I find that I’ve got some empty slots, I’ll create new cards and start filling those slots until I am back at full capacity again.
Once all the prep-work is done, it’s time to actually start working on tasks. I grab the first task off the list, start a timer and get to work. At about 5:00, I stop for the day and add up my Pomodoros. If I didn’t hit at least 10, I count on working a little bit that evening. If I did hit 10, it’s optional.
Why this works
So, you may be wondering why this works–why it is worth even writing about such a simple workflow. Well, even though this workflow seems really simple, there are a few key things going on here that aren’t immediately obvious.
First of all, I am using quotas to make sure that I accomplish the volume of work that I want to produce each week. I have quotas for how many blog posts, podcasts, YouTube videos, and other content that I need to produce each week. The things that are being measured by a quota get dropped onto my board first.
I’m also using a daily and weekly quota when it comes to Pomodoros. Pomodoros are little measurable units of work for me. I know that I should be able to get 10 done each day and that I should be able to get roughly 50 done in a week without killing myself. I know from experience that hitting 60-70 will cause a measurable dip in performance the next week and that if I am doing less than 50, I am slacking off.
Because I have those quotas in place, I know what is expected of me each and every week. I have the power to hold myself accountable to a real measurable standard. I can’t emphasize enough how important this point is. If you don’t have a way to hold yourself accountable to a standard that you want to achieve, human nature will cause you to fall way below the bar.
Another major component that makes this technique successful is the awareness of my capacity within a given amount of time. It is really easy to over or under estimate what you can get done in week, because you don’t normally have a ruler that you can use to measure task duration versus your actual capacity. When I start the week, I know that my capacity is about 50–I’ve got that much gas in my car. I get to choose where I want to drive that car that week–I can only go so far. I have to make a realistic prediction of what I can actually get done. From that prediction I have to prioritize my tasks so that the most important things get done first.
Without this understanding of my capacity, it is easy to fall into the trap of overestimating my ability to get work done and underestimating the take it will take to get the work done. With this system, I have a real metric to compare to. I know that I am not going to get 80 Pomodoros done in a week. I know that in an 8 hour day, I will not get 8 hours of work done. I am eliminating my biases by replacing them with real statistics.
Finally, the dedicated focus of the Pomodoro technique makes me more efficient at the work I am doing. When I am solely focused on one task at a time–without checking Facebook or Twitter–I work much more efficiently. Several studies have shown that multitasking causes a drop in efficiency. When I stay focused on a single task, I get much more done. I’ve written about this before, when I talked about quitting your job, but you can easily lose hours of time in a day to small distractions. Over the period of a year’s worth of time, all those wasted minutes can end up equaling weeks of lost productivity.
One huge benefit of this technique is that I am able to do most of this work without stress or guilt. Normally, when I am working, I always feel guilty about how much time I am wasting during the day. I also feel stressed about not getting as much done as I should be getting done. This situation of stress and guilt actually ends up being the perfect breeding ground for procrastination and burnout.
When I am using the Pomodoro technique, I don’t feel the guilt of wasting time, because I know that as long as I get done 10 Pomodoros in a day I have reached my productivity goal for the day. If I get more done, great.
I also don’t feel stressed about getting as much done as I should have, because how much I get done is no longer what is being measured–I’ve taken the burden off of my shoulders. My focus has shifted from results to process. I can’t control the results. Work takes as long as work takes. But, I can control the process. If I put in my 10 Pomodoros for the day and I have sufficiently prioritized my work, then I have done the best that I can do–no need for guilt, shame or stress.
Time for a break
If you are interested in getting started with the Pomodoro technique, I’d recommend checking out Pomodoro Technique Illustrated. And if you have any questions about my process and how it works, feel free to ask and I am happy to answer them in the comments below.
Also, if you liked this post and are interested in more of what I have to say about being productive and boosting your career, sign up for my weekly newsletter here. You also might want to check out the course I am putting together called “How To Market Yourself as a Software Developer.”
This is the 3rd post in a three part series about quitting your job and working for yourself. Check out the first post about why you should want to quit your job, and the second post about the fantasies and realities of quitting your job.
I want to start off by saying that I, myself, have had several false starts and I’ve witnessed countless others who think that they are going to quit their job and live their dream only to wash up, shipwrecked on the shores of reality.
I’ve already talked about the harsh realities of working for yourself. If that part didn’t scare you at least a little bit, or you think that what I said doesn’t apply to you, there isn’t much point reading any further, because this advice won’t help you either.
But, if what I said earlier made you sweat just a little bit; made you just a little bit more unsure of your brilliant plan, then you’ll probably find the advice I offer here immensely useful (I wish I would have had this, advice when I started out.)
Transition into working for yourself
Now, for some people this ends up working out. These are the people you hear of that quit their job to follow their dream and then they created some startup company that got purchased for millions of dollars. Some people also win the lottery and others, unfortunately, get hit by lightning.
But, what you don’t hear about is all the people who quit their jobs to follow their dreams and end up wasting a year or two of their life eating up all the savings they have accumulated from the past 10 years while they suffer from a bout of writer’s block that never ends up being cured.
The truth is, working for the man is quite a bit like slavery or prison. You can’t just be set free and expect that you’ll adapt comfortably to your new life and start fulfilling your dreams. It is a bit like when you get off that 6 week diet you were on and say “ok, I’m just going to pig out a little as a reward, then I’ll get back to ‘normal eating.’” What ends up happening is this instant transformation from the shackles of a restrictive diet to “free eater” doesn’t land us in the comfortable norm of “normal healthy eater” like we’d expect. Nope, instead we take a 1 way ticket to pig-out land until we eventually come crawling back to the comfortable diet prison that we hated, yet required.
The same happens to software developers, and other professionals who go from working for the man to being the man– they can’t handle it! They go nuts, and waste lots of time being unproductive without the structure of a workplace and someone cracking the whip on their back. Eventually, they crawl back to their cruel masters and begrudgingly reenter the rat race.
The problem is that working for yourself requires self-discipline. More than you’ve got right now. Yes, I know that your parents and friends have commented on how self-disciplined you are because you have excelled at your job by actually showing up to work each day and doing your job, but there is a huge difference between doing what you are supposed to do because you are supposed to do it and doing what you are supposed to do, because there are immediate and dire consequences if you don’t.
Stop shaking your head for a moment and listen to me. I know you think you are better than that, but you aren’t. Take a deep breath, dig deep and realize what I am saying is true. If you really want to succeed on your own, you are going to have to learn this skill as well; seeing an unfiltered view of reality.
In order to be ready to be successful on your own, without a boss, without a formalized structure and system of consequences, you are going to have to exorcise a few demons.
The best place to perform this religious rite is at your current workplace, in your current job. You will use this as a transition period and training ground to prove yourself, before you cut loose your chains.
The first demon: productivity
In my last post, I talked about the fantasy and reality of working for yourself and really what it focused on was the most critical component: productivity.
These days, productivity is like a drug; lots of people are peddling productivity hacks and productivity tools as if productivity means more than just working hard on what you are supposed to.
The trick is that it is much easier said than done. As I highlighted in the last post, most of us are spending very little time actually working productively at work. And, you will probably be in for quite a shock when you lose your shackles and find out that you aren’t getting nearly as much done as you thought you were– oh, and now you aren’t getting paid for goofing off.
So, my advice is: before you quit your job, you need to actually be able to put in a 6 hour day of hard work. No better place to practice doing that than in a paid learning environment.
How do we get there?
It isn’t going to be easy. But, nothing ever is, right?
I use a productivity technique called the Pomodoro technique to both measure and help me achieve a high level of productivity. The idea behind this technique is pretty simple. So simple that I actually overlooked it the first time I had been introduced to it and only later came back to it when a friend of mine, Josh Earl, mentioned how much success he was having using it.
The idea is that you set a timer for 25 minutes. During this time, you work on one focused task without interruption. After you are done, you take a 5 minute break and repeat. Nothing magic here. The magic is actually in the measurement. You see how many of these you can get done in a day and you track them. You can actually then plan out your work and estimate your work in terms of Pomodoros, which it turns outs, is extremely useful.
I’d recommend getting this book, Pomodoro Technique Illustrated (Pragmatic Life), to learn more about this deceptively simple seeming productivity tool.
I’d recommend starting to put this into practice at your regular job. Try to achieve 8 Pomodoros a day. This would represent close to 6 hours of productivity. And only count time that you are actually being productive. This means producing something of tangible value. You are going to end up not replying back to lots of emails and dismissing yourself from a bunch of meetings.
The second demon: gold-plating
On someone else’s dime it is pretty easy to forgo pragmatism. But, something I had to learn really quickly when I struck out on my own is that good enough really is good enough.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying do shoddy work. And you already know that I’m not advocating not working so hard. What I am saying is, if you want to be super productive, you can’t make every piece of work you do a masterpiece. You have to find the right balance of time and effort.
Take this blog post, for example. I’m putting quite a bit of work into this post and the series of blog posts it belongs to, but I could actually spend weeks or months writing and rewriting parts of this post. If I did this, I might end up with a true work of art at the end of the process, but I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to ship it when it gets to the 80-90% effectiveness mark and not worry about squeezing out that extra 10% of quality for another 300% cost of time and effort.
Don’t take this as an excuse to do s!*# work and ship a bunch of crap. That is easy, anyone can do that. Instead focus on being pragmatic. Get to the point where the work is good enough and let it go, then move onto the next thing. This is much harder than you might think– it is a delicate balance.
The third demon: consistency
Success is usually not the result of a glorious fight with a single dragon which you vanquish in a fierce battle, instead the road to success looks much more like running around Midgaard naked, killing rats over and over again.
Working hard and being pragmatic is completely worthless if you can’t do these things consistently week after week month after month. It is like starving yourself for a day and thinking you are going to lose weight, or running a marathon and sitting on the couch for the rest of the year.
So, how do you learn consistency? Simple, you cut out all the excuses. Make being consistent a matter of life and death. Don’t act like failure is an option. Pretend like just missing a single day or skipping a beat is the end of the world.
Eventually, you’ll be able to use your judgment to decide what you should do and when to make exceptions, but for now make rules for yourself. Rules that you will not break under any circumstances. Learning to live by rules like this will be a huge benefit to you. Everyone is weak-willed, no one can resist temptation; if you want to be successful, avoid judgment calls and decision making. Make your decisions ahead of time and codify them as rules that you follow every day.
I’ll give you an example, before I wrap up this post, because it is already getting quite long. Right now I am learning Spanish. I am using an app on my iPad called Doulingo to do this. I have a rule that I do this app at least 30 minutes a day, every day– no excuses. What do you think will happen if I obey this rule every single day for a year? I think I am going to be pretty good at Spanish. Unless I stick my finger in an electrical socket and fry my brains, it will be pretty hard for me not to succeed, so long as I follow my rule.
The hard part
If I haven’t lost you yet, you must really be serious. Good. You are going to need to be serious to stomach what I am going to tell you next.
At this point, if you start right now, you are probably still at least two years out from the point where you are going to be able to quit your job and not end up coming crawling back to the rat race battered and beaten.
I see far too many people come up with the ill-conceived plan of saving up perhaps 6 months to a year’s worth of living expenses and then quitting their job to pursue their dreams of starting their own business. (I’ve entertained this idea myself several times in my career.)
But, let me tell you why this is a very bad idea and then give you a much better one– a plan that will actually work and isn’t likely to leave you homeless or broke.
The reason why saving up a bunch of money and quitting is a bad idea is, because if you do this, you will be constantly racing against time. Instead of time working for you, you will have time working against you. You’ll make bad choices, you’ll feel panicked, you will not be operating under ideal conditions and you won’t be giving yourself room to fail– which you will inevitably do.
Here is a better plan. Instead, of thinking in terms of saving up X amount of dollars, think in terms of earning X amount of monthly income from a side business. Whatever business you plan on creating once you quit your job, start doing it now. Start building you future business while you are still working for the man. If you can’t get something going on the side without the stress and pressure of potential financial ruin, you aren’t going to succeed when you go it alone and add all the extra pressure and stress that comes with being self-employed and not getting a pay check.
Sure, it will take you longer. Sure, it is going to be hard to essentially work two jobs, but the question is, how bad do you want it? If you don’t want it that bad, fine, I’m not going to try and convince you otherwise– to each his own. But, if you really want it, and you are willing to both work and wait for it, then do it the smart way; build your business on the side while you are still getting a regular paycheck.
Well, I hope this series was helpful to you. I’m not an expert by any means on the subject, but I can speak from personal experience, and I’ve talked with enough other people who have made the transition to know that what I am telling you here is not my advice alone.
When I first quit my job, I was shocked at how different life was from how I had imagined it would be. I had to make some big adjustments really fast, because I wasn’t prepared. Hopefully, after this advice, you won’t find yourself in the same situation, or at least you’ll have a rough idea of what to expect and how to deal with it.
I like to procrastinate.
I don’t really enjoy procrastinating, but it is one of my weaknesses. I’ll delay doing something that I know is important until the last moment that it needs to be done.
I’ve learned to overcome this weakness of mine by trying to be more productive to compensate for it.
Blah, blah, blah, productivity system… procrastination… blah blah blah!
I know you’ve heard it all before, but here is the strange part—I almost always get things done well before the deadline.
So what is my problem then?
My problem is that when I sit down to actually do the work, I end up doing a million other little things.
Even though I am overcoming the results of my procrastination by self-imposing much earlier deadlines, I am still fighting against the core of my procrastinating nature.
It is like I have put the angry demon of procrastination in a cage where he can’t harm me, but because I have to constantly feed him and deal with his demands, he’s still slowing me down.
I call it micro-procrastination
Perhaps you suffer from it to.
The symptoms are as follows:
- Sit down to do work and first check Facebook, Twitter, emails and every other single site that could have something interesting and updated for you.
- Justify in your head that you need a 10 minute or so transition period to check all this stuff before you sit down to actually do the work you intend.
- Pick something smaller that is not important and work on that instead. (Clean out email inbox, etc.)
Just about every week, my goal for the week is to record 2 modules for whatever my next Pluralsight course is.
I really never miss this goal, but it would often take me a while to get started each night. I would sit down to do the work, but not actually get to working until about 30 minutes to an hour after when I had first sat down at the computer.
Once I got started, I usually found that I didn’t have any problem continuing with the work until it was finished.
I tended to do the same thing with my blog posts as well. I know now I need to get a blog post down each week, but it would always take me a while to get started writing the post itself.
Even when I went to write code or solve a programming problem, I noticed that I would try to do many other work related activities like answering emails or further investigating a problem, rather than just working solely focused on the task at hand.
I started to notice a common occurrence between all of these situations in my life. If I got about 15 minutes into actually doing my Pluralsight course, writing my blog posts, or coding up a feature, I’d almost always end up staying focused on the task.
I found that I would often not want to quit something once I got started. I’d even miss lunch or be late for lunch or bed because of this.
The 15 minute rule is born
Based on this observation, I decided to try a little experiment. The next time I was going to work on something, instead of doing my usual ritual of checking email, checking twitter etc, I did the following steps:
- Pick out the single task I am sitting at the computer getting prepared to work on. (It helps to define this very clearly.)
- Turn of all distractions for 15 minutes or just decide not to let them bother me for that time period.
- Work without pause, without break and without excuse for 15 minutes straight.
- At the end of 15 minutes, if I want to quit, then I can quit or multi-task.
What I found is that after 15 minutes of working steadfast and diligently on a single task, I didn’t want to quit.
I found that something that I had no motivation or desire to actually be working on 15 minutes before was now all I could think about.
I found that just like it takes the first few chapters to get into a book and actually feel compelled to continue reading it, it takes about 15 minutes for me to get drawn into my work and want to see it finished.
I’ve been applying this “15 minute rule” pretty regularly now, and I have been having some pretty fantastic results.
I’ve also slipped up on occasion and reverted back to my old ways and have had quite the opposite of results.
I’ve tried other systems
Now I’ve definitely tried many other systems that attempt to solve the problem of procrastination or productivity or both, but none of them seemed to work all that well for me.
I know these other systems work, and I know plenty of people are successful with them and that my system isn’t really much of a system at all—it’s just what I do.
The problem I have found with other systems though, is that they are either:
- Too complicated to apply regularly unless you are 100% devoted. (Big barrier to entry.)
- Only address productivity, and priority, but not actually doing work.
- Assume you can sit down and actually do what you have set out to do. (Which remember, was the hardest part for me.)
I am a big fan of Getting Things Done and I highly recommend it. At the very least read it, because it just has some great overall advice, but…
I don’t apply it anymore, because I don’t need to organize what I need to get done. My life is currently so packed and scheduled every day that I already know exactly what I need to be doing just about every hour of my day.
I don’t even watch TV or movies… Ever. No really, I mean never ever.
So, with my schedule being so packed, my biggest problem isn’t figuring out what I should be doing—I’ve got that covered. Instead, my biggest problem is doing it efficiently.
The closest technique to what I am doing is probably the Pomodaro technique. I also think this is a great technique and is likely to work for many people.
I’ve just found that my mind tends to defeat the technique by telling me that I don’t have enough time to get a whole Pomodoro done right now, so I should just do part of one.
You could call what I am doing a modified Pomodoro technique, whereby I set the duration to 15 minutes and actually try to avoid taking breaks for as long a possible.
Why the 15 minute rule works
I suspect the main reason why this technique works is because of momentum.
When we start to get momentum going for us (and 15 minutes seems to be just about enough time to do so) it is much harder to change course.
Focus is also a big part of the 15 minute rule. The world today is a fast paced multi-tasking parallel processing rat race in which we are conditioned to switch our attention between multiple things all at once.
If you are reading this post right now, you probably have even switched back and forth between multiple browser tabs or chat windows or something else and aren’t focusing 100% on reading. I don’t have 15 minutes to grab your full attention and draw you in (unless you are a very slow reader, in which case I congratulate you for making this far.)
The point is, we have to purposely focus on a single thing in order to turn off that natural tendency to try to be omnipresent.
Doing the 15 minute rule forces me to focus, and that focus tends to shut off everything else in my mind with has the potential to distract me.
The 15 minute rule also prevents me from overthinking about a problem and standing back to admire the problem instead of working on it.
It frees me from obligation. If I know I have to work for 15 minutes, I am not afraid of not making much progress. My only obligation is to be working on the task at hand, without interruption and with complete focus for 15 minutes.
I also find that after 15 minutes, I’ve developed a commitment to the work. Because of the time I’ve already invested in the task, I feel more compelled to complete it.
Applying the rule
Hopefully you’ll find this technique useful and if not perhaps you have a better suggestion or technique. If you do I’d very much like to hear it, since I am always looking for some practical ways to be more efficient.
Before I let you be on your way, I’ll leave you with some parting advice that I’ve found useful when applying the 15 minute rule.
- Remove all distractions. That may mean closing browser windows or turn your phone off or just deciding to ignore everything else.
- Don’t forget to focus. Removing distractions is not enough, you must also focus intently on what you are doing. Be present in the moment.
- Work, don’t think. I know thinking is working, but the mind wanders too easily and merely thinking about a topic doesn’t seem to create that same mental traction. This might mean you start writing a first draft or first hack, but it is important to be actually “doing.”
- If you feel like you can’t start “doing,” make your “doing” brainstorming, but brainstorm by actually writing a list or making a mind map.
- If at the end of 15 minutes you are still not into the work and want to quit, go ahead. Come back a little later and try again.
- Take breaks when you need to, as long as the initial focused 15 minutes has passed, I’ve found that I can take a break and actually want to get back to my work.
- Put a sticky note on your monitor or somewhere you’ll notice that reminds you that when you sit down to work to start off with the 15 minute technique.