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How to Stay Productive While Staying Sane

How to Stay Productive While Staying Sane

Published: 
January 7, 2020
 by 
Matt Johnson
, Last updated: 
March 18, 2021

Are you looking for techniques on how to stay productive without burning out? Here are three things that work really well for me.

A while back, I found myself looking at a blank Google doc, knowing I had to get a fairly simple task done. But I just couldn't. I'd start writing, then navigate over to reddit, then Twitter, then maybe start planning an upcoming trip. I would then catch myself and try and get back to work, but I couldn't breakthrough. I felt burnt out and also guilty. How come I couldn't just focus for 8 hours?

Then I read about the Pomodoro technique and decided to give it a go. It fundamentally changed my productivity, helping me avoid distractions and keep my sanity. It helped me realize no one can work for 8 hours straight. Our brain needs these breaks. If we can somehow manage when and where we take these breaks better, we can use the rest of the time to be productive and avoid feeling guilty about taking them.

This sparked a fundamental shift in how I manage my day, and it's made me much happier and more productive.

Use a timer

Staying productive using a timer
Pomodoro is named due after the Italian creator's timer, which resembled a tomato

If you are unaware, the Pomodoro technique involves breaking work into 25-minute sessions using a timer. In the 25 minute sessions, you focus on one single task. Then you take a five-minute break when your timer goes off.

Over time, I found that both the time spent working and the breaks were too short. I'd see myself pushing past the 25 minutes because I was in the zone. When the breaks ended, I was not being ready to come back to work.

Serendipitously, I happened to be reading an article on toddlers, which suggested that you should try giving them a 17-minute break when they have a tough time. Offhandedly, the article mentioned that 52 minutes is the amount of time people can focus on a single problem or task without burning out. I decided to give this a try - 52 minutes of work, followed by a 17-minute break - and it worked wonders. As it happens, this is a commonly held work technique called the 52/17 rule that I had been unaware of (I thought I was breaking new ground at the time).

This breakdown and timeboxing of work is the cornerstone of my routine and has fundamentally changed my work life and happiness. Generally, by the time my timer goes off, I am ready to take a break. I don't feel rushed. By the time my break is over, I'm ready to dive back in. I rarely navigate over to social media or other distractions during the 52 minutes, knowing I'll have time during an upcoming break if I want to waste some time.

One modification that works for me is that I don't need to focus on a singular task during my focused 52 minutes. However, having an easy-to-reference list of the next tasks helps is critical. My list eliminates using brain-space on trying to figure out what to do next.

Often when I talk about this technique with people, they suggest it wouldn't work for them for various reasons. They might have meetings throughout the day, or they need to be available to their team. Sure, this technique will be better suited to someone who does deep work throughout the day, in relative isolation, such as a software engineer or researcher. I've been in positions where distractions were constant as well, and what I've found is that you can still make it work by pausing your timer and jumping back in after the meeting or chat.

Set up your tasks

How to stay productive by planning your day
Plan your day and try to stick to it, without your inboxing dictating how you spend your time

My first task of the morning when I start work is to prioritize my list of tasks. I start my trusty timer and begin triaging all my outstanding tasks. The most important ones go to the top, and I'll mix in a few fun or easy ones at the top to help me build momentum.

My list helps me when I feel bogged down or overwhelmed. Instead of worrying or suffering analysis paralysis, I jump to the next thing on my list. I also accept that I can't get through all of it today. I know, at the very least, I have put the most critical stuff at the top.

The list also helps when new tasks come in - should they go to the top, or can they wait? This way, I avoid working on the most recent thing to come in through Slack or email.

Don't skip the breaks

How to stay productive by taking breaks
Be productive and get more exercise at the same time

The great thing about timeboxing is that it bakes in time to take breaks. I aim to use this time for a quick walk around the block to get my blood flowing. I might grab a coffee or talk to someone in the kitchen. If I sit back at my desk and have a few extra minutes, I might even head over to Twitter to satisfy my craving for hot takes. Knowing I have a break reduces my temptation to navigate away during my focused work. I feel okay about killing a few minutes doing something mindless and feel even better when I get in 1500 steps walking around the block.

Finally

It just happened... I'm in the middle of writing a blog post about how super productive I am. Then, I get distracted, check WhatsApp, start making dinner plans for the weekend, and it's only Tuesday morning. Like anything, this is a general outline, and I try to stick to it. But somedays things go haywire, and I can't kick the day off by organizing my tasks. Or, I get sidetracked halfway through my timer. What I find most useful is to not get down on myself for it. You can't be productive all the time. When you aren't, it's your brain's way of telling you today you need a bit more time to get focused and ready to work. Nothing wrong with that. What I like about using the framework is I can amend it as needed. If I didn't get a chance to organize my tasks in the morning, I do it later on in the day. If I get sidetracked during my timer, I restart it when I realize and am ready to get back to work.

Finally, this is what works for me and not a one-size-fits-all solution. However, I hope it sparks some ideas for you to find a routine that works for you to keep you productive. And, more importantly, happy with your workday so you can spend the rest of your time focusing on other things.

March 18, 2021
by
Matt Johnson

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