I recently read a short book called “Eat That Frog” by Brian Tracy, which was very helpful for giving advice on how to be more productive. Here are some of my favourites from the book, and from my own personal experience.
The Pomodoro Technique
Also known as the “Tomato Technique” because pomodoro means tomato in Italian. The creator of the technique had a timer that was shaped as a tomato, and thus the idea was born. It says to set a 25 minute timer dedicated to activity, and focusing on that to the exclusion of everything else. I see it as a game to race against the clock, attempting to beat the amount completed over the last session. The official method is to take a 5 min break after the first pomodoro, then a 10 minute, alternating back and forth as you continue. The added benefit of this is that it helps you flex your “focus” muscles, getting better at avoiding distractions by slicing it into smaller pieces. Speaking of…
The Salami Method
Named because if you want to eat a whole salami, you’re going to have to take it a slice at a time. You could try to eat the whole thing at once, but you’ll probably end up getting mighty sick and regretting your decision. It’s another name for baby stepping – breaking down your task into smaller tasks. You want to write a book? Don’t make the item on your to-do list “write the book” or you’ll probably be too daunted by the enormity of the task, and procrastinate it into oblivion.
Instead, break it down into a chunk you find manageable. Write a single paragraph or page, then see where you go from there. Many more books would be written if only the would-be author sat down and wrote even a single paragraph everyday. It’s not much, but any progress is infinitely better than none, no matter the timeline.
As stated in “Eat That Frog”, we have a compulsion for completion. Once we complete a small slice of something, it will drive us to want to do one more slice, and so on. We have a deep subconscious need to finish a job, and this will propel us forward on a wave of endorphins (brain morphine) that rewards us with every task we complete. The more important the task, the more good we feel.
A variant of this one is also known as the “swiss cheese” method, where you set a predetermined amount of time and “punch a hole” in the task, much like people imagine for swiss cheese. Again, the idea is that you will feel like continuing to work once you enter work mode and begin to make progress. Psychological momentum is a powerful thing!
Hot and Ready
I’ll admit I made this title up because I’m not aware of a formal name for this particular method. It involves leaving your workspace tidy, and ready to start work as soon as you sit down. I read research some time ago that said that a 10 second barrier to starting a task will make the chances of starting dramatically drop. Just having to find the tools and set up makes it seem like too much work. If you can afford the space, it’s better to leave it ready to go, programs open, cursor blinking where you’d like to pick up.
In addition, no matter how creative you are, research shows that people are more productive and motivated when their work environment is neat (Baumeister, 2011). Erring on the side of minimalism is better because it conveys to your subconscious that this is a space for work. You’re here to get shit done. Drive that point forward even more by getting out of your pyjamas, sitting with good posture, and in your best ergonomic mode.
The Nothing Alternative
So you sit down, everything’s set up, you’re sitting up straight, but you just don’t feel like starting. Maybe your mind keeps wandering, or you want to check your e-mail. Here’s where you introduce the “nothing alternative”, which is exactly as it sounds. You can use apps like Cold Turkey (Win/Mac/Android) or Self Control (Mac) to block sites that are distractions to you. Instead of pulling out your phone, you sit and stare at the empty space in front of you.
The point is that you don’t have to work, but you can’t do anything else. Like a detention room, you’ll usually come up with something you could be doing given the resources in front of you. It’s also been argued by Alain de Botton that boredom is a healthy and productive thing. This is time to be unplugged and let your mind run wild, whatever may come. More often than not, you’ll come up with something to do.
When there’s a hard deadline, the anxiety of falling behind can help motivate you. Despite that, it still helps to stack the deck. These methods are particularly useful when it’s something that has no external pressure or deadline – it’s all on you.
No one is going to push you to achieve your dreams, unless they happen to align with their own.
Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength – Roy Baumeister; John Tierney (2011)
Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time – Brian Tracy (2001)