Productivity Fortnight+1: Time Management

The previous posts in this Productivity Fortnight series have discussed various techniques and models in productivity. Many of those also offered some time management principles.

Today’s post offers a few more.

Previously Posted: Time Management Principles and Techniques

Previous posts in this series have contained several time management systems. These are linked to below as a reference:

  • The 2 Minute Rule – a technique which comes out of Getting Things Done by David Allen, although discussed in an earlier post. This techniques runs on the basis of a quick win – if you find a new task which will only take less than 2 minutes, then do it.
  • The 1-Minute Trick – using one minute for some tasks, discussed in an earlier post, another quick win.
  • Pomodoro Technique – this technique, developed using an Italian tomato timer, batches a task into a 25 minute do, 5 minute break package. It is discussed in the post on the book, Four-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, but available via the copywritten website for the Pomodoro.

Let’s divide these up, and present some new ideas in the relevant categories:

1. Timer Based Systems and Ultradian Rhythms

skd187172sdcThe Pomodoro Technique is perhaps the best-known timer based task action system, but using a timer to fix tasks isn’t a very new idea:

  • Many writers I know participate in group writing sprints, typically of 15 minutes to half an hour where the objective is to sit down and write non-distracted in that time.
  • As a society, much of our education, and workforce are engineered and controlled by time sessions – even taking examinations run with clocks and alarms, or checking in timecards for salary payments.
  • We time egg cooking with a timer. We time lots of things.

It’s been found over and over again that using a timer focuses our minds, boosts our concentration, and gives us tools for productivity. Setting a limit – like the 25 minutes also defeats issues like our inclination to creep our task scope and fill in additional tasks  – via the Parkinson’s Law principle (discussed in this post) of taking up the time available to us.

The Pomodoro Technique utilises one certain time-break allocation of minutes (25 minutes work to 5 minute breaks). This is based on some natural biorhythms and the belief that 25 minutes is a workable time for dedicated focus and effort before the mind starts to wander (and the body to ache).

However, the technique isn’t without its critics, and some people don’t get on with having a ticking clock beside them, or have enough focussed discipline to get on with things without being timed.  Also, the sense that every 25 minutes you have to take a break from your focussed task doesn’t help with 1. some tasks and 2. some employment skills.

A long-haul bus driver, for instance, can’t just pull the bus over after 25 minutes to take a break on the motorway. Another example – me. I tried using a pomodoro app timer when writing to find that it really played havoc with my writing patterns, flow and actually made me feel really unhealthy.

The subject of an optimal work-time-to-break time ratio is always well-argued through most employers nowadays. Nobody has the real answer, probably because individuals all work differently. But many of our workforce are driven at different ratios than the 25-5 pattern Pomodoro suggests, out of necessity and legislature.

So, going back to me. 25 minutes breaks my flow. Badly. Pomodoro just doesn’t work. And I’m one of the lucky ones, in that I have access to a lot of free hours to spend my tasks in, and have sole control over how to use that time.

Some time ago, I analysed my own flows and timings and what “felt right” with a slightly random time audit. What I found, I later learnt was this –

90 Minutes – The Ultradian Rhythm

ultradian rhythmOver 50 years ago, pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered the “basic rest-activity cycle” (Published in a book “Sleep and Wakefulness.” Kleitman found that during these 90 minute periods at night we move progressively through five stages of sleep – from light to deep, and then back again.

Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day ie. while we’re awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. Psychophysiologist Peretz Lavie called these our “ultradian rhythm.”

In the 1993 study of young violinists, performance researcher Anders Ericsson found that the best ones all practiced the same way: in the morning, in three increments of no more than 90 minutes each, with a break between each one. Ericcson found the same pattern among other musicians, athletes, chess players and writers. These studies also formed the basis for the even more renowned 10,000 Hours of Practice Theory (via Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers book) which I never agreed with anyway, and has recently been debunked. Never-the-less, the 90 minute practice sessions appear to have much basis.

Our bodies sends us clear signals when we need a break – including hunger, drowsiness, fidgeting and loss of focus. Unfortunately most of us have designed lives where we are trained to override these signals. We do this often by overriding energy signals with caffeine, foods high in sugar and simple carbohydrates, and even with our body’s own stress hormones like adrenalin. So, in our anxiety over not completing a task, we actually feed more hormones into our bodies to keep us going, rather than taking the break, and letting our bodies relearn the rhythms.

Note that the common understanding of Ultradian Rhythms ranges in peak performance timings from 90 minutes to roughly 120 minutes. This provides a lot of scope and leeway. However, it also means that it’s up to you to learn to identify the signals your body is giving you – which may be different from one task to the next, and meet those signals head-on.

The other often-pushed side of this equation is that the break “should” be 20 minutes. For lunch, I prefer longer – say, an hour. But during a lunch break I will be doing different things also – multi-tasking if you will. I may casually read a book, for instance, but without the necessity of completing it as a task.

Others suggest this 20 minute break should actually be a power-nap – which is possibly unhelpful for those who work in offices, or on buses (although, this would explain the many times I’ve seen buses or taxis pulled over on a side street with a napping driver…).

As a writer at home, I get to decide all this. So, I found that I naturally started getting fidgety at that hour and a half zone, but sometimes after 2 hours. I only allow myself coffee in the morning, and when working on a really tough piece of focussed writing, I also utilise chocolate for an energy boost, but with limitations. Mostly, I get up and wonder out to the garden (it helps that I have pets who need to take a nature break also) or set lunch and food breaks and walks into this cycle. Very – very! – occasionally, when I know that I may fall into a very focussed and lengthy session, I’ll set a 90 minute timer to prompt me to get up and re-energise naturally. And sometimes my body insists that I do take a power nap too. I count myself a lucky person that I can sometimes allow and respond to any signals.

In the scheme of productivity, this 90 minute Ultradian Rhythm method is often referred to as “energy management” rather than time management. However, if you find using a timer works for you, consider putting it together with periods of 90 minutes and try it out.

2. Timeboxing and the Power Hour

The Power Hour

power-hourLike the 1 Minute Trick, the Power Hour comes from The Happiness Project author, Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen is working on a new book Before and After – a book on habit-formation.

In this post on the Power Hour, she explains that once a week, for one hour, she permits herself to work on niggly but non-urgent tasks which won’t readily be fit in as a recurrent task.

With this hour, I’d tackle only tasks where I had no deadline, no accountability, no pressure—because these were the tasks that weren’t getting addressed. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: Something that can be done at any time is often done at no time.

There has always been permutations to this type of concentrated blast-task action, of course, (and the term “power hour” has been used for everything from discounted beer hours, fitness training sessions, to speed dating events).

  • One readily available example is the one-two hours that many families put in towards domestic chores like vacuuming, or washing the car. These “chores” are allocated out, and completed en-masse, allowing the full family to then get on with other planned (and more important) activities for the week.
  • Another, from a business sense, is the suggestion that a power hour should be used every week for doing the highest payback tasks for the business – things like strategic planning, or revenue building tasks. (linking to the Pareto 80/20 principle).

In essence, the power hour is an example of a time boxing technique.

Time Boxing

timeboxingTime boxing is a pretty standard and highly valuable technique used in many productivity systems, and within much of the business and project management fields. We already live in a time boxed world where we must do plenty of activities within the confines of certain pre-ordained time periods.

Time boxing is simply applying a time limitation to a planned activity. Setting a time period – say, an hour or 90 minutes to a task or group of tasks provides many benefits –

  • Make a dent in big tasks. This provides motivation as you can see progress being made.
  • Get meaningful work done first – this is the 80/20 principle applied. Work on the most beneficial tasks first thing in the morning, via a timebox. For those following GTD, this would mean time-boxing capturing open loops or niggly tasks into the processing system – a task which seriously benefits by putting a very short but defined time limitation to the routine.
  • Get rid of niggly tasks – like the chore tasks Gretchen Rubin talks of. Note: small tasks are often called “mosquitoes” in the productivity world.
  • Increase efficiency – a lot of people find they get the most productive work done with a deadline after which there’s a reward. In the case of a holiday / vacation, many people are highly efficient on the day before going off on holiday. In the case of a deadline set by a publisher, the reward being aimed for is the publishing of a book.
  • Boost motivation – on the above note, obviously working on something which does provide a reward at completion provides more motivation, even on bigger tasks. But timeboxing certain tasks means that you can check off, and see progress, on smaller portions of those bigger goals.
  • Overcome procrastination – instead of worrying over completing it, simply set a time box, as a minimum period of work. Great for what looks like a tedious task.
  • Conquer perfectionism – it’s about the time spent on the task and not the quality of the outcome. A prime example of this in the writing world, is the marathon and sprint writing events held by writing groups, where the objective is to spend a certain defined time (a month, or 15-30 minutes) simply writing, never mind the quality.
  • Sharpen focus – you timebox only one task or an associated group. The context means you can focus solely on those.
  • Work on creative goals. There are certain tasks in the creative world in particular, which simply can’t – and shouldn’t be introduced as a SMART goal. Things like creative play or exploration of new techniques, brainstorming or idea generation can’t have any specific objective set to them – unless you go out to do something like “Create a list of 100 things for…” or “Create  5 new ideas” as a quota. These types of fuzzy tasks are great for enhancing creativity (and problem solving issues encountered in other work) but can’t be detailed or administered – other than setting them into a timebox. And that timebox can act as a reward and motivator to aim for after completing other tasks.
  • Plug time sucks – if you really do need to spend sanity/relaxing time on Facebook or Youtube or feeding your virtual pet sheep (just me?)then timebox that. Giving yourself a certain time of “doing jackall” and release your guilt over it.
  • Create work rhythms – time boxing is the perfect way of setting work cycles, applicable to working in Ultradian or even Pomodoro sessions, then having breaks, obviously.
Other Names for some of this:
  • Other words for timeboxes, particularly where they are used to limit a concentrated action: sprints or dashes.
  • Other names for using timeboxes to define (control) fuzzy creative goals or time suck activities: Unscheduling (via Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit) or Structured Procrastination (via John Perry).

3. Combinationals

There are so many permutations and individual combinations of many time-based productivity methods. As one example –


This is a Merlin Mann (of 43Folders) productivity hack, basically combining a timer system like pomodoro but within a power hour, via timeboxing. It’s perfect for procrastinators and people with long lists of very short tasks (called mosquitos).

Basically it uses a kitchen timer, and a system of short task sessions and even shorter breaks. So, you work on a task for ten minutes, then take a two minute break, then go back and work for another ten minutes, then another two minute break. You repeat this cycle another three times (making a total of five cycles) in a one hour period.

You can work on only one task, or a set of tasks.

For more: Procrastination hack: ‘(10+2)*5’

 4. Time Audits

time-auditA standard technique for time management is to analyse where we use our time currently, so as to find areas where we can redesign, or utilise for better productivity. To do this analysis, it’s recommended that a time audit is done, often for a week.

A time audit documents a working day, breaking out all the tasks, and breaks, and how much time is spent on each. Audits like this can be documented through spreadsheets or in tables or even desk planners. Permutations allow for also writing down moods or energy levels during the tasks, distractions, and also may include sleep times too (although typically only cover a working day).

The point is – once you have a week’s worth of time audit data, you analyse this to work out where the best time is for doing certain tasks – where you have the least distractions, most energy or focus.

Many writers do this type of audit also, and these should be repeated periodically. I once found that my natural peak writing time – the time when I find the most flow or mindfulness in writing, is unfortunately from 4:30pm – a time that is shared with several important domestic responsibilities.

To make the most of this understanding, I now attempt to negotiate some opportunities around this late afternoon timing where other people cover my chores, and leaving me with no distractions – a tiny writing retreat. However, in the analysis I also found that my second best writing times come in my mornings. And all of this also changes over the years.

In this To Done article, Bob Walsh offers one method for doing a time audit, based on choosing your top ten activities prior to the audit – and then seeing if you are actually mapping your time spent to these (or not). The article also has a link to a free excel spreadsheet to do this on.

Friday’s final post in this series also mentions several time audit apps and services to help find your Efficiency Ratio.

Efficiency Ratio

Want to scare yourself (or toot your own horn?). Then do some maths to find your efficiency ratio. Once you’ve done an honest time audit, the ratio is obtained simply by this –

Efficiency Ratio = (Time Doing “Real Work”) / (Time Spent “At Work”).

Reading Assignment 10: Further Reading

Productivity Fortnight 13


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