We officially hit Summer this Friday, along with the beginning of December — which for many of us can be a particularly stressful month given school holidays, office shutdowns, Christmas parties and the push to start the New Year on a clean slate.
So if your to-do-list is feeling particularly full right now, you might enjoy this productivity tip shared by our resident mentor, Meredith. She first wrote about it in 2017, leading to plenty of feedback from some readers regarding how it’s helped them get started on some particularly frustrating tasks.
So can it help you? We’re sharing Meredith’s words again below.
Once upon a time, I would hide or cover up the clocks around me while I worked.
I hated looking at them, as I counted down the minutes and hours, longing for coffee-break time, or lunchtime or home-time.
Yes, I would sit and wait and wish away an entire day. That’s a pretty depressing approach to life when you think about it.
That was back when I worked in jobs I hated. Those jobs were a necessary means to earning an income. I don’t regret them. I still learnt valuable lessons during those days, and sadly we can’t all love our work.
But these days, my time challenges are completely different.
I can’t get enough time. Working full time with a few small kids and a household to manage, my time is precious and precarious and never something I would wish away.
But the time we have is also more vulnerable than ever before, given the number of distractions we have beeping and binging at us all day long: social media, emails, phone calls, people with questions or answers.
So that’s why I set about trying to find new methods for better managing my time and getting more done. While productivity was my number one objective in this search, so too was the desire to find more time for myself – for exercising, thinking, or simply just reading a book.
I’ve long been an advocate of the Pomodoro technique, which involves managing your work day through a series of 25 minute sprints in order to get more done. In short, you set your timer for 25 minutes, ignore all distractions while you focus entirely on finishing one single task, then take a three or four minute break and repeat. After four or five sprints, take a longer break.
Try it, you’ll be amazed by how much you get done within a few hours.
But more recently, I decided to put the Pomodoro technique on steroids to see what would happen.
That’s how I came up with the ‘Beat The Clock’ technique’.
It involves three basic steps, all using a timer. The timer built into your phone will be sufficient.
Step one: The Ambition Sprint
Set your timer for ten minutes to complete your ‘Ambition Sprint’.
This is where you establish exactly what you want to achieve during this one day or single sitting of work. A to-list doesn’t usually take ten minutes, but push yourself to use every minute that you’ve allocated to consider how you can be as effective as possible in the coming hours. During this time, you may find ways to remove to-do items (by outsourcing or delegating them), and it will also force you to really think through how much time you’re willing to allocate to each of the tasks you’re aiming to complete.
Here’s how to outline your to-do list during The Ambition Sprint.
Write down the tasks you’re looking to complete and allocate a number of minutes to each. If the task takes less than five minutes, group it with a number of other shorter tasks and call this your ‘Red Zone’.
Your to-do list will now feature items with minutes next to them. These will become your sprints. So that might be 20 minutes on emails. 35 minutes on finishing a blog post. 15 minutes on getting a great response to a client. 45 minutes on completing a sales report.
Anything over an hour, break down into 25 minute components, as you would with the Pomodoro technique.
Step two: Ready, Set, Go! Complete your sprints
With your set of sprints written down, set your timer for the first one and get started.
The aim is to get the task done within the time you’ve allocated. It’s obviously no big deal if you go over, and you do want to ensure you’ve allocated enough time for checking over your own work, but aim to race against yourself on getting as much done as possible. You’ll get better with practice – you’ll learn to better allocate time to particular tasks, and you’ll also learn to better manage your focus.
When you’ve completed one sprint, regardless of how long or short it is, take a few minutes break while you re-set your timer, shift your mindset, and move on to the next one.
Step three: Tackle the ‘Red Zone’ (also known as the ‘Danger Zone’)
Once you’ve completed all your allocated sprints, it’s time to tackle your “Red Zone” – all those shorter tasks that didn’t get allocated a sprint of their own.
Now the Red Zone is a dangerous period. With so many short items to get done – possibly taking you in and out of your inbox, on to social media, on to the phone etc – it can be easy to get distracted and off track. Treat your Red Zone as precious time territory, push yourself to be 100% on, and to only complete the tasks you’ve allocated to the zone. If other tasks come up, then write them down and either allocate them their own timed sprint, or move them into a second ‘Red Zone’.
‘Red Zone’ tasks can often end up being some of your most essential and necessary items — easy wins that will avoid follow-up emails from a client or nagging from your boss. So if you find yourself off track and out of time trying to complete your standard sprints, then consider deleting one – saving it for tomorrow – and completing your Red Zone instead.
WARNING: Don’t use your additional time to find more work for yourself
With this method, you’re going to get more done. And you may soon find you’ve freed up more hours in your work day. If you still need to sit at your desk until a certain point on the clock despite finishing your work, and because your workplace is stuck in the 1980s, then find a way to entertain yourself.
But if you can get away from your desk and out of your office, then do it. You’ve earned this time. Don’t use these new hours by finding or creating more work for yourself.
For those curious about the Pomodoro technique, check out this video. But if you want to achieve even more in your precious time, than try my variation above.