This mindful productivity tool has given me my time back

I am a bit of a productivity freak. I obsess over ways that I can optimize my work flow to get more done in less time. I know I’m not the only one.

My job as a scientist requires a lot of deep thinking, writing, and problem solving and is bound by high expectations from colleagues, and mostly myself. All these, coupled with my perfectionist tendencies, can lead to serious bouts of stress.

In the last five years, I have hit this wall of stress head on many times. I have been pummeled with insomnia and daytime jitters that leave me feeling anxious and unproductive.

If you’re like me, you may have found yourself battling the relaxation begets stress paradox. When I am stressed, I know I need to take more time to relax. But, when I spend too much time relaxing, I feel like I am taking away from my productive time. Not getting anything done when I am relaxing can, actually, make me feel more stressed.

Maybe it’s all in my head, but this paradox can be all consuming at times. I know I need to relax and rest, but I also have a million things to do. Taking a break seems counterproductive even when I know I need it.

After much self reflection and experimentation with rest and relaxation, here’s the reality I’ve learned:

Rest and relaxation are the most important component of a creative and productive life. Without them, your progress is strained and your potential isn’t reached.

So, now what? I know rest is important. I have decided the relaxation begets stress paradox is all in my head. I have proved to myself that taking time to relax leaves me with more energy and motivation to be productive at work. But even so, I find the draw to continue working when I should be resting to be strong at times. Why can’t I shake this?

I may claim that I have a hard time relaxing because I have a lot to do and feel like I need to be productive during that time. While I do have a lot to do, the truth is I feel guilty when I’m not working.

I feel guilty for not putting all my effort into “living my passion”.

I feel guilty for not working on my dissertation every single day when it is supposed to be all consuming.

I feel guilty for not making as much progress on my current project as I had promised because it is more mentally and emotionally taxing than I expected.

I feel guilty for not being able to do it all, all the time.

Ridiculous, I know. As I write it here, I can clearly see how silly this sounds. My life and my worth often feel like they are defined by my work, but they aren’t. I have a hard time separating myself from my work because it is such a fundamental component of my identity. My core identity is being a soil scientist. It’s my life. I should want to be doing it all the time.

I’ve been struggling with the guilt of relaxation for a while now. Telling myself I shouldn’t be guilty hasn’t been effective. Instead, I need to prove to myself that I am making progress and alleviate myself from unreasonable guilt over what I didn’t accomplish today.

My solution has been a complete shift in mindset, and it’s working.

At the same time my new perspective has helped me manage my time better, rest with purpose, and focus on single tasks. Taken together, this approach has made me more mindful about my time spent working and, as a result, I’ve been wildly productive in the last 6 months, while feeling like I have more free time than ever before.

So here’s the simple tool that changed my outlook:

The pomodoro technique; you may have heard of it before.

The pomodoro technique is a tried and true productivity booster. It is based on the idea that short bursts of highly focused time working on a single task with frequent breaks, is the best way to squeeze the most out of your working hours.

Typically, pomodoro timers are set for 25 minutes with a 5 minute break in between. After 4 or more 25 minute sessions, a longer break is taken.

I’ve been using the pomodoro technique to keep myself on task for years, and I’ve found it to be very useful.

But recently, I’ve started to approach the technique differently.

Instead of just using it as a way to structure my time and remind me to take breaks, I now use it to monitor my working time, set realistic goals, and reevaluate progress on a task.

For me, the pomodoro technique has become more than just a simple timer. It has become a promise to myself to work efficiently on only the most important tasks that help me maintain momentum and make every day feel productive, even when my other obligations leave only get a few hours of working time.

Here’s how:

(1) Monitoring my time with Be Focused

There are a bunch of pomodoro timer apps out there and many of them work well for staying on the 25 minute — 5 minute schedule. However, I was looking for more than just a timer. I wanted data. I needed a clear-cut way to to monitor how much time I spent on each task.

Be Focused is a simple app that provides just that. It allows you to define clear tasks, set the timing of work and break intervals, manage daily goals, and use these data to track your work patterns and progress over time.

My tasks are simple:

R / data analysis
shallow work (e.g. email, calendar, appointments, etc)

My goals are even simpler:

complete 6 intervals a day
write more than I do any other task
minimize amount of time spent on shallow work

I have made an important promise to myself while using this app. If I turn on the timer for “writing”, I will do nothing but write in that time. I have stuck to this and quickly feel guilty for opening my email during a writing block because I feel like I’m letting my timer (and thus myself) down.

“Must stay honest to the timer”, I say to myself. Because like any other data, bullshit in is bullshit out. If you aren’t sticking to the tasks you set for yourself in the timer, your interpretation of your work patterns won’t be accurate.

At the end of the day, week, and month, I reflect on how I spent my working hours. Sometimes, I don’t accomplish all of my goals, as simple as they may be. I make adjustments, or simply acknowledge that it was a difficult week and I did my best.

Regardless, I can look at the data and know that I put in a solid effort on writing my dissertation each week. At the end of the day, I can easily point to things that I spent my day doing. Even if I didn’t “finish” anything (the finish line is often far away in science), I know that I made progress and I have the data to back it up.

I no longer have to wonder “where the time went”. I used to feel like much of my time evaporated into email. Now, I don’t let it because I don’t want my daily email time to exceed my daily writing time. And you know what happened when I spent less time on email? More writing, more manuscripts, better ideas.

(2) Setting realistic goals

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport talks about the power of monitoring your working time each day. We tend to overestimate the amount of time we actually spend on important tasks and underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete said task. On top of that, many of us simply think we are working on something, when really, we are distracted by email, social media, our dog, eating, whatever it may be.

Focusing on one task at a time is mentally challenging, but if you can get yourself to focus on a single task, even for a short amount of time, you can get a whole lot more done than in an hour of diffuse, distracted work. The 25 minute intervals work well for this. I can always convince myself that I can work on a single task for 25 minutes — it never feels too long or daunting. Also, knowing that I have a break coming up helps me resist distraction during the working interval.

By tracking our working hours, we also end up with a treasure trove of personal data that we can use to set realistic goals. The Be Focused app has a default daily goal of 10 intervals. For a long time, I would aim for 10 intervals a day (5 hours of focused work) and most days, I wouldn’t get there. Expecting yourself to write for 5 hours a day is unrealistic, at least it is for me. Especially when my day is filled with meetings, appointment and lab work — tasks that all count as working but don’t necessarily show up on my timer.

At the end of each “unsucessful” day where I would only get to 6 or 8 intervals, I would feel unproductive. Day after day, I’d feel as if I’d failed in achieving the goals I had set for myself. This negative mindset made me feel ineffective in my time management. I found myself struggling with momentum, especially in writing.

A few weeks ago, I made a simple change that completely shifted my mindset. I changed the daily goal from 10 intervals to 6. Now, I am able to complete my 6 interval goal almost every day. The success I feel at the end of each day is energizing and I find it a lot easier to sit down at my desk each morning and continue with yesterday’s progress. Paradoxically, I get more done in a week when my goal is 3 hours of focused work each day, rather than 5. As a result, I feel more productive, happier, and ready to take on each day’s challenges.

(3) Reevaluating progress at each step

Stopping your work flow every 25 minutes may seem like it would distract you from your thoughts, and in some cases it does. If I find myself in a flow state at the 25 minute mark I either extend by just a few minutes to get to a point where I can take a break, or I skip the break interval and keep going onto the next work interval.

As they say, technology is a great servant, but a poor master. Ultimately, you get to decide when you take a break. If the flow feels good, go with it, but continue working mindfully.

However, I’ve found, more often than not, the break interval is an ideal time to reevaluate exactly what you are working on. Am I still on task? Did I accomplish what I set out to accomplish in the last 25 minutes?

When analyzing data and working in R, I often find myself deep in a rabbit hole of problem solving. Sometimes, I am trying to code an analysis and quickly find myself in the comment sections of stack exchange trying to find an answer to some nuanced question. Spending 25 minutes on such a task is fine, and often necessary. But without monitoring my time, I can find myself spiraling into the depths of the internet for hours trying to solve a problem that may not even need solving.

When deep in work, it is often difficult to see the big picture. Forcing myself to stop every 25 minutes gives me the opportunity to reevaluate and ask myself if this is the most efficient use of my time. If it is, keep going. If not, it is okay to change course and get back on track to making progress towards your bigger goals.

Recently, I was trying to solve an R problem without much success. The timer went off and I took a moment to pause and think through what exactly I was doing. In a moment of clarity, I realized there was a better way to do this, and I solved the problem quickly in the next work interval. Without a brief pause to check in, reevaluate, and reassess, I could have spent all day making little progress towards my high priority goals.

Breaks can help keep you on task. Embrace them, and use them wisely.

Together, these approaches have relieved the guilt that I used to feel during relaxation times because I know how much work I’ve done each week. I also know that my work now is targeted and focused, rather than diffuse and distracted.

Having a concrete measure of my productivity each week has reminded me that I can, and do, get a lot done each week. It has reminded me that when I work on only the important things (writing), I can really only get 4 high quality hours in each day. Realizing this has given me the freedom to relax in the afternoons, spend more time outside, and carve more time for reading all while getting more done in a week than I ever have before.

The simple act of monitoring my time has fundamentally changed the way I see my work week. For me, within strict monitoring and scheduling lies creativity and freedom.