A few weeks ago, a friend of mine, a local, very successful entrepreneur, introduced me to one of the best videos I’ve seen in a very long time.
In this video, Success Magazine editor Darren Hardy, describes the habits of super successful people. People like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, and the like.
One of the things they all have in common? Extreme focus.
These people get more done in an hour than most people do in days or weeks.
Focused Attention and Energy
How much work did you get done today? Like, real work? Not how much time did you spend at work? Or around work, you know, getting distracted by social media, conversations, and “interesting” discussions that didn’t actually advance your business goals?
If you’re like me, probably not a lot.
If you’re like me, you work hard. And you work a lot. Even long hours. But, do you really get that much done?
As a young company, startups have to be focused. That focus is what allows them to differentiate, to move quickly, to compete in competitive spaces.
And while a great strategic planning process can help keep the company’s efforts focused, at the end of the day, it’s up to us founders to make sure that we’re managing time and energy appropriately.
It’s up to us to make sure we’re doing the most important things to move the needle forward every day.
Our Attention Spans Suck
But, for many of us, our attention spans suck.
We get sucked into conversations, social media, debates, and ideation. We spend time more time dreaming than working.
And, when we start working, we get distracted and lose focus.
It’s a vicious cycle.
And one that can sink a startup (or any other productive effort) before it even starts.
Focus is Hard
Focus is hard.
In that same video, Darren Hardy discusses the importance of blocking off the first 90 minutes of each day to do the most important, least desirable work that must be done that day.
For me, that might be writing a blog post.
Or reviewing sales activities. Or following up on existing projects.
You get the idea.
The problem is that, when you’re not used to 90 minutes of consistent focus, it’s really easy to get distracted, then lose heart, and give up.
And learning to focus for 90 straight minutes sounds hard.
Fortunately, there’s an easier way to accomplish the same goal – radical focus and productivity – with less effort.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was developed years ago by a guy named Francisco Cirillo in an effort to get better at managing his time and attention.
Taking the concept of “sprint planning” from software development, he devised a process that would help him to break his day into timeboxed “sprints” of focused energy, followed by brief breaks. These breaks would give him time to recover, so that each “sprint” could be maximally productive.
Here’s how it works:
- At the beginning of the day, identify the most important things you need to get done and give them an estimate of the number of “Pomodoros” it would take to accomplish the tasks
- Pick the most important task, set your pomodoro timer for 25 minutes, then work solid for that time period.
- After 25 minutes, take a 3-4 minute break and do something totally unrelated to the task you’re working on.
- After 4 Pomodoros (25 minute sessions), take a longer break (15-30 minutes).
- Start a new pomodoro/break cycle
- At the end of the day, chart your progress
At the beginning of the week, our team discusses the most important initiatives for that week. Then, my partner and I plan the most important things we need to do that week in order to advance those initiatives.
For example, last week, we wanted to launch a new sales process based on Aaron Ross’ Predictable Revenue. To do that, I needed to figure out the tools, processes, and materials needed to implement that process. That became my focus for the week.
So, each day, I would look at the list of tasks on my plate and try to figure out how I was going to allocate my time and energy. I needed to research vendors, cancel services, and sketch processes.
So, I estimated how much effort each of these things would take each morning using 1 Pomodoro (One 25 minute block of time) as a measuring stick. Researching vendors might be 1 Pomodoro. Installing software and setting setting up integrations might be 4.
You get the idea.
What this plan did was force me to be intentional about how I was going to approach my day. Already, I could see that I was going to have to say “no” to some other things, if I wanted to make progress on this initiative.
But that’s the point of focus – to say “no” to everything nonessential.
The Focus Session
Once the tasks were set, it was time to enter the “Focus” session. This is the time during which I work on the task (or tasks) assigned to that slot. It lasts 25 minutes and distractions are unwelcome.
How to Handle Distractions
I have found distractions take a few different forms:
- External distractions – phone calls, emails, text messages, conversations, etc.
- Internal distractions – random thoughts/ideas, surfing the ‘net, etc.
Handling external distractions is harder than handling internal distractions (though, I find internal distractions more rampant) because it requires being willing to a) ignore someone reaching out to you (e.g., via text) or b) telling them you’re busy and letting them know that you’ll get back to them at a more convenient time.
Both can be uncomfortable.
But, I’ve never met an entrepreneur who didn’t have to make tough, uncomfortable choices. We have to learn to deal with it.
Internal distractions are a bit easier.
For those, I just keep a notebook nearby and jot down the idea that I want to explore later. Or, if I find myself going down the rabbit hole of internet surfing, I just create a task in Asana (my task management system) to review that content later.
I almost never do.
Which is telling; so many of our internal distractions are worthless. They seem important at the time, but they really aren’t.
The Short Break
After 25 minutes, I usually take a 4 minute break. I top off my coffee, use the restroom, respond to that text message, stare out the window.
I recover. I catch my breath. I indulge my itinerant mind.
But I don’t work.
Until my timer goes off. And then it’s back to it.
The Long Break
After 4-5 Pomodoros, I take a longer break. Depending on when I start the day (usually by 8:30), it may be a lunch break. Or, it might just be a 15 minute break to shoot the s**t with someone in the office or down the hall.
But I don’t work.
And I repeat this process for the entire day.
The Retrospective & Charting Progress
At the end of the day, I do a quick retrospective (not to mention our daily scrum, the following morning), to think about how I spent my day. I use the Pomodoro One app to see how many Pomodoros I successfully completed.
And I’m always astounded at how few it is.
I typically average about six per day, which is really only two and a half hours of focused work each day.
Considering that I’m at work from (at least) 9-6, that is ridiculous. What the hell am I doing with my time?!
Learn and Iterate
As it turns out, I spend a lot of time on management, which isn’t work that gets counted in my Pomodoro figure. It’s not direct output for which I am responsible. Plus, I waste time like everyone else.
So, the goal becomes, each day, to do just a little bit more. To do 7 Pomodoros tomorrow, not 6.
And so on.
Still, it’s a shockingly clear reminder how easy it is to waste time and let it get away from you. How easy it is to spend time on nonvalue-added activities because they’re easier. Because they’re more fun.
But that’s not what superachievers do.
And, as an entrepreneur trying to figure out how to build a successful business, I want to be a superachiever.
The Pomodoro Technique is just one way to help increase focus and personal productivity. I find it helpful for me and I have learned a lot about my own habits and distractibility. It’s been eye-opening and depressing. But, at least I have data. So, now I can improve.
I hope you can, too.
Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique yourself? Or any other productivity hacks? How’d they work? Leave a note in the comments!