The Trap of Motivation- In this post I’ll explore the negative effect of motivation on productivity and an effective “study-hack” I recently discovered, The Pomodoro Technique.
As a college blogger who writes about productivity and getting things done, one of the topics I get asked about pretty often is motivation. People have asked me to write posts on “getting motivated” and “finding motivation,” but I’ve always struggled with how to address the subject.
The problem I’ve seen is that it is incredibly easy to get very revved up for what I call “motivational bursts.” Usually some event, lecture, or movie sparks a feeling of “Hell yeah! I’m going to get up at 6am every day and just conquer the world!”
But how long do these motivational bursts really last? Even worse, how effective are they in the long run?
I’d go so far as to even argue that short motivational bursts are actually damaging for your overall productivity.
The reason? Motivational bursts come with gaudy goals that are beyond anything you’ve accomplished before. It’s great to think, “Yeah, I am going to do ALL these things and get ALL these rewards,” but when the realities of actually doing all those tasks arises, the motivation that was behind all those thoughts quickly disappears. In the end, all you really have from the motivational burst is a sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with goal-setting.
Using Systems to Solve Problems That People Create
So if motivation isn’t the be-all, end-all cure to productivity trouble, what is?
Having spent the last year on a personal quest for increased productivity, the definitive and conclusive answer I’ve discovered is system-based workflow. Motivation doesn’t churn out consistent quality work on a long-term basis, but a well thought out system can. Tim Ferriss, Ramit Sethi, and Cal Newport have all advocated the use of automations and systems-based productivity to wild success.
The challenge lies in finding the right system then, one that allows for constant production of high-quality work. I’ve experimented with several different systems of getting things done in the past and the problems that arise are universal: unfocused work, internal distraction from my own mind, and external distractions from other people.
Almost ironically, I’ve found my newest experiment in systems-based productivity on Reddit (although it was the subreddit /GetMotivated): The Pomodoro Technique.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro Technique: A Simple Work/Break System
Disheartened by his first few years of university life, which seemed to be an endless merry-go-round of papers, quizzes, and exams, Francesco Cirillo invented the Pomodoro Technique as an method of getting things done. Spending years honing the technique, the current product is a model of time-chunking simplicity.
The Pomodoro Technique in its essence: 25 minutes of hard, focused work called a “Pomodoro” followed by a 5 minute break to stand, stretch, recharge. Every 3-5 “Pomodoro’s” take a longer 20-30 minute break to re-charge and re-focus.
Now as simple as this technique sounds, there are a couple details that make all the difference in properly executing the technique to maximize effectiveness.
- Before beginning a Pomodoro make a “To-Do” list of things to be accomplished for the day. Try to be specific enough with tasks so that each task takes at least 1 Pomodoro, but no more than 5-7. For example, yesterday I had to finish a paper for my literature class, which encompassed brainstorming, research, outlining, writing, and editing. I broke up my to-do list into 1)brainstorm/research, 2)outline/write, and 3)edit.
- Prioritize your To-Do list. The things that absolutely need to be done today should be at the highest priority on your list with lower priority items following. Once you’ve prioritized which items absolutely need to get done, commit your Pomodoro’s to that task until it is completed. Strike-out tasks as they are accomplished and move-on.
- Minimize or Eliminate Distractions. Cirillo details two types of interruptions that come up on Pomodoro’s: Internal and External. Internal internal interruptions come from within ourselves: letting the mind wander, going to the bathroom, checking the internet for “just a minute.” On the other hand, external interruptions come from other people, such as a phone call, email notification, or someone interrupting you in a social setting. Eliminating internal interruptions comes with practice and honing true hard focus. External interruptions are a littler harder to completely eliminate but Cirillo advises to divert these outside influences as much as possible. A phone call? Let the person know you’re in the middle of something and can call them back in 15 minutes. Too many email notifications? Turn off your email service in between Pomodoro’s. Someone coming up to talk to you? Tell them you’re on a deadline (you are on the clock after all).
- Track and Analyze Performance. One of the cooler things to do with the Pomodoro technique is to track work progress and see your “stats” at the end of each day. I label a sheet with Pomodoro Times, the task I worked on for each Pomodoro, and quick notes for how that Pomodoro went. If I get internally distracted I make sure to make a note of it in my notes for that Pomodoro. At the end of the day I go over what I actually accomplished in the day, and how effective my work time actually was.
I’ve already been using The Pomodoro technique for the past week to mixed success. Generally, while I’m “in” a pomodoro my work is pretty focused, although the biggest problems I’ve faced have been some internal distractions taking up my mind for a minute or two. I found this to be a pretty big problem when I first started, but as I’ve been gaining some experience, the distractions have been drastically going down. I’ll be writing up my review of The Pomodoro technique in a follow up post soon to come!
Do you use The Pomodoro Technique or any other system for GTD (getting things done)? What do you like or dislike about these systems? As always, let me know in the comments!
Edit: (6/6/11) I’ve written an updated review of my three-week experiment of doing all my work via Pomodoro Techniques here
- Posted in: Productivity