I’m a sucker for a new productivity system.
I have a shelf full of books on getting things done, some more useful than others. I’ve tried all kinds of systems and tools. I love the idea that with better tools, better planning, a new bit of kit, I’ll be able to do more.And it’s true, to an extent. Many of these things helped.
But I’ve also come to realise that I’ve spent much of my working life trying to cram more into my day than any human can reasonably be expected to do. And that no brilliant new system, tool or planner would ever help with that.
It would be lovely to claim that I’m cured. But like many of us, my relationship to work is a complicated one. It’s taking time to unravel. My to-do list often has more on it than can possibly be done. And I still end up obsessing about things that aren’t that important – especially if I’m tired.
I’ve got better at noticing this, at least. And going to bed instead of getting my in-box to zero, organising information or trying to just write another 1000 words before I rest.
The real secret to getting more done
It’s pretty simple. Try to do less. Focus on what’s truly important – and ditch the rest. You waste less time. You get jobs finished. Which means you can then move on to the next thing and focus on that.
Take more breaks, sleep and move more, treat yourself with kindness. And train yourself to focus fully on the task at hand, rather than trying to do 100 things at once. Or getting lost in procrastination and distraction.
For this I have a secret weapon. My timer.
I know most of us have a great timer built into our smartphones. But if I reach for my iPhone, 30 minutes later I’ll be replying to messages or looking at memes, and I won’t even remember what I wanted to use the timer for.
So my timer is analogue, basic and boring.
No games, no wi-fi, no flexibility. It just counts down minutes, and beeps when it gets to zero. Nothing more.
My old one died recently, after three years of constant use. The new one below cost under £8 from Amazon. It’s spectacularly ugly, but easy to use. And its digital display reminds me of a bomb countdown in an action film, which makes me feel oddly heroic.
I use this seemingly trivial tool in all kinds of ways:
Invented by an Italian and named after those kitsch tomato-shaped kitchen timers, a pomodoro is simply 25 minutes of focussed work, followed by a five-minute break. Every four pomodoros, you take a longer break of at least 30 minutes.
On a day when I can’t face hours of tedious admin or editing, I sail through 8-12 pomodoros. The short bursts keep me focussed. People with ADHD often find this especially useful.
Getting back into flow
If you’re feeling blocked, or having difficulty getting down to your creative work, spend 15-30 minutes at your desk, in the studio, just doing it, however badly.
If you want to stop when the timer goes off, do. But try again the next day. And all the days after that, until you get back on track.
Social media alarm call
Before opening any social media, I set it for 15 minutes and stop as soon as it goes off so I don’t fall down the rabbit hole.
On distracted days, I’ll do the same with email so I don’t spend hours emptying my in-box and letting other people set my priorities for the day.
Before my son was born, I used to think I needed uninterrupted hours to get down some printable words. But after he arrived, I often had to write in short sprints while he napped or played.
Most of my Sunday Times features were written that way, in the late 90s. It’s a practice I’ve kept ever since: I can get surprising amounts done in short sprints. If you’re over-thinking something, it can help to just set your timer and go at it.
Practice new skills
I have been a working writer for four decades. Shamefully, I still can’t touch-type. My mum was obsessed with me getting a “proper job” as a secretary, even after I was well established as a writer. Not learning to type was my resistance to that. Which is daft, really. As the only person it’s ever hurt is me.
Anyway, I’ve finally decided to change that, and I’m practicing twice a day, for 15 minutes. Which feels manageable.
My husband is doing the same with his rusty French. He’s conjugating nicely now. And my stiff little fingers are typing 25 words per minute. In a few more weeks, should be using more than two fingers on the keyboard when I write.
What would you like to learn?
Doing the maintenance
Every creative business has tasks we need to do, but don’t enjoy. Accounts, invoicing, money stuff. Marketing, selling. Contracts, client creation. Insurance, admin. I call this doing the maintenance, and my timer helps me get on with it. Read more on doing it painlessly here.
Setting a timer for 15 minutes also helps with cleaning, dealing with clutter or admin, exercise, and those niggling jobs I tend to avoid such as sewing on buttons or folding the laundry.
it’s amazing how much tidier a room can look in 15 minutes. A seemingly insurmountable pile of papers will disappear in a few short sessions. And a 15-minute workout, dance, walk or weights routine can provide a welcome energy boost in the middle of a busy day.
Let’s dance (and empty the dishwasher)
Away from my desk, I often use music instead of my timer. Most Aretha Franklin classics come in at around three minutes. And the kitchen can go from cluttered mess to clean and presentable in four or five Arethas.
Meanwhile, my mood and energy levels will have been boosted by a blast of ‘Chain of Fools’, ‘Respect’ and ‘Natural Woman’.
You can do anything for 15 minutes.
It doesn’t seem like much. But over a year, a decade, a life… those tiny bursts of action can make a world of difference.