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How I Get More Done

I have a confession to make: I’m obsessed with productivity.  Like many of you, I always have more projects on my plate than I can possibly get done, but that doesn’t stop me from constantly biting off more than I can chew.  I equate success with making things happen, it’s hard not to.  So, I focus on productivity–how can I get more done in the time I have?

I’ve gone through a lot of productivity aids.  I never hesitate to acquire better tools for any job, including enhancing my own personal productivity.  I’ve moved my office to the equivalent of a basement–it’s quiet, there are no distractions, no windows, and I keep the lighting low so there’s no glare on my computer screens.  I use twin 32-inch monitors on my PC to maximize the amount of information I can access to do my job.  Those are just a few of the productivity-enhancers I have available.

But I’ve found for many years the one thing that gives the biggest productivity advantage of all is this simple principle:


The Biggest Productivity Advantage of All:  Focusing on What’s Important…

That’s the essence of it.  Everything else is in furtherance of that single goal.  Figure out what’s important and achieve total focus on it to get it done.

Despite living in a world where distractions have increased exponentially, we as humans are not very good multi-taskers.  When we allow ourselves to be distracted, productivity falls off steeply.  Eliminating distractions is not enough though–we also have to successfully prioritize and tackle the important tasks first.

Often these are the most difficult tasks, so if you are anything like me, they’re the tasks you’re most likely to procrastinate on.  They’re also the tasks that are the most daunting, the most tiring.  It’s hard to work on them continuously throughout the work day precisely because they’re so scary and exhausting.

But there’s a tool that can help you to maintain focus and get those daunting tasks done without burning yourself completely out.  It’s called the Pomodoro Technique, it’s one of the world’s top time management systems, and it was invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980’s.  The technique is simple enough that anyone can master it quickly, but it can give you a powerful boost in productivity.

Lifehacker, one of the better blogs on productivity, surveyed its readers and found Pomodoro was the most popular productivity system they were using.


The tomato as a unit of work?

The idea is to break down your task into “Pomodoros” (Italian for “Tomatoes”–no particularly reason, just fun and non-threatening).  A Pomodor consists of a work period that is short enough for you to maintain absolute focus with no distractions, yet long enough you can actually accomplish something.  Traditionally, the Work period lasts 25 minutes.  After each Work period, you take a short 5 minute break to clear your mind, deal with interruptions, and get set for the next Work period.  Every 4 Pomodoros,  you take a longer break, typically 10 minutes:


The Pomodoro Cycle…

To be effective, you must truly be focused without distractions during a Pomodoro.  That means if a coworker walks over, you tell them you’re in the middle of something and will get back to them in a few minutes.  It means you close your email, Facebook, turn off your phone, and whatever else it takes to eliminate distractions.  During that work period, you are focused, and as a result, you get a meaningful amount of work done and done well.

Adapting and Improving the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is all about taking breaks to keep you feeling fresher and to break the Big Hairy Tasks you’re dealing with into smaller more approachable pieces.


It’s based on sound science–we know the brain needs breaks to stay at maximum productivity.  We’ve all experienced cases where when we stop thinking about something hard for a bit, the answer presents itself later as the subconscious brain gets a crack at it.  Pomodoro simply formalizes and optimizes this process with its interval idea.

It’s a great technique, but I found that I could make it even better by making three changes.

Change 1: Adjust the Time Periods to Work for Your Needs


Adjust the Intervals for Your Best Performance…

First, the time periods needed to be adjustable.  For some people, 25 minutes is about as long as they can focus on a single task.  But I found that interval was too short–the time management method itself was interrupting and distracting me.  I use 40 minutes as my work interval and that works well. What you want to do is choose the longest period that’s comfortable:

  • It should be short enough you have no problem staying focused for that long, even when you’re having a bad day.
  • It should be long enough that you don’t feel interrupted from your typical tasks.   You should be able to get to a good stopping point, in other words, with this interval.

You’ll need to play with the technique a bit to decide what intervals work for you, and that goes for the break intervals too.

Change 2:  Integrated ToDo Lists

I use ToDo lists a lot.  Most a giant long affairs that track every detail of some project, like all the many things I have planned to add to our G-Wizard CNC Software.  Some of you will have even gotten an email announcing I’ve implemented some idea you brought to my attention, perhaps a long time ago.  I can do that because every suggestion from every email goes into my ToDo lists.  I use Excel to track them.

But, those lists are huge and there are many of them.  They’re not the best for tracking what I need to do on any particular day.  They’re much better for tee’ing up things I need to consider doing on any particular day.

I went through a log of possibilities for managing my urgent daily ToDo’s.  Perhaps the most primitive was festooning my monitor with Post-It Notes (everyone does this, I know, LOL):

collection of various note papers on computer monitor, on white background with clipping path

We’ve all done this!

This makes a mess quickly that is a distraction all on its own.  I’ve tried yellow pads and I’ve tried keeping a special Todo for the day spreadsheet open.  It all worked, but it didn’t feel optimal until I had integrated my Todo’s with the Pomodoro Technique itself.  I’ll show exactly how that works in a minute, but first, I needed to make one more change.

Change 3:  Big Important Tasks and Slack Time Tasks

Once I got thinking about integrating ToDo’s with the Pomodoro Technique, the next step was obvious:

I wanted the ToDo’s to correspond to the time intervals used in Pomodoro.  That led me to break things down into two lists:

  • Big Important ToDo’s
  • Slack Time ToDo’s

The idea behind the Slack Time ToDo’s is simple.  I don’t necessarily need a real break as in taking a walk, getting coffee, or that sort of thing.  I just need a break from working on the Big Scary Thing that is front and center in my daily Productivity Cross Hairs.  I can be productive as long as it is something simple and easily accomplished.

BTW, Pomodoro encourages you to track your interruptions on paper–writing them down without letting them interrupt you further relieves some of the urge to deal with them.  The Slack Time list is the perfect place to do this.

A word of warning–one of the productivity pitfalls is to always do all the quick and easy stuff first, like checking and answering emails.  We do that stuff because it is quick and easy, we know we have to do it sooner or later, and it feels productive.  The problem is that it makes it too easy to do that stuff instead of what’s genuinely valuable and important.


Slack Time ToDo’s are not just about more work items…

Slack Time ToDo’s are all about doing those sorts of things.  They’re quick check offs that feel good, provide welcome relief from the hard work, and are still productive at some level.  You don’t have to be literally productive on a break, though.  Here are some other things you might consider doing:

  • Take a quick walk or do some stretching exercises.
  • Organize or clean things up: very important to CNC’ers!
  • Check out an educational article, or the CNCCookbook Blog.
  • Grab a healthy snack

Incidentally, Francesco Cirillo developed the technique to improve his productivity in school–it’s an excellent tool for students to use too!

That’s the basic outline, let’s dig in and see a real software application that can help you implement this system for yourself.

G-Wizard’s ToDo Wizard: An App for Productivity

Starting with G-Wizard Calculator version 3.30, there’s a new tab called “ToDo”.  This is G-Wizard’s ToDo Wizard, an app that implements this style of time management.  Here’s what the ToDo Wizard looks like:


The ToDo Wizard: a Productivity App for CNC’ers…

Across the top are a series of buttons that start the timers for various Pomodoro-style intervals:

  • Work:  Start a work interval
  • Short Break: Take a short break
  • Long Break: Take a long break
  • Pause: Pause the interval
  • Clear: Reset the counter to 00:00

To start an interval, just click the appropriate button and the timer will start counting down in seconds.

Right below are the two ToDo lists:

  • Today’s Big Goals: These are the important things you hope to get done today.
  • Slack Work:  These are things you’d like to remember and try to get done on the breaks.

These lists are saved as two “.txt” files in the Preferences folder (you can find it under Setup Files) when you exit and whenever you press the “Save” button.  You can type anything you like in the two areas.

At the very bottom are some settings so you can change the interval lengths.  These are also saved whenever you exit G-Wizard.  The screen shot shows their defaults and we’ve already talked about how to fine tune them to your needs.

There are some handy bells and whistles.  For example, the relevant list is presented in bolder text when it’s interval is running.  The other list can still be accessed, but it is clear which one should be front and center.

How I Use the ToDo Wizard

Every morning I start up G-Wizard, flip to the ToDo tab, and set things up for the day.  Set up involves assessing what I need to accomplish that day and getting those items into the “Today’s Big Goals” list.  There may be some items left over from the day before.  I will also plug in anything that’s top of mind for the Slack Work list.

During the course of the day, I like to throw reminders into the Slack Work area that tell me about things that could’ve distracted me during a Work interval.  These are things that I think of inadvertently, phone calls and other interruptions I need to respond to when I get done with the interval.


I also put standard tasks I do every day or perhaps once a week on particular days in there.  These are the standard things I do to keep the CNCCookbook business running, things like preparing standard reports, responding to customer inquiries, and so on.

I only put things that I know must be done and that are very specific in these two lists.  General things like “Check Email” are not entered, as I do those whenever critical Slack Time items are all done for the day, or at least well under control.

Once the two lists are set, I’m ready to begin being productive by clicking the “Work” button and launching my first work interval.  During a work interval I minimize all distracting windows on my PC and focus on the top most task on the list.  I have to fight the urge to go check email (Squirrel!), Facebook, or walk upstairs to get a cup of coffee and pet my dogs.  That’s not allowed–we’re FOCUSING on the important stuff to get it done!

When the timer goes off, I immediately trigger one of the breaks.  Sometimes, if I still feel productive and I am not at a good stopping point, I will just trigger another Work Interval, but my rule is never to do more than 2 without a break and to be willing to end the 2nd early one if I get to a good stopping point.

Once on a break, I start grabbing from the Slack Time ToDo.  If I need a health break, a cup of coffee, or otherwise can’t stand the thought of being productive during the break, I will ignore the Slack Time work items.  Their nature is that they can be done when I get around to it.  But, my rule is I only get to ignore them once in the morning and twice in the afternoon–I have more energy in the mornings.

As things get done, they’re crossed off the lists.  I seldom finish an entire list in a day, but I make good progress and I’m productive.

Using this system, I find I have accomplished a lot of useful things by the end of my day and I’m not nearly as exhausted as I used to be.  That’s a good thing–it’s great to have more energy and a better attitude so I can enjoy my family and some of the good things in life without being too tired.


It’s great to have more energy and a better attitude at the end of the work day…

Here’s What’s Really Cool

The G-Wizard ToDo applet is 100% free for life.  Just take the G-Wizard 30-day trial and it is yours as a built-in part of the software that will keep right on working for you after the trial is done.

Learn More About the Pomodoro Technique

Here’s a good list of articles to help you learn more about the Pomodoro Technique if you’re so inclined:

PomodoroTechnique.com:  The folks that invented it have a site, start here.

A Primer to The Pomodoro Technique:  Lifehacker is a blog about how to get more done in life.

Mindtools: Pomodoro Technique to Stay Focused Throughout the Day:  Another good primer on Pomodoro from another productivity blog.

25 Minutes is All You Need:  Another great intro with some tips on maximizing the effectiveness.

A Test from Someone Who Hates Productivity Hacks:  A journalist who hates productivity hacks tests the technique and finds out it really works.

FastCompany on Pomodoro:  Great article about Pomodoro.

Pomodoro the Most Popular Method?  That’s what Lifehacker’s readers said.

The Only Productivity Hack You’ll Ever Need:  So says Business.com.

The Science Behind Taking Breaks at Work:  Fascinating article.

Surprisingly Simple Productivity Time Saver:  Entrepreneur Magazine’s take on Pomodoro.


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