We’re about a month into this new year. It’s around this point that new years resolutions start to fade, for me at least. It’s not that I’ve set myself overly tough goals that weren’t sustainable, rather that I’ve forgotten what I wrote down…
I’ve had a practice of writing a letter to myself every New Years Eve. Each year, I open the letter I wrote the previous year, see what mattered to me, see if the spirit of the things I wanted to focus on had been fulfilled, and then I write one for the me of next year. It isn’t pre-planned or scripted - just a snapshot of where I’m at, and the ways I think I should work on my life throughout the following year.
I’ve been doing this for about ten years now, and it still fascinates me, because it’s interesting to see how your priorities and focus changes as you get older. Over the years, my letters have gone from being specific aims, with top-of-my-head things that are sorted or achieved in the following few months, to ways I think I can improve myself or my way of life.
The last few years though, have been about balance - giving time to both work and life, and letting the fire for each burn bright without engulfing the other. Candidly, it’s one of the things I’m worst at. Recently, each year goes something like this:
- 🤩 I resolve to create a firm balance between my work and my life
- 😤 I try some new routine, or hobby, or set of practices, and force out a sense of separation
- 😩 After a few weeks, the variety and unpredictability of life starts to chip away at that routine, or those practices
- 😔 One small compromise at a time, the separation is diminished
It has a lot to do with loving my job, but also my nature of just getting things done. If something is in front of me, I’m going to crack on and get it sorted. The problem, it seems, is that it’s always work I put in front of me.
Each year though, I’ve managed to add something small that’s had a greater effect than I’d suspected. These things combined, over the previous years of trial and error, have helped me take real steps towards a better balance. With any luck, one or two of them can help you too…
The day can’t be won in the morning, but it can be lost
I’m a busy human that seems to thrive on momentum. When I start well, there’s a great chance I’m going to maintain that throughout the day. Equally though, I’ve found that if I couldn’t start my day on the right foot, it’d take a herculean effort to recover - often resulting in a later night than expected to catch up, thereby jeopardising sleep and starting the process anew the next day.
From this, I got tough on myself, and implemented some sacred rituals that I promise myself I must complete before starting anything else:
- ☕️ Make and enjoy my coffee
- 🧘 Meditate
- 📖 Do a little reading
- 💪 Get some exercise in (I’ve converted my garage into a gym, but sometimes it’s just a walk. As long as it’s something!)
Once these are done, I’m wide awake and my head is in the right place for work. They’re small things, and not exactly mindblowing in their originality, but done consistently, every day, they’ve built up a strong appreciation for that time in my head. They also allow you to start your work day knowing that you’ve taken care of your body and your mind, meaning that you don’t have these things looming on your personal to-do list as you prepare to tackle your work to-do list. It most certainly won’t work for everyone, but I’ve done them enough now to be a strong habit, and my days don’t feel right without them!
I even have a neat habit tracker in my Notion, where it creates a new card each day automatically with a list to tick them off:
Clean the workstation between tasks
Your desk is like a chef’s workstation - once you’ve finished the dish you’re making, clean the area before you go again
I can’t remember where I read this, but the article resonated with me a while back, as it talked about the effect a clean desk has on the mind compared to a cluttered one.
I started practicing this idea a few years ago, and it really helps me mentally reset between tasks. I ensure there are no empty cups or mugs on the desk, and pack away the notes for the task I was tackling at the time, even if there’s every chance I’ll just take the note book right out a few minutes later if the next task requires it.
Alongside the physical, I close down all tabs, files, and applications associated with that task. If I can see the desktop (and it’s also not swarming with screenshots or files), then I’m good to go again!
By doing this, you’re not rooting through what you were researching or using in the task before whilst tackling the current one. This conscious break also allows for a breath between tasks. Not doing this was typically the main culprit as to why I’d lose hours to work related to what I initially sat down to sort out. Suddenly a 15 minute fix or a 10 minute email becomes an hour, and the balance takes a hit. Now I can ask myself “is this still the same thing I’m working on?”, or “will this next thing be achievable in the time I’ve got left, or should I take on something smaller?”. Which brings me onto:
The Pomodoro Technique
why measure tasks in time, when you can do it in tomatoes?
Far from a new concept, but new to the last few months of my worklife, and something I wholeheartedly endorse. For those that don’t know, the pomodoro technique is a time management framework that breaks your day up into 25 minute bursts (known as pomodoros). The aim is to promote sustained concentration and stave off mental fatigue by focusing wholly on a thing and then recovering with a short break.
- Get a to-do list and a timer.
- Set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings.
- When your session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed.
- Then enjoy a five-minute break.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer, more restorative 15-30 minute break.
The technique appealed to me because it’s targeted at those who:
- 👋 Find little distractions often derail the whole workday
- 🥱 Consistently work past the point of optimal productivity
- ♾️ Have lots of open-ended work that could take unlimited amounts of time
- 🕹️ Enjoy gamified goal-setting
Mostly though, it’s the constant promises kept to the work I’m doing throughout the day. If I can complete a handful of pomodoros in a row, it allows me to tackle the other things I need to do with added momentum, along with the feeling that I’ve already been very productive.
I put routine tasks in here too - one pomodoro to answer slacks and emails, one to prep for necessary meetings. These menacing tasks that hop on the end of a day or distract me mid-task now have their place. It results in more focused work with less distractions, and means my responses are more deliberate than if I’m simply trying to fire off an answer whilst my mind is wrestling with other tasks.
This technique has let my work kick off with a real bang this year. The more I use it, the better I become at shutting out evreything around me and cracking out some serious work. Hit the “do not disturb” setting on your devices, and see what you can do.
⭐ Raiu Rajamoney created a minimal pomodoro tracker in Notion that you can duplicate and use for your own use.
Focused time slots
“bold to assume I’m going to be able to find hours of uninterrupted time to even try this out”
This is the one thing that popped into my head whilst I was first reading about the pomodoro technique.
It’s a fair point - if left unchecked, my calendar becomes a jungle of meetings. The solution? Get in before them! I schedule time in my own calendar dedicated to “focused time”. It’s in these slots (usually 2 hours long) that I’m able to get through a collection of pomodoro’s without distraction. My phone stays on for emergencies, but all notifications are completely muted. With these slots in place at the start of the week, nobody will be able to book meetings or interviews with me during that time.
It takes one minute to do each week, preserves blocks of productivity so I can put out my best work, and isn’t so all-consuming time-wise that I’ll lose the ability to do it regularly due to its ridigity - the blocks can be wherever in the week depending on what’s going on.
If you think you’re too busy to do it, I’d really recommend giving it a go - I lead teams across disciplines and timezones, and I’m still able to carve out this time. Otherwise, all of your work becomes unstructured and reactionary.
The “done” list
Did 100 things today…ticked two things off my to-do list…
One of the drawbacks I’ve found from the pomodoro technique, is that it can sometimes oversimplify the list of things I’ve actually done. For example, if I’ve completed an “answer slacks” pomodoro, this doesn’t cover that I’ve done things like:
- Made an offer to a candidate to join one of my teams
- Provided useful feedback to a dev on a proposal
- Signed off on a promotion
- Given helpful advice on a tricky situation
- Showed my appreciation for a great piece of work
All valuable, feelgood things in a day, but all accounted for in my to-do list by one item: “answered slacks”
For this reason I keep a “done” list that I fill in throughout the day - a couple of words to represent each tiny thing I do within my productive pomodoros.
Now, this isn’t a productivity tip - it’s a motivation tip. Reviewing a “done” list of each micro task I’ve done at the end of the day gives me a far greater sense of accomplishment and productivity than my pomodoros usually do. In fact, my table of pomodoro’s is set up to automatically hide any item that I’ve completed. Those are there to get things done - my “done” list helps me appreciate what got done. These two things in tandem have worked better for me day-to-day than any to-do list ever has. I’d recommend giving it a try!
Had some uninterrupted time, got destroyed by a meeting invite
This tip is by no means a silver bullet - there are many times when meetings you’re invited to are simply unmoveable. However after implemeting this approach, I realised a lot of them were more flexible than I first anticipated.
A really neat feature of Google calendar is appointment slots. You can set specific periods of time each week that people are able to book in order to meet with you. You get to dictate:
- When they are
- How many are in each week, and;
- How long they’re for
After creating a neat shortlink for my calendar using bit.ly, I can now quickly send this out to anyone who’d like to chat through something with me. It’s another small way to bring order to requests you can’t control, and ensures that you have time to work uninterrupted, as well as bring your most attentive self to the meeting that’s been booked.
⭐ If your company doesn’t use the Google app suite, Calendly is a very popular tool that’ll offer a similar setup (better, even). However it is a paid tool.
A tiny shout out to one of my previous posts - without taking the time to get really comfortable with a host of shortcuts, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as productive as I am. I’d also have to consciously think a lot more about which application I’m heading to, or which action I’m trying to do, than I currently do. All of these things can routinely throw us out of our rhythm or cause us to lose our train of thought. Chances are that every app you use has some super handy shortcuts in it. If you’re interested, here is a post about a few of my favourites.
So there you have it! By no means the perfect set of practices, but the best I’ve had so far for keeping that all-important balance over extended periods of time. Hopefully some of these are useful, and feel free to hit me up on Twitter if you’d like to ask any questions.