Why do software projects take so long? Constantly changing requirements, poor communication and technical debt slow us down. But we’re more in control of our personal productivity than we think.
Recently, I’ve been using a productivity hack that I learnt from John Sonmez and its effectiveness has blown me away! The technique has given me a concrete strategy for ‘getting stuff done’ and has made me feel very productive. For that reason I’m in love with it.
The technique is actually very simple and will sound familiar. It combines use of a Kanban board with time-boxing. Nothing new there but stay with me because the result is a huge boast in productivity and the psychological state of flow. Increased productivity and well-being in one hit. You’re welcome.
So how does it work?
Step 1: Break work into discrete tasks
The first step is to compile of list of tasks that need to be completed. If you’re working in an agile environment tasks may already exist on a team Scrum or Kanban board. You could use these or create your own by breaking the tasks you are currently working on into smaller tasks.
You can create tasks for any kind of work not just software projects. I even create tasks for work outs and going for a run. It’s amazing how much more committed you are to getting things done when they are written down.
Keep the list of tasks manageable. You can always add to it if you run out of things to do. I’m constantly generating new tasks and splitting existing tasks up as I work so never seem to run out of things to do.
Step 2: Create your own personal Kanban board
Kanban boards allow you to visually organise your work flow. Here’s an example of a simple one.
Notice that tasks are represented by boxes (or sticky notes) and can be moved between columns. Kanban boards can be physical or digital so choose what works best for you. I’m using Trello for my personal board and recommend you start with this too especially since you can set-up an account for free.
Once you’re up and running with Trello, create a new board and add three columns labelled Todo, Doing and Done. This is the simplest form of a Kanban. You can call the columns whatever you like, for example, John Sonmez uses the days of the week to track his tasks. I prefer to create one board per project so Todo, Doing and Done columns work best for me.
It’s important to create your own personal board so you can control and measure your productivity. Also your colleagues might not appreciate seeing ‘Go for a jog during lunch break’ tasks on the team board…
Make sure you keep your board simple otherwise you run the risk of creating a laborious process. Who wants to drag tasks from Pre-Analysis, Analysis, Post-Analysis, Preliminary Work, Have a Meeting, Start Work, Have Another Meeting?
Add all the tasks you created in Step 1 to the ToDo column. If you like you can order them by priority. Don’t worry too much about order though as it’s likely that tasks will change or need to be broken down into smaller units as you learn more about the work.
Step 3: Estimate the number of Pomodoros each task will take
If you’ve not heard of the Pomodoro Technique then you’re probably wondering what a Pomodoro is. A Pomodoro is a unit of time, usually 25 minutes long. It is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the creator of the technique used. You can use longer or shorter Pomodoros but I find that 25 minutes is about right.
The core idea of the Pomodoro Technique is to focus solely on a task for the allocated time. When the time is up you take a 5 minute break and then start the next Pomodoro. After 4 or 5 Pomodoros you take a longer break of 25 minutes. More on this in Step 5.
Go through the tasks in the ToDo list and estimate how many Pomodoros you think each task will take. Don’t spend too long doing this just go with your gut feeling. If you don’t know just guess.
Accuracy isn’t important because this hack isn’t an estimation technique. The whole point of it is to get stuff done and achieve flow.
Step 4: Drag today’s tasks into the Doing column
Drag all the tasks that you want to achieve today into the Doing column. Obviously you would usually do this the evening before or at the beginning of the day. It’s important to keep the total number of Pomodoros that you want to achieve to a reasonable limit. I would aim for 6 initially.
Does that sound too low? In practice you’re not going to do as many Pomodoros as you think you are! Focused concentration is mentally taxing especially if you don’t have much practice at it. The idea of the Pomodoro Technique is that during a Pomodoro you are completely focused on the task.
This means no distractions. Switch off your phone (or turn it face down on the table). Close the email client. Log out of Twitter. Put your Headphones on (noise cancelling ones if you have them). Make a sign and stick it to your back. Whatever it takes. During a Pomodoro nothing short of an emergency should distract you.
Admittedly this is easier said than done especially if you’re working in an open plan office. If you let your colleagues know what you’re doing then they’ll soon learn not to bother you. Come up with a signalling system. Coffee cup balanced on the monitor means don’t bother me. Maybe not that.
Step 5: Begin work
Are you ready to begin? You’ve got the tasks that you want to achieve in the Doing column. Your coffee mug is balanced on your monitor. You’re ready… almost.
You need a timer. I use the PomoDone App because it integrates nicely with Trello. It’s costs a few pounds but it’s worth it. You can also download free Pomodoro apps for your phone. The advantage of an app with Trello integration is that you can track how many Pomodoros each task on your Trello board actually took. You can also use PomoDone to mark tasks as Done and it comes with a Chrome extension. Sweet.
Start your timer and begin work. If you finish a task before the end of a Pomodoro you can do one of three things. You can start the next task but if you’re recording time spent against specific tasks this will affect the accuracy of the results. You can stop the timer and take an early break before the next Pomodoro. Your timing app will then record this as an incomplete Pomodoro but will still record the time. Finally you can overlearn or refactor if you’re writing code until the Pomodoro is finshed. I tend to do the last of these three.
Once the task is complete move the task across to the Done column. Celebrate by high-fiving all your colleagues (but not during their Pomodoros). That’s it!
Here are the Five Golden Rules for this productivity hack:
- Focus completely on the task during a Pomodoro.
- Create a task for every piece of work no matter how trivial.
- Only work when the timer is running.
- Stop work during the break periods.
- Respect the Pomodoros. If you plan to do 8 Pomodoros in a day do it.
If you follow these rules you should see your productivity soar.
What are the benefits?
I’ve been amazed at how this simple hack has improved my productivity and well-being. Here are some of the benefits I’ve found while using it.
- I can measure exactly how much work I’ve done in the day to the nearest minute.
- I can measure how long a specific task took and learn from it.
- I can achieve focus and psychological flow much more easily than before.
- I am reminded to take regular screen breaks during the rest periods.
- I procrastinate less because I am focused on a specific task.
- I spend less time perfecting things because I am motivated to finish a task within the allocated time.
- I can use the Time Log in the PomoDone App to bill clients if required.
Give it a try. You might surprise yourself like I did.