Getting work done using time blocking techniques

If you’re having trouble getting work done — because you procrastinate, because you lose focus, or because of your perfectionistic tendencies — a time blocking approach to managing your time might help. The Pomodoro Technique, developed back in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, is the best-known approach but certainly not the only one.

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique has you work on a specific task for a 25-minute block, called a Pomodoro, with no interruptions. You set a timer to let you know when each Pomodoro is done. After each Pomodoro, you put a check mark on your log sheet and take a 5-minute break. (You also note how many times you were tempted to break the Pomodoro.) After four Pomodoros, you take a longer break, around 20-30 minutes.

The 5-minute breaks are not meant for anything requiring a lot of brainpower. Getting up and walking around is recommended. You could also do desk exercises or start a load of laundry (if you work at home). The idea is to give your mind a rest.

One thing I really like about this technique is how it gets you to understand how long a task takes, which is very helpful for anything you do repeatedly. Is something a one-Pomodoro task, a two-Pomodoro task, etc.? You may also choose to limit yourself, only allowing a specific number of Pomodoros to complete a task, and thus keeping perfectionistic tendencies at bay.

Fans note that this technique helps them get going on a dreaded task, since deciding to do just one Pomodoro isn’t so intimidating. It helps them stay focused, since they know that doing something like checking social media is off the table until the Pomodoro is done.

Shared Pomodoros

For those working in teams that require a lot of interaction, Pomodoros can be a problem unless everyone starts in unison. If they don’t, team members may never be free at the same time to have discussions. As Ben Northrup wrote, what’s needed in this situation is a “shared Pomodoro.” His project team solved this problem by having two shared Power Hours per day, when everyone agreed to do focused work.

The Rule of 52 and 17

Julia Gifford looked at the data in a time-tracking and productivity app and found that the most productive 10 percent of users worked on average for 52 minutes at a time, and then took a 17-minute break before getting back to work. So if you like the idea of Pomodoros, you may want to play with the times and see what works best for you.

90-minute blocks of work

As Tony Schwartz noted in The New York Times, a study of elite performers (musicians, athletes, chess players, etc.) found they practiced in uninterrupted sessions of no more than 90 minutes. They took breaks between these sessions, and seldom worked for more than four and a half hours every day.

Schwartz said he changed his own writing practice to work in three uninterrupted 90-minute sessions. He found that he finished writing his books in less than half the time he took for his previous books, when he worked for 10 hours a day.

While many people can’t work for just four and a half hours each day, this approach may work for those who have more control of their time, especially those who are focusing on building their skills.

Do you use any time blocking technique? If so, please add a comment to let us know what you do and how it’s worked for you.

6 Comments for “Getting work done using time blocking techniques”

  1. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    I use the “laundry” technique.
    Put a load of clothes in the washer then start working.
    When the washing machine is done, stop working, move clothes to the dryer.
    Reload and start the washing machine.
    Return to work.
    Repeat until either work is complete or laundry is complete.

  2. posted by Andy Chow on

    I use that technique. I bought a cheap digital timer (1$), and use intervals of 20 minutes to clean my apartment. I used to find the task boring and would get distracted easily. It’s much easier to stay focused when you know that there is a fixed amount of time. Usually, when the time is done I reset it, doing 2-3 reps (40-60 minutes). My apartment is much cleaner, it works!

    If I’m working on home projects, I do 2 reps of 30 minutes, then 30 minutes off, then back again. For each 30 minutes of work, I add a square in a notebook. I like to think there’s one less block or brick I have to lay to finish “building” my project.

    At work I can’t really do things that way, but I divide projects, work on one exclusively until things stop flowing (usually 45-90 minutes), take a break, then work on something else. The problems is various demands keep coming in, hard deadlines, meetings, so it’s not always possible.

  3. posted by Bette on

    Great idea — but what’s the tomato connection (pomodoro = tomato in Italian)? I searched online and now understand — will put this to work immediately! Thank you.

  4. posted by Caroline on

    I believe the person who “invented” the Pomodoro technique used a kitchen time shaped like a tomato, hence naming it Pomodoro. Don’t quote me, must go look it up now….

  5. posted by Julie Bestry on

    Long before I’d heard of the Pomodoro Technique, I found I was innately using Gifford’s 52 minutes. If I set an alarm for 45 minutes, I found that I’d hit my flow, gotten whatever “chunk” I was doing well in hand, and by the time the alarm hit, I was often in polishing/editing mode. I recommend the Pomodoro for tasks you’ve been procrastinating on doing for more than two days, but longer blocks (45-52) for specific tasks, like writing complex emails or reports.

    90 minute blocks are perfect for TYPES of work — returning emails, doing bookkeeping, editing longer documents (or series of documents). 25 minutes to an hour is fine for a task, but 90 minutes seems to work better for a block of similar tasks, like writing multiple smaller sections of a chapter. The first one gets you loosened up, and by the next task in that block, you get your mojo where it needs to be.

    Great post, Jeri. I love how you hit the various methods.

  6. posted by Pat Reble on

    The Hobonichi techo people have posted a method of using Pomodoros with techos

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