Note from Aymeric (founder): This is not an article about how great WeekPlan is (it is great!). A few weeks ago, I asked the WeekPlan community if someone would be interested in writing something on the WeekPlan blog and Jeff was one of the first to reply. Jeff is a cartoonist who publishes the comic “Guinea Something Good” at http://www.JoeGP.com and a user of WeekPlan. In this article, Jeff tells us the method he uses to stay focused during a typical day of work. This is now Jeff writing.
The biggest challenge in creative work is focusing for extended periods of time. Creative work is messy and draining, and if you don’t feel inspired, there’s little you can do to force yourself to be productive. When you’re tapped out, you’re tapped out, and your best hope is to wait until you feel inspired again. The problem is that this creates a routine of wasting tremendous amounts of time every single day. Half the day is spent waiting for that spark, and once you have it, there’s no guarantee how long it will last. Simply put, the waiting around method is extremely ineffective.
The solution I’ve found clears away all that mess, gets rid of the ambiguity, and gives you clarity and focus consistently for extended periods of time. It’s a very simple method. You set aside two hours to work. You know that during this time, you will be productive. The time is then broken down like this: you spend the first ten minutes working, then two minutes resting, then ten minutes working, etc. until the two hours is up. I’ve experimented with different durations for work and rest and the ten-and-two has always been the most effective for me.
Why it works
The reason this method works is because it gives you two things: a short, manageable chunk of time to work and a period of rest that your mind NEEDS to keep being effective. The ten minute window gets rid of all the ambiguity of the process, the idea of starting stops being overwhelming and starts seeming incredibly easy. Everyone can focus for ten minutes. The two minute break is then important to reinforce in your mind that you indeed only need to focus for ten minutes at a time. But it’s also an important tool to keep from burning out. By giving your mind a two minute break, you allow it to cool off, so that it never gets “too hot” and burns out. When I was first experimenting with this, I was amazed how effective it was. That suddenly I could work a regular eight hour work day doing creative things all day long. But as soon as I stopped taking the two minute breaks because I was on a roll or I just felt like I “didn’t need them” pretty soon my mind would get too hot, burn out, and the rest of the day was killed. The two minute breaks are key.
What I do during the break
I’ve experimented with different tasks during this two minutes. First, I surfed the web. Then, I played video games. These activities are OK, because they do get your mind off the task at hand and allow it to cool down a bit. But I’ve found the most effective use of this two minutes is meditation. Listening to calming ocean waves or meditation music, breathing slowly in and out, and focusing your sight on a spot on the wall, the clouds moving out your window, or trees swaying in the wind – when you get back to the next ten minute chunk, you will feel so relaxed and energized that it won’t feel like you’d been doing any work before it.
How I keep track of the cycles
So how do you keep track of this time? The most obvious method is to set a timer for ten minutes, and then set a timer for two minutes and just do that over and over. The problem I found with this method was that it’s very distracting. There’s not a calm flow to your day because you have to constantly make sure you’re setting timers over and over again. So I created a small application to take care of this for me. Once you hit “start,” it will play a sound alternating every ten-and-two minutes. The application clearly shows a large image that says “Create” when it’s time to create and “Rest” when it’s time to rest. And finally, it has a row of check boxes to let you know how many ten minute sections you’ve completed.
To be honest, even this application wasn’t optimal. I still felt like I was being interrupted rather than that there was a flow to my workday. So the best method I’ve come up with so far, and this does take a bit of work up front, is to create a two hour MP3 file using Audacity. You take your favorite album of music that gets you inspired to work, and you lay it down on a single track in Audacity. Then, every ten minutes, you splice in a two minute break of meditation music. To make it even better, fade out and fade in whenever this change occurs. Then, all you have to do is start this MP3 file and you won’t have to even think about your work day again. You work, and when it’s time to break, you’ll hear the meditation music. You’ll stop until you hear the work music again. You’ll know how far you’ve gotten in your two hours by how far along the track has gone.
Obviously, it would be best to have at least a few of these MP3 files of different albums so it doesn’t get too repetitive throughout the day.
Note from Aymeric (founder): It is interesting to see that Jeff came up with something very similar to the pomodoro technique (which is growing in popularity) by himself. When I was experimenting with that technique, I was using the little tool Focus Booster. Thanks Jeff for this great article!