No, I’ve not gone mad. This essay is not about how you can live by eating just 40 tomatoes a week.
The tomatoes in questions are actually Pomorodi, the Italian word for tomatoes, and in the world of productivity and time management, a pomodoro (singular) is a twenty-five minute time-block where you focus on only one task. It doesn’t matter if you complete the task, all that matters is that you focus wholeheartedly on that single task.
You can find the full method over at the Pomodoro Technique website.
I’ve been using time blocking for a while, and at work we’re even in the first stages of building an app to track time-blocks, so this is something that really caught my interest.
By default, my nature is too overwork. If I can, I’ll put as much time as possible into a task because at a subconscious level, I feel that this is the way one gets good results. Obviously this couldn’t be further away from the truth. Nobody cares how much time you spend doing something, it’s the end result that counts.
I feel that my schooling is somewhat to blame, as it instilled in me this sense of “honour” and “fairness” in regards to work, and that for some reasons taking shortcuts or doing something quickly means that I am doing something wrong, and that I am cheat or a fraud.
Again, total bullshit, and, ironically, it is actually quite difficult and time consuming to shake off seven years of brainwashing.
The real fact is that there are certain times when we are far more productive.
The idea behind the 80/20 rule is that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Following this principle, it logically follows that 20% of your working time is where you get 80% of your work done.
Let’s think about what this actually means.
If you accomplish 80% of your work in 20% of your time, the ratio of work to time is 4:1. We can express this as a productivity level of 4 (we get this by dividing 4 by 1).
If you accomplish the remaining 20% of your work in 80% of your time, the ratio of work to time is obviously reversed and thus 1:4. We can express this as a productivity level of 0.25 (we get this by dividing 1 by 4).
So the productivity ratio between your productive work and unproductive work is: 4 to 0.25 which can also be read 16 to 1.
So we are 16 times more productive when we are in the “zone” and working within that almost magical 20% of focussed time.
That is why we need to be extremely careful about guarding against distractions when we are engaged in focussed work, and why time boxing and the Pomodoro Technique can both increase productivity levels and also diminish the amount of actual time we spend working.
I know what you’re thinking! Great, I am just going to divide my week up into sixteen Pomodori a day, and I’ll accomplish four month’s worth of work in just one week.
Hold on, cowboy…
Being able to work in a focussed is manner is:
- An acquired skill, just like anything else.
- Pretty damn tiring, and not something you’ll easily be able to do for eight hours per day.
Think about it. You need all distractions turned off and no interruptions. It should almost be a meditative state where you think about nothing else but the task at hand. If you get really serious about it, the time should really fly, and you should feel a small sense of accomplishment when the timer rings and you can take a break. This type of working can be extremely enjoyable, and almost therapeutic.
Also, you need to think about the type of lifestyle you want to lead. Sure, getting things done and advancing towards your goals is great, but so is having a balanced life. Working just enough to accomplish your goals effectively, and being mature enough to also be able to stop to smell the flowers.
Personally I feel that the eight hour working day is far too long, especially for anyone who works with their mind. If you’re doing menial work like stacking supermarket shelves, then peak performance and breakthroughs don’t really apply. After all, you won’t stack sixteen times more shelves in your productive time that in your normal working time. These times of jobs are not scalable in terms of output.
Distinguishing Between meaningful and Meaningless Work
While I think it is a good idea to make the distinction, we have to be careful not to make it just to convince or cheat ourselves and others into thinking that we’re only working fifteen or twenty hours a week, when we are actually pulling eighty to one hundred.
After all, anyone (Hello, Tim Ferris) could simply declare that they only truly work four hours a week when they are instead pulling 100+ hour weeks.
I think a better distinction is made between categories of things. For instance, I don’t count writing on this website as work, as I find it enjoyable, and also I actually have a real job.
Now not everything I do in my job is super important and meaningful. There are also tasks which are somewhat less important, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t count them as work. If I did that, I would simply be kidding myself about how much time I spend working.
I spend on average between three to four hours per day on work related tasks, and I normally work five days a week, for a total of fifteen to twenty hours per week.
So my point here is that we need to start be honest with ourselves. I also attend networking events, or sometimes block out a day to spend at a coffee shop brainstorming over work. I don’t obsessively subdivide these into 25 minutes slots, I just accept that this is part and parcel of working in the field that I work in, and enjoy them as much as possible. I’m not so worried if I spent 24 hours working one week instead of 16.7.
What really counts is:
- The result that you can achieve. I want certain things to happen at work, and I am willing to work to get them, and at the moment that means working what most would consider a half week.
- The way that the amount of time you work makes you feel. If you feel overworked on 40 hours a week, then you need to cut down. For a lawyer in a high pressure firm, switching to a job that requires 40 hours a week may feel relaxing. It depends on the individual.
That said, I think doing something in the region of 40 to 60 tomatoes a week, which translates between 16 to 25 hours of work per week, is the best way to make sure you live a balanced life, and still achieve business of work objectives.
This may not seem a lot, but remember that this is focussed work, not faffing around at the office. Remember, with 16 to 25 hours of highly focussed work per week, we should be able to achieve up to 16 times what someone who is completely unfocussed, or who focusses on the wrong things.
Think that this “16x” claim is ridiculous? Well, if we look at it with just the numbers, you will see that this is highly probably. If you do something very well, it’s likely that you will end up quite well off. You don’t even need to chase the money, but it will come, because people value the time and effort of someone who is great and focussed on what they do. Earning 16x times more than the average person isn’t impossible, millions of people do it. I’m not one of them…yet, but I am slowly getting there.
A Few Downsides to Time Blocking
While time-blocking is fantastic, you also want to be careful.
Firstly, you need to make sure that it doesn’t kill your creativity. Personally I find it highly worthwhile blocking out time for creative work, but some people may prefer two to four hours of completely distraction-free time, and even having a five minute break will get them out of the zone. That’s absolutely fine, you just need to figure out what works for you.
Don’t put undue pressure on yourself. If you’re struggling to complete good quality 25 minute time blocks, don’t stress over it. Take a long break, and try again later, or tomorrow. Focus is not something that anyone posses an infinite quantity of, and that’s why time off and relaxation is important.
Obviously time blocking is not the only way to work. In some professions it may unavailable to work to someone else’s clock, or it may simply be impractical to take 5 minute breaks every half hour. No problem, I find that in life there are often multiple solutions to the same problem.
"People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter- inch hole." Theodore Levitt
Remember, we don’t want to do time boxing, we simply want to create high quality work while retaining a sensible work/life balance.
Should you take days off?
This is an interesting question, and one that I would have answered “yes” without hesitating at any time in the last few years, but I’ve slowly started coming to the conclusion that working every day may also be feasible, because it can reduce the amount of work we do each day by such an amount, that every day can feel like it’s a day off.
If you can work less than three hours every day, then my recommendation is to work every day, preferably early in the morning, and then you’ve got the rest of the day free to do what you want to do.
If you don’t already do it, give time blocking a shot. It might just change your life, it did for me.
Aim for one 25 minute session per day of fully focussed work, and build up from there. When I first started I couldn’t do more than three without seeing the quality of work noticeably slip, but I didn’t let myself get all worked up about it.
As always, thanks for reading.