The Secrets to Staying Productive When You Have a Big Project
If you’re anything like me, you’re a perpetual multi-tasker. This quality can be helpful, but it can also be a handicap—like when you’re trying to complete a dissertation, thesis, term paper, or long-term creative project. These kinds of tasks require single-mindedness, focus, and diligence—not bouncing around from idea to idea.
When I first started working on my dissertation, every time I sat down to write I found myself distracted by other tasks on my to-do list. The undertaking felt so big that I found it easier to work on little projects I knew I could finish quickly. Plus, I still had a lot of other things I needed to be doing, so I justified the time away from writing as time toward other urgent matters.
What I learned is that when I structured my time around responding immediately to the next task to pop up, I was overrun by the tyranny of the urgent and didn’t make any progress on my main priority: graduating! I needed to find a way to make myself concentrate on writing and not get sidetracked by work or social responsibilities that could wait for another day.
If you’re in the same position, let me tell you about two techniques I found that helped me out of this cycle.
The Pomodoro Technique
When I told a friend about the difficulty I was experiencing, she recommended I check out Phinished, a dissertation and thesis writing forum and support group. It was here that I first learned about the power of the Pomodoro Technique for focusing on and finishing small chunks of writing (or any type of work, for that matter).
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method that uses a timer to break down work into intervals of focus and rest. These intervals are called “Pomodoros” (or “tomatoes” in Italian), after the tomato shaped-kitchen timers that work perfectly for timing sessions. Pomodoros are separated by short breaks for distractions, daydreaming, snacking—whatever. It works something like this:
This technique has helped me maximize concentration and decrease distractions while I write my dissertation. I’ve found that I generally prefer to complete longer Pomodoros (30-45 minutes) with longer breaks, but each day is different and I try to set goals accordingly.
To time my intervals and track my progress, I use the PomodoroPro app on my iPhone ($2.99 from the App Store). The Pomodoro Technique website also has free resources to help you streamline your work process and combat your multi-tasker tendencies.
Getting Things Done Method
Another method I encountered for managing my time and dealing with distractions is Getting Things Done (GTD), a time management system designed to help you structure your duties and manage the details of your life without making your schedule too rigid.
GTD is all about getting control over and perspective on the stuff you want to accomplish or need to do. Whether you need to get a book from the library, schedule an interview, or draft an outline, staying on task is all about learning to manage and organize your stuff.
Here’s a basic outline of how it works:
These steps will help you get control over your to-dos and commitments, but you also need to make sure you’ve got perspective on your priorities, so that you can “begin with the end in mind.”
For this reason, GTD calls for a weekly review of all of your areas of focus, which should help reconnect you with your priorities and to see where you’re at and where you’re going. Here are some recommendations for a weekly review agenda:
The Pomodoro Technique and the GTD Method are just two productivity methods that I’ve found helpful, but there are so many others. What techniques do you use to focus up and fight distractions while you write?
Photo courtesy of Andy Roberts.
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