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Advice / Career Paths / Training & Development

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:

  1. Choose a task to work on exclusively for 25 minutes.
  2. Set a timer.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. Take a five-minute break.
  5. Repeat this cycle four times and then take a 15-minute break.
  6. 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:

    1. Collect and catalog all your stuff: Organize all your notes in a central location. Get rid of random Post-its on your monitor and consolidate all your tasks and ideas into one place. Recommended app: Evernote
    2. Process stuff with precision and purpose: Once you’ve collected all your stuff, it’s time to process. Any to-do that takes less than two minutes should be handled right away. If you need more than two minutes to complete a task, add that task to an appropriately categorized action list. You can theme action lists by context (such as “for the office” or “at the library”) or by function (such as “literature review” or “data collection”). Recommended app: Reminders
    3. Break down stuff into actionable steps: For a multi-action project like a thesis, you’ll need to break it down into pieces. Describe items as clearly as possible, and add them to categorical action lists. Recommended app: Things
    4. 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:

      1. Gather all your loose papers: Collect the notes you’ve accumulated over the week into one place.
      2. Process notes: Read through your notes and look for action items. Add action items to the appropriate action list.
      3. Review your calendar from last week: Make sure you didn’t miss any appointments or tasks.
      4. Plan your schedule for the coming week: Take notice of any important meetings or deadlines so that you can prioritize related tasks.
      5. Review your action lists: Look at all the different lists you’ve created and decide what to tackle during the coming week.
      6. To learn more about GTD, visit creator David Allen’s website, get the book, or check out these GTD apps.

        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.