HRM takes a look at three popular methods for boosting productivity. What do they involve, and do they really work?
In 1637 French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “It is not enough to have a good mind. The main thing is to use it well.” The modern dilemma is figuring out how you ‘use it well’ without succumbing to burnout.
Methods that purport to improve productivity are a dime a dozen – they’re the workplace equivalent of diets. So HRM thought we should look at some of the more popular ones and talk to people who’ve used them to find out whether they’re worth implementing.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is named after a tomato-shaped Italian kitchen timer (Pomodoro being Italian for tomato). One look at the contraption is all you need to know that this technique is from the eighties. The basic principle is that you work in 25 minute chunks that are separated by five minute breaks. Once you hit four 25 minute chunks of work (also called pomodoros) you get to take a longer fifteen minute break.
On his website, the inventor of the technique Francesco Cirillo says to effectively use his method in today’s world you need to do the following:
- Find out how many Pomodoros a task requires.
- Cut down on distractions. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are all no-nos.
- Now that you have figured out how long a task requires, estimate how many Pomodoros will be needed for other tasks, or future long-term projects.
- In the first few minutes of your Pomodoro and in the last few, review what you have done and what still needs to be done.
- Create a timetable to visualise and make goals clear.
- Define your own objectives and readjust them where need be.
I first came across the Mediterranean technique when my fiance, Casey Tonkin, was using it to work on personal projects while also completing an Honours degree.
“When I had no external pressure, nobody breathing down my neck, I found the Pomodoro’s time constraints useful,” he says.
A criticism of the Pomodoro Technique is that 25 minutes is not long enough to get into ‘flow’ (a much studied mental state where you are fully immersed in the task at hand). But Casey found that even if it took him longer to get into flow, the five minute break wouldn’t disrupt it.
“As long as I stuck to the five minutes then I could get back into the flow. I kept the momentum going.”
His advice for people keen to give the Pomodoro Technique a try?
“You need to set the system up to be as strong as possible because over time things will fall over. You can get a bit lazy. You start to find break times get longer, or you don’t stop working at the 25 minute mark because you have just one more sentence to write.”
The technique’s main benefit for him was in making things more manageable.
“It makes tasks easier to digest because you’re breaking them up into chunks. If you’re looking at a 30 hour project, that can be daunting. If you’re breaking it down can make it easier,” says Casey.
He says this technique is good for some but almost impossible for others.
“I don’t think it works very well if you’re in an office. Getting up every 25 minutes to not work is very hard to do when everyone is watching.”
He also says getting up every five minutes can invite distractions, so he only uses it on occasions that warrant it.
An ultradian rhythm is like the lesser well known Hemsworth of chronobiological processes. Circadian rhythms (Chris Hemsworth in this metaphor) cycle over 24 hours. An ultradian rhythm (Luke Hemsworth) is a biological process that cycles and lasts less than 24 hours.
Journalist Brad Buzzard writes on Medium that people can be more productive by getting in tune with an ultradian rhythm called Basic Rest-Activity Cycle (BRAC) which occurs between leaving REM sleep, and entering back into REM sleep. BRAC usually lasts between 80 to 120 minutes.
BRAC also occurs while we’re awake, cycling through around 90 minutes of high-level brain activity and 20 minutes of ‘come-down’ – a tired state which follows bursts of energy.
Ernest Rossi explores using BRAC as a way to structure the work day in his book The Twenty Minute Break. The main rules being that every 90 minutes (3.6 pomodoros, for those of you who’ve already adopted Cirillo’s method), you take a 20 minute break (0.8 pomodoros).
“If you don’t you may be well on your way to the Ultradian Stress Syndrome: you get tired and lose your mental focus, you tend to make mistakes, get irritable and have accidents,” says Rossi on his website.
If the above methods seem too daunting to take on, or impossible with your work schedule, then perhaps you’d just like to work less.
Not only is this the recommendation of esteemed academic Stewart Friedman (who advocates for work-life “harmony”, instead of balance), but 2017 research from Australian National University found that working anywhere above 39 hours is both counter-productive and bad for your health.
“Long work hours erode a person’s mental and physical health, because it leaves less time to eat well and look after themselves properly,” says lead researcher Dr Huong Dinh.
Executive coach and business mentor Yu Dan Shi is also advocating for working less, and even has a guide to how to do it well, which she elaborates on in her book, Come Alive.
In 2008 Shi was clocking 14 hour work days. She was on her way home in a taxi following a business meeting when she felt nauseous and an excruciating pain on the right side of her body. She was rushed to hospital where she underwent an emergency operation. Her gallbladder was severely infected, and it could have killed her.
“It’s shocking how life can turn on you,” she told HRM.
“After my operation I realised time could run out at any minute, I started to do a lot of research around why I was feeling dissatisfied. I was in a well paid job, achieved my dream goal, at a global tech company.”
Shi realised that her unhappiness didn’t stem from work but from how she approached her workload. She would often spend hours in areas where she felt incapable just so she could be a high-achiever in all facets of her work.
But she found that by trying to constantly improve she would waste time, work long hours and have the same or worse outcomes.
Shi’s radical solution was to halve her work hours, a move which she says she has made her happier at work and led to better results.
“The key to a fulfilling life that feels great, while adding value to the people around you and your organisation, is knowing what your strengths are.”
Shi says the key to working less is identifying what you’re good at and whether or not you enjoy doing it. Her advice is to tackle what you most enjoy in the first and final 20 minutes of your day.
“If I started my day doing the things I am the least good at and least enjoy, how am I supposed to feel happy and energised for the rest of the day?”
Once you have identified your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes it is important to craft your day around them. And, when you identify weak spots, it’s best to ask for help.
“I started to look at my team differently – I needed someone who loves what I don’t. Even if you’re not a leader, you can be proactive by seeking help and offering your strengths in return.”
This advice aligns up with the philosophy of someone more ancient than Descartes. So, if you’re not a fan of 17th-century rationalism, perhaps you’d prefer the wisdom of 2nd century Stoic Marcus Aurelius.
“Do less, better. Because most of what we do or say is not essential.”
Hear more from Stewart Friedman at the 2019 AHRI National Convention and Exhibition.