Burst-based Productivity

Minute-managing timer

No one method of productivity works for everyone, and no one method is exactly right for every project. Some of us work more efficiently with tight deadlines, some better with looser expectations. In an earlier post about resting to get more done, I mentioned the Pomodoro Technique and Merlin Mann’s (10+2)*5 strategy. Both productivity methods—along with countless similar frameworks—are centered around the idea of working in short, hyper-active bursts and then resting before the next burst.

In the case of the Pomodoro Technique, you’re supposed to set a timer for 25 minutes, then spend that 25 minutes working on the first item on your to-do list (the creator’s first timer was shaped like a tomato, or pomodoro in Italian—hence the name). When the timer goes off, even if you’re not finished with the work, you stop and set the timer for 5 minutes. You spend that 5 minutes doing anything but work. Rest your eyes, surf the internet, whatever you like. When the timer goes off, you do 25 more minutes of work (if you didn’t finish your first task, you pick it up where you left off). After 4 Pomodoro cycles, you take a longer rest: 10–20 minutes, depending on what suits your needs best.

Merlin Mann’s (10+2)*5 method follows the same principles, except each cycle is 10 minutes of work, then 2 minutes of rest. After five cycles (an even hour), you take a longer break.

These sorts of burst-centered methods can work wonders for your focus. Since you’re “only” working for a short period of time, you can often stay focused on your task the entire time, without interruption. The breaks allow you to keep the high level of focus up, so your working time is more productive and it makes up for the breaks.

However, burst-based methods have their flaws. Not all forms of work are well suited to frequent interruption. Stretches of difficult computer coding, for example, are often better suited to long periods of uninterrupted focus. But not every task is a long-focus task, and everyone probably has an accumulation of tasks that would benefit from a burst-based method.

To take advantage of a burst-based method when only some of your work supports it, you should probably start by having a Timer to-do list that records all the tasks you could do in shorter pieces or bursts. If you’re using Power.ME, you can easily create a filter called “Timer” and attach it to any tasks that fit a burst-based method. If you’re not using Power.ME, try keeping a piece of paper near your workstation where you can jot down burst-friendly tasks. Then it will always be near you when you’re ready to work.

This Timer list can keep track of tasks that might be hard to focus on within some other system—maybe these shorter tasks would be hard to complete if you’re looking at an endless stretch of them. But break them up into tiny packets of work time and they’re easily tackled by a quick burst of focused work.

Image by Carlos Porto via FreeDigitalPhotos.net.


  1. Jun 15, 2011
    10:11 pm

    Rocky Romero

    I’m intrigued about these two productivity approaches and subsequently dismissed them as less than useful for me. I tried a variation before where I would time myself for 20 minute burst of productivity and check my results. This proved more of a distraction and an irritation. I also didn’t have the rest periods built into this approach.

    What is working for me, I’m pleased to report, is a 90 minute burst of activity with a 10 minute break. I first heard of this from a Harvard business interview with Tony Schwartz and David Allen.

    I’ve been pleased with my results after a two week effort and expect this to continue successfully for me. A significant addition to this is a timer on my iPhone that automatically resets itself by giving me notice at the 90 minute mark, and another notice at the 10 minute mark. I’ve set the timer for 8 cycles for each working day of the week, and not on the weekends.

    Frequently, I’ll nap for that 10 minute interval. If I’m involving in something that goes beyond the 90 minutes, I allow myself to finish as quickly as I can and then take my break.

    • Jun 16, 2011
      10:30 am

      Kristy Stewart

      I’ve heard of the 90-10 setup, and I’m glad to hear that it works well for you. 10-minute naps throughout the day sounds awesome!

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