Productivity habits for you and your team

Bad news: there is no magic solution to increase your productivity. There is no magic seminar or tool you can offer your team to help them with their productivity in one simple step.

Good news: there are quite a few tools available that can help you and your team to get incrementally better at productivity. Success with these tools will take a) testing and experimentation, b) a portfolio of tools, not just a single magic tool, and c) time to practice and improve.

People can be easily distracted, particularly on a computer. Just before starting this post, I had to scan a letter in my computer, which required some fiddling with computer settings. That led me to YouTube to find an answer, and there was this skit from Saturday Night Live. . . .  Well, you know what happened next.

Writing is hard work, way harder than watching videos. My brain likes the easy way, and yours does too. Fortunately I was able to snap myself out of it when I used a tool to get started on the work I really needed to be doing: writing a post.

The tool is called the Pomodoro technique. The tool is as simple as setting a kitchen timer, or any other kind of timer such as an app on your phone or watch, for 25 minutes.

(The name "Pomodoro" comes from the Italian for "tomato" because the person who documented this tool originally used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato, like the one in the photo above. But you can use any timer you choose; the magic is not in the tomato itself.)

During the 25 minutes, you can't do anything but the one task you really need to do – in my case, writing a blog post. Don't do anything else until the timer stops. If the words don't come, you just wait. What happens in my case is that I start writing. 25 minutes is long enough to get some real writing done.

During a Pomodoro experiment I often get into a "flow state" – that somewhat magical state where time slows down and the task at hand takes over my concentration. Once the flow takes over, the original procrastination is solved. I also use this for other tasks I dislike: organizing files, cleaning, purging trash from my workspace. 25 minutes is enough to make a difference.

A second tool is frequently known as the Seinfeld method, or "don't break the chain." (The origin of the name "Seinfeld" is supposed to have something to do with either Jerry Seinfeld or an episode on his show, but the story is murky.)

The idea of this tool is to pick a habit or task that you need to do on a regular basis – in my case again, writing a blog post on Monday, Thursday, and Friday. I have also used this for getting regular exercise, and it is a key part of language learning apps like Duolingo.

The tool is simple: make sure you do the task you commit to every single time – and don't break the chain.  In other words, you keep track of how many times in a row you do the task and avoid the urge to "just skip a day."

This picture of a calendar and those big red Xs gives a visual idea of the tool:

For me, I know that I have completed my writing task every week for the past 10 weeks – 30 posts without a miss. That is real motivation to me to continue the chain. I will even publish on Thanksgiving Thursday this week (but I'll write it ahead of time. You should read that one next week!)  The idea of not breaking the chain is a powerful one.

As a leader, you can use this with your team. What task is it that you commit to do? How many times can you do the task without breaking the chain of events? You can see this idea in use when you see those safety signs at workplaces:

The power behind this comes from the idea that incremental progress, repeated regularly, makes big goals possible. By not breaking the chain, you continue the incremental progress you need to accomplish the big goal.

And speaking of progress, my Pomodoro timer has just expired. That's 700 words that didn't exist in this format before, and my chain of completions progresses. (There is still editing, rewriting, picture selection, and more; this writing stuff is not easy! But having a body of text to work with is excellent progress.)

Try out these two tools and see how they work with your team, and I'll offer some more in future posts.  

Please enjoy your Thanksgiving!

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn

Dale Rebhorn is a teacher and student of leadership.
Madison, Wisconsin, USA