When I started my first job, I was really excited as I realized that this is the point at which I start programming professionally. But once I got to actual work, there was some kind of flaw in my performance. I was trying to do my tasks from the moment I came until I finished. But while doing so, I constantly distracted myself with social media. And when I got assigned a huge task, I felt overwhelmed and it was extremely hard to even start doing it, just because I realize how much work I have to do in order to finish it. I just couldn’t keep myself productive.

But at one point, I realized that my approach was totally wrong.  Today, I will show you a system, which has become an extremely useful tool for me, that aids me at feeling satisfied with my work and delivering maximum output.

The challenge of keeping yourself focused

The key ingredient for being productive is being able to keep yourself focused. You can try out all the systems there are out there, but if you constantly scroll your facebook when you ought to be finishing some tasks, you won’t really perform well.

Some people have tendencies to be more focused than others. But in both cases, there is something you can do about it.

Resisting the temptation

That brings me to the first challenge for staying focused – Resisting the temptation of checking social media. The solution for this is to firmly remove it from your sight.

I once wanted to perform a challenge of not eating any sweets for a month. At first, I didn’t even feel that as a challenge. Everything was going great. But one day, my roommate bought the most delicious biscuits there are. He ate one and left the rest of the pack in the middle of the table in the living room. That is when the fortress started crumbling. Every single moment I spent in the living room, that delicious pack of biscuits was staring at me. And at one point, I just couldn’t resist and ate the whole pack.

The temptation of social media has a similar effect on us. If you want to do productive work, you can’t keep a facebook browser tab opened with the excuse of waiting for an “urgent” notification. It will surely distract you and even if you don’t open it, you will think about doing it. Just close it and check it once the work is done. If there is something urgent, people can always call you.

Multitasking – the arch enemy of productivity

Doing several things at once is a common practice for most of us nowadays. One minute we are coding, the next one we are checking emails and another – browsing over our tasks. That is clearly not effective.

While driving a car, it takes some time for it to accelerate and reach its maximum speed. But if you constantly change directions, you start all over with the acceleration and you can never reach your full potential. The same goes for doing productive work. If you task-switch all the time, you can’t achieve optimal performance.

Instead, what you can do is perform similar tasks in a bulk. Contribute 25 minutes to coding and only coding. The next ones contribute only to checking emails and then 25 for task planning. That way, you are still performing the necessary work, but doing it way more effectively.

Listening to music while working

I really enjoy listening to pop music. Just the other day, I got a slight window of opportunity when my colleagues weren’t in the room. So I raised up the volume for Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and started dancing horribly as I normally do, but it felt really good.

However, I don’t listen to pop music while working. Singing distracts you from performing well. You tend to get distracted instead of focusing on coding. That way, you are not productive. And there is a possibility to start singing along which would cause frustration among your colleagues. Especially if you have vocal skills similar to mine.

But listening to classical music or any other kind of instrumental tracks is another story. Instead of distracting you, it makes you more productive. My favorite classical music tracks are Vivaldi’s Spring and Pachelbel’s Canon. There is some science to why classical music keeps you focused. I am not an expert on this subject, but check out this article if you are not convinced.

Apart from keeping me focused, these tracks also help me remain calm when my code doesn’t work. The bad thing about classical music is that there are no lyrics. So you can’t really guess what the track’s name is while listening to it. But here is a combination of some very good tracks precisely picked for productive work: Best music for reading & studying.

How to be productive at work

As developers, we tend to get overwhelmed with tasks. This calls for a good system for aiding you in completing your tasks. But apart from that, it can help you while studying or reading your next book.

Among all the techniques I have tried, I found one to be particularly useful. In combination with a famous agile methodology, it has become an irreplaceable tool for me.

Pomodoro – Simple and yet powerful

Pomodoro is a very simple technique for doing productive work. The technique defines that you should do 25 minutes of productive work followed by a 5 minute break. Every fourth Pomodori (a unit of 25 minutes blocks of work), you get a 15 minute break. That’s it!

The problem with this technique is that it is so simple, that people tend to greatly underestimate it. I am sure that right now you are thinking – Is that it? Really? That will make me productive?

And yes, I sincerely understand you for your doubts in this technique. I know as I had the exact same reaction as well. I mean, it can’t really be that simple, right?

However, I once heard someone saying “Simple people are impressed by Sophisticated things. Sophisticated people are impressed by simple things”. And this statement holds firmly for Pomodoro. Once I tried it I realized that it is actually pretty useful.

I will get back to the benefits of it shortly after I present to you its “extension”.

Kanban – The Pomodoro extension

The Pomodoro technique by itself is good, but in combination with the agile methodology – Kanban, it quickly became my favorite productivity tool. Kanban is yet another simple methodology, which defines that you should split your tasks in three columns – To Do, Doing and Done. The combination of the two results in this amazing site – kanbanflow.

In this site, you can create the Kanban columns – To Do, Doing and Done, but you can add more custom columns. Furthermore, you can create tasks and set different colors for them based on the amount of Pomodori you think they will take you for finishing them. And it has an embedded timer, which tracks 25 minutes against a task and accumulates the time spent on each task. Finally, it can show you a full log of your work for past months.

Here is a screenshot of my Kanban board:

I like to color my tasks based on how much Pomodori it takes me to complete them:

Normally, I avoid using the “more than three” color as that makes tasks look scary. Instead, I try to break them up in several simpler tasks which take less Pomodori. I also have columns for the week days, along with the equivalents of the classical Kanban columns – Today, Done and Later.

I also have a column called TODO. Its purpose is to put tasks which do not qualify as a pomodoro task such as – going to the hairdresser, visiting a shop or similar. That is based on the classical and clumsy TODO workflow but I use it only for non-work related tasks.

Why is it effective?

I have laid out what the technique is and how you can utilize it using kanbanflow. However, I am sure you are still puzzled how it can be effective? This is normal, I felt the same way the first time I found out about the technique, but here are the conclusions I have come to after using this for quite a while.

Short iterations

When you go to fitness and start lifting weights, you don’t do an exercise from start to finish. You do it in several series. Instead of lifting the bar 30 times, you do 3 iterations of lifting it 10 times with a short break in-between. That’s how you should do work as well and that is exactly what Pomodoro helps you accomplish. Why are short iterations important?

Imagine going for a run of 15 kilometers. If you start thinking how you have to finish all those 15 kilometers, you get demotivated to do it since it sounds too much. But if you only focus on finishing 3 kilometers 5 times with a short break in-between, then the task looks much more feasible. Same with doing a huge task. Only thinking of how much effort you have to put to complete it will make you feel unmotivated to even start. But if you instead focus on just finishing the next short sprint of 25 minutes, then that is not so much. You can handle it.

How do you eat an elephant? – Bite by bite.

Breaks are good for you

Have you ever had a tough time finding the solution of some nasty issue? You spend several hours thinking hard about it, but nothing seems to come up. And after you give up on it, you go to the kitchen to grab a cup of coffee and chill out. But then, all of a sudden the solution somehow hits you in the head and you say out loud “Well of course! How stupid I am”.

This scenario is pretty common. I have had those “Eureka” moments as well. Instead of forcing ourselves to think about solving the issue, we ought to step away for a while and let the solution come to us. I am not an expert in psychology, but my experience shows that this approach brings great results.

That is why, the 5 minute breaks at the end of each Pomodoro are very beneficial for you. Apart from helping you solve a problem, the breaks prevent you from overwhelming yourself, which would make you unproductive and unhappy.

Furthermore, from a health point of view, these breaks help you rest your eyes and as we know, eye problems are not uncommon for developers. There is even an application, which reminds you to take regular breaks in order to help you rest your eyes. But by using Pomodoro, you don’t need it since you are doing it anyways.

Measuring your progress

If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Whenever we want to get better at something, we first have to realize where we are at the moment. With kanbanflow, you have statistics about how many pomodori you do per day and that is pretty valuable. Using that, you can understand where you are now and where you want to get to.

When I started using the technique, I was able to do around 5 pomodori a day, which is pretty low. But nowadays, I am aiming at doing 10 per day. I believe this is the optimal amount of productive work a dev can do.

Now, if you do the calculations, you will find out that 10 pomodori are roughly equivalent to 4 hours of productive work. But the workday consists of 8 hours so aren’t you working too little?

The key is that you are doing 4 hours of productive work. Surely, you can just focus on coding for 8 hours straight. But doing so, you will feel fatigue at one point which will make you either open facebook and scroll around it for a bit or not perform at your maximum. This way, you are achieving less by working more.

You can try to do more than 10 pomodori per day, but that can drive you to burnout, which will result in less pomodori the next weeks. I once tried completing a lot of work in a short period of time. I was able to do 20 pomodori per day for two days. But the next day, I just felt unhappy and burnt out, so I played video games all day for a week.

Common issues

The greatest bottleneck of this technique is dealing with distractions. Whenever you start a 25 minute sprint, you have to strive for maximum focus on performing your task and nothing else.

Social media distractions can be handled by some discipline, so it mostly depends on you. However, the big issue is when someone else distracts you. Some colleague might come and ask you something or one of those tedious daily meetings is about to start. That would cause a disruption in your flow.

This is harder to handle, sadly. What you can do about it is to tell your colleagues not to bother you during a Pomodoro. At first, those who are unaware of the technique might think you are just being mean. But if you explain the concept to them, they will understand the issue and start complying.

I’m even thinking of finding some kind of device, that has a green and a red lamp that shows whether I am currently in Pomodoro or not.

Conclusion

We live in a busy world, full of distractions. Today, I have shared the most powerful tool I know about organizing your tasks. Another issue is organizing your time, but I will tell you more about it in another article. Pomodoro can help you focus on short iterations of productive work. With the aid of Kanban, you can efficiently track your progress and feel satisfied with your work.

Why not give it a try?

Go to kanbanflow, make a registration, plan your tasks and  try it out for a day. I challenge you to try achieve 10 pomodori.

Once you do this, you will expose yourself to an extremely powerful system for giving your best at work and feeling satisfied.