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I’m not advocating coffee abstinence. That’s ridiculous. A world without coffee is bleak indeed and as a full-time freelancer, I rely on coffee to get me going. However, when the deadlines are beating down the door and you’re about to reach for some of that delicious black gold, you need to remember coffee alone will not help you get your tasks done.
Here are a few pro tips for getting more done without mainlining the caffeine.
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique was created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo and remains very popular with productivity gurus. Francesco used a tomato-shaped egg timer in college to stay productive. Pomodoro in Italian means tomato, in case you were wondering.
The philosophy behind the Pomodoro Technique is that our attention span is only good for about 25 minutes. After spending 25 minutes of focus time on a task or several tasks, you are encouraged to give your mind a five-minute break. After four Pomodoros you can enjoy a longer break.
I’ve been using the technique off and on for several years and found it to be very helpful when I’m dealing with tasks or projects that require several hours of focus time. The five-minute break tricks your brain into thinking there is a reward at the end of a 25-minute focus session. I found myself working more diligently on tasks when I knew the timer was going.
Naturally there’s an app for that. There are also dozens of desktop and browser versions. You can even find a classic tomato-shaped egg timer just like the one Francesco used in the eighties. Out of all the apps I tried, Pomodoro was one of my favorites.
Give yourself micro-rewards
Micro-rewards are a way for you to trick your brain into staying on task knowing a pleasing activity is on the horizon. Let’s say you need to compose a very important email but you’re dreading the act of typing it. When you tell yourself a nice cup of coffee will be waiting for you after you hit send, your brain will be more likely to get the task finished.
The reward system is a powerful function of the brain that promotes activities that make us feel good. Unfortunately, it’s the same system that includes addiction to some unfavorable activities. So be careful what you reward yourself with.
Examples of micro-rewards could include a breath of fresh air, a yoga pose, a cup of coffee, a few minutes on Facebook, pet the dog, or grab a quick snack. It’s important that the rewards are small and inconsequential–meaning they won’t take you away from the desk for long.
Make a list
Making a to-do list is probably the most obvious choice when it comes to time management, but it can also become a laundry list of things you never actually get done.
Lists should never be more than a half sheet of paper in length and have fewer than a dozen to-dos. A list should also be created the morning of or even the night before you intend to do them. Don’t add to the list during the day. Start a new list and schedule it for tomorrow. Keep a healthy balance of quick tasks and longer tasks. I usually put how long I think each task will take next to the list item. Here’s a quick example:
- Write blog post about productivity (3 hours)
- Email Jack about website (5 min)
- Nudge Jill about invoice (5 min)
- Lunch (1 hour)
- Start monthly email newsletter (1 hour)
- Start contact page for project B (1 hour)
- Update menu for project C (1 hour)
- Update social media calendar (30 min)
Adding an estimate of how long a task will take will help you manage your time while tracking your to-dos. You can even sneak in to-dos that are not really work-related, such as lunch or run an errand. This gives you a break from the serious stuff you need to accomplish and allows you to check more items off the list, which is always a good feeling.
Do the hard stuff first
This is a tough one. We all know what I mean by the “hard stuff.” It’s that project, email or task you’re not looking forward to. If you feel resistance to anything on your to-do list, you need to knock that out first thing.
Mark Twain is quoted as saying:
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And If it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
An entire time management philosophy exists around this principle. The “frog” is the thing you don’t want to do, but need to do. Identify the task you are dreading the most and get it done as soon as you sit down at your desk. Don’t put it off, because the sensation of dread will only compound throughout the day.
A quick hashtag search of #gtd (getting things done) will net you a ton of information on the topic of time management. I’ve done a fair amount of research and personal experimentation to understand what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
However you decide to tackle your to-do list, go easy on the caffeine!
Chris is a full-time freelancer in Denver, Colorado. Chris helps small businesses, agencies, and entrepreneurs connect with their audiences in style. He specializes in WordPress websites, email marketing, branding and graphic design.