You can’t pick up a set of weights, bust out 240 reps, and expect good things to happen. For one thing, if you can do 240 reps without stopping, you don’t have enough weight. If you have the correct weight, your muscles will give out after about fifteen reps.
Instead of going for one set of 240, break it up. Do fifteen reps, then rest for a minute or two. Call that a set. Do four sets of four different exercises, and you can easily get 240 reps in an hour-long workout.
The key is the rest between each set. That one- or two-minute break gives your muscles a much-needed rest to recover. Work them too hard—including not giving them that break—and you’re just going to get tired without seeing the results you’re after.
Your brain needs rest between reps while it’s working, too. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, is designed to help you develop a similar natural cadence at work.
The mechanics are simple:
- Plan your work. It’s easy to overlook this step and go straight to the timer, but the first step in being productive is always to identify the work you’re going to do. Don’t get in the car and start driving without a destination unless you enjoy driving around aimlessly.
- Set a 25-minute timer. You don’t need a dedicated tomato-shaped kitchen timer or a special app. Your phone already has a perfectly good timer. I use my watch.
- Take a 5-minute break. When the timer goes off, step away from your desk. Get up. Stretch. Go grab a drink. Stare out the window. Take your brain out of gear. Capture any ideas that have been crossing your mind while you work (if you haven’t already). Then get back to it.
- Every fourth pomodoro, take a 15–30-minute break. You’ve been working for about two hours now, keeping up a pretty good pace of productivity. Good job! You just got more work done than some people accomplish all day. Now give yourself a longer break. Have a snack! Put on some music or an audiobook and take a walk around the block.
The suggested times are a starting point only. Adjust them and find what works best for you.
- Keep productivity high through short bursts. You can defer most interruptions for (up to) 25 minutes, especially if you’re not checking Facebook and you put your phone on Do Not Disturb. Tune out the outside world. It can get by without you for a few minutes. You can’t sustain this kind of focused effort indefinitely, but there’s something about committing to a short window like this that makes it easier to work harder and more consistently than we normally would.
- Give yourself a clear signal for when it’s time to work. Our brains are all about triggers. When we set a timer, it quickly learns that’s a new trigger: it’s go time! The flip side of this is that when the timer goes off, that’s a signal that it’s okay to relax. You don’t have to feel guilty about your mind wandering away from work. Take a well-deserved break with a clear conscience!
- Get a better feel for how long work actually takes. One of the reasons we’re so bad at estimating is that we have no idea how long work actually takes. We overestimate the amount of work we can get done in a day (and, ironically, grossly underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years). Another often-overlooked part of the Pomodoro Technique is marking how many pomodoros it took to finish a task. This feedback loop will help you improve your estimation skills. When you know how long work takes, you can plan a productive day without setting yourself up for the frustration and broken commitments of signing yourself up for too much.
- Give gravel its own pomodoro. Schedule a pomodoro in the morning just to get set up for your day: check email, fill your water bottle, and silence your phone. Schedule another pomodoro at the end of the day to wrap things up: check email again, straighten your desk, and make a few notes on what you did. Gravel obeys Parkinson’s Law, so keep it confined.
When you push your body too hard, you start triggering natural defense mechanisms that slow you down. You get sore. You cringe at the sight of stairs. You can’t raise your arms above your head. Your body is telling you in no uncertain terms that it needs a break to recover. It’s getting ready for the next time. You need to give that muscle group two or three days of rest.
Your brain benefits from the same pattern of alternating activities. Work on something for too long and you start to lose your focus. Your mind wanders. By taking a minute to step away from your desk, you develop a cadence to get the circulation flowing again, handle the little necessities of non-work, and stay sharp. These interludes should not be structured nor assigned tasks! They’re down time, breaks where there is nothing you need to get done. Save the little things for their own pomodoro.
Work has its own rhythms. So do your brain and your body. When they’re not aligned, you’re getting pulled all over the place. Get everything working together, and productivity comes naturally.