How to improve productivity and get more things done

Have you felt proud of yourself because you could multi-task two or more things? As a programmer, I have also tried to do two tasks simultaneously. I naturally had a lot more items in my todo list and I tried to complete them all at once. I felt multitasking was the only way to improve productivity in work.

While my code is building or page is refreshing, I would quickly work on a different project or switch to a different tab on my browser to catch up on Reddit or Twitter. Or try to send an email.

Context Switch

Contrary to popular opinion, research has proven many times that our brain is incapable of multitasking effectively. For us it might seem like we are paying attention to two or more things simultaneously. But we are just switching between the multiple tasks at a very fast speed.

Computer programmers would understand this is similar to multitasking using threads that any modern programming language does. You might feel like you are simultaneously running all threads, but the computer and operating system does a very fast (in the order of microseconds) to switch between the different tasks/threads. It is called context switch and it is also very expensive to do in a computer.

Similarly, context switches are expensive for humans too. Your overall productivity would drop a lot. A task that would have taken an hour to complete would end up taking 4 hours after switching between multiple tasks. I have experienced this multiple times. Your brain ends up getting fatigued faster and you would feel like you have wasted an entire day and gotten nothing to show for.

Why multitask then?

So why do people keep trying to multitask? I think it is mix of these three reasons:

  1. They don’t know it is impossible. For a long time I also used to think that I was a master multi-tasker with a black belt.
  2. You have too many tasks on your todo list and unless you try to complete two at a time, you think you would fail.
  3. You feel that the task you are working on is too boring and want to use the second task to cope up with the boring job you have.

Whatever be your reason, by multitasking, you are only making things worse. Each context switch will only lengthen the time taken to complete all your tasks and you are damaging your brain by doing it. You are just becoming less efficient and you do a sub-par work on all the tasks.

So Single Tasking is the solution to improve productivity?

So you might think that concentrating on a single task is the solution to higher productivity. You are absolutely right, but it is not so easy. We always get distracted when we sit down to work on something. You might receive a chat notification or an email from a colleague and that funny cat video on Reddit isn’t going to watch itself.

Our brain is very efficient in predicting patterns. It can easily predict what is going to happen next and when it is going to happen. If you check twitter every 15 minutes and spend 5 minutes on it, very soon your brain is going to train itself that next 15th minute it should be ready for a context switch and stop working for the next 5 minutes.

This kind of patterns are very easily picked up by the brain and we end up being distracted by the brain even though there aren’t any notifications.

Pattern Training using Pomodoro Technique

So we can use this pattern detection power of the brain and become much more effective in Single Tasking. One technique that I have tried and works well for me is the Pomodoro Technique.

The main idea behind Pomodoro Technique is that you work in fixed blocks of time — usually 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minutes of break. It is quite easy to get started on pomodoro.

  1. Decide on what tasks you are going to work on today.
  2. Choose a single task and start a timer for 25 minutes. Your smartphone countdown timer would work well for this.
  3. Work focussed on that task till the timer rings. Turn off all notifications if you are too easily distracted.
  4. When 25 minutes runs out, take a break for 5 minutes. This is your first pomodoro. Step away from the task. Walk around.
  5. Goto Step 2.

After you complete 4 pomodoros, take a longer break for 20 minutes. And repeat till you have completed all tasks.

Once you begin working on 25 minute work and 5 minute break chunks, your brain begins to recognise the pattern and makes sure that it doesn’t distract you while you are working on a pomodoro.

Even though any normal smartphone timer would work, I prefer using any one of the many pomodoro apps. These apps usually have a clock ticking sound that makes sure I focus to complete the task before the time runs out.

But will it work for me?

It works for all kinds of tasks and people. I have personally used it when programming. I take tasks from my issue tracker and kept churning out features and squashing more bugs than multitasking.

When writing articles for my blog, I follow the pomodoro technique and had the focus to finish articles without distractions. Whatever is your task at hand, you can find some way to apply the pomodoro technique and get more focus and productivity.

Even if you work in a chaotic office environment, you can train your colleagues to not disturb you during a pomodoro and cut down on such interruptions. And best of all this technique helps you to show your boss that you are completing your tasks at a faster rate than others.

All it takes is a few days of dedicated practice and focus, and you too can become a productive master single tasker. Have you tried the pomodoro technique before? Let me know in the comments below how it worked out for you.


Originally published at cnu.name.