Productivity Lessons from Time Tracking and Pomodoros

124 Pomodoro cycles and 744 tracked hours later…


At the beginning of 2017, I made resolutions for every month in the year. I successfully completed my January challenge, failed my February challenge, but I am back on track for March. For March, my goal was to be more productive.


1. Complete 4 Pomodoro cycles every day

Pomodoro cycles are simple: 1) pick a task, 2) work on it for 25 minutes, 3) take a 5 minute break 4) rinse and repeat.

Pomodoro cycles are an easy way to break the 8-hour working day into small and manageable chunks.

2. Track all of my time on Google Calendar

My favorite new question has been “What has been the highlight of your past few days/weeks/month?” I am suprised by how many people can’t answer this question or can’t remember what they have done in the last week. I have this problem as well. Sometimes I journal about the previous week, and find myself forgetting half the things I did.

To be productive, I need to know where my time is going. For this project, I broke up my whole day into 48 30-minute segments and estimated what I was primarily doing during each each one.

If you are more interested in how I spent my time during the month of March (not just including things related to productivity), I used this data in combination with a few other apps to write a post quantifying all of my time.

Here is what my calendar looked like every day:

What led to good Pomodoro cycles?

Uni-tasking for 25 minutes

In the middle of the month, I started to forget how to Pomodoro Cycle, and broke the very first step (choosing a task). My Pomodoro cycles turned into working on Task A then switching to Task B, then checking my email, and responding to emails before going back to Task A. Whenever I would task switch or lose focus on the primary task, I would get out of the zone and find myself with nothing completed at the end of 25 minutes. Towards the end of the month, I forced myself to uni-task by turning off the Internet or only having one screen up at a time.

One goal each day

In the middle of the month, I started to set one priority for each day and I refused to move on from it until it was completed. Instead of spending 25 minutes on Goal A, the next 25 minutes on Goal B, and then next 25 on Goal C, it was so much better to work on Goal A for 3 cycles in a row. My most productive times during the month were when I worked on one task consecutively for 4–6 cycles in a row (2–3 hours).

Focus and flow

This is pretty obvious, but I needed to focus to have a good Pomodoro cycle. I needed to give myself a mental pep talk and tell myself that I needed to sit up straight in my chair, stop thinking about random other things, and focus. When I did all of these things, I felt like I was in a state of flow trying to beat the clock and do as much as possible before the next 30-minute period.

Strictly following the time allotted

I felt the most focused when I started exactly on the hour (_:00) or on the half hour (_:30) and then forced myself to rest at (_:25) or (_:55). When I knew I was going to force myself to get up at: 25 or: 55, it would make me focus, especially when I was getting towards the last 10 minutes of the cycle. The best thing about the Pomodoro Cycle is that it is only 25 minutes, so you can always see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Environment and productivity

Location and Spotify were essential things for me to get in the right flow to want to knock out 25 minutes of work. If I wanted to focus on writing a manuscript, I would turn on some upbeat music and work in the office. If I wanted to work on building a website, I would pick some pump up music and a bright cafe with a large table. If I was focusing on reading research, I would turn on some instrumentals. If I wanted to journal about life, I would turn on some soft acoustic music and pick a dark cafe.

Lessons Learned

Pomodoro Cycles beat procrastination

Pomodoro cycles reduced the friction required to start a hard task. Whenever I have a large task (starting a research manuscript or doing the final nitpicky edits on a paper), I will usually procrastinate, until I feel the pressure of a deadline. Pomodoro cycles reduced the friction that has prevented me from starting these hard tasks. Every time the clock hit :00 or: 30, I had to start doing something. Instead of procrastinating this month, I simply did them. As a result, I felt so much better after completing the tasks, not letting this giant task hang over me.

Hourly Check Ins = Awareness

Some say that priorities should be reviewed twice a day: once at the beginning and once at the end. This month, I checked in at least 5 times a day to make sure I was accountable for each of my half hours. My general awareness of passing time was much more salient, making time feel a lot more valuable. By the end of the month, I guarded each of the 30 minute increments like my own children.

I can only work so hard in a day

4–6 good Pomodoro cycles (2–3 hours) in a day is enough to be counted as a successful day. Out of my working days, half of my tasks require a lot of concentration and willpower (writing papers, reading research papers). These are the tasks that I need to use the Pomodoro cycle for. The other half can be completed relatively effortlessly (meetings, emailing, editing papers, journaling). As long as I completed these 4–6 hard cycles in a day, I felt very accomplished. A lot of progressive companies have already realized this lesson and have experimented with a shorter workday (5–6 hours). We aren’t robots. It’s not possible to retain focus for 8 straight hours.

Wasted Time

I consistently wasted time at the same times each day. Every morning I would wake up, but it would take me ~30 minutes of dicking around on my phone (Facebook, Instagram, and email) to actually wake up and get to the gym. After lunch, I would mess around on my computer for at least another 30 minutes (reading blogs, news, restaurants to go to, travel plans, messaging people, etc.). Every time I moved locations or had a meeting, I would mindlessly surf the internet for another 30-minute period. Every night, I would do nothing on my computer for another 1–1.5 hours. Of course, some of this “wasted time” was necessary (making plans, communicating with friends and family back home), but I definitely need to think of ways to reduce the amount of mindlessness.

Productivity = Happiness

Productivity isn’t a way to become more like a robot and work all day. Productivity makes me happy because 1) I feel like I’m contributing something meaningful to the world, and 2) I can be so much happier after work knowing that I have done all of the work I can possibly do today. There is no better feeling than feeling like you have accomplished something during the day and then relaxing with friends at night.

Ultimately, the goal is not being more “productive,” but being more happy.

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