The Secret to Productivity from Across the Globe

Letter to a Young Student in China

Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

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Black and white illustration of two young people with the outline of China and some abstract cells (in brown and yellow tones) behind them.

I have a secret that I want to share with you. It reveals how I achieved my most valuable successes. Everyone wants to be successful, don’t they? Suppose you have a math assessment coming up next week. I can imagine that you want to feel confident that you can apply the techniques and rules needed to do well in the assessment.

You may live in Beijing, Shanghai, or some other city in the great country of China. Although I live in Stockholm, on the other side of the globe, you may be curious about my secret to success. However, if I share it, you must first promise not to share it further. Can you promise that? While you think about it, let me tell you how my day started.

While having breakfast, I thought about what was important to me right now — things I wanted to change that I could influence myself. Some important tasks came to mind, and I wrote them in a notebook. A rule for this practice is that I cannot write more than five things, which is why I call it my shortlist. Although I might not be able to complete all five tasks on any given day, it is important to narrow my goals. What I leave off the list will not disturb my focus. However, I might need inspiration to start my designated tasks.

One of the five tasks I chose today was to write this letter to you. A publishing house in Beijing asked me to write it some time ago. This task has been on my shortlist every morning since then, but for some strange reason, I hadn’t started until yesterday. It’s similar to when I’m going to swim in a lake. The water looks cold, and even though I know that swimming for a minute will warm me up, I might hesitate anyway. The difficulty seems to be getting started, but it is less difficult if I consider the start to be its own little task.

I worked on this letter for only ten minutes yesterday, and almost like magic, it motivated me to continue working on it today. My name for this phenomenon is self-fulfilling tasks. When I start a task one day, both the task and I want to continue together the next day. There is even the risk of becoming too focused on that individual task when other tasks are more important.

Half a century ago, a man named Alan Lakein invented a method for avoiding the risk of spending too much time on a task. He set a mechanical egg timer from his kitchen for 30 minutes, and when the timer rang, he asked himself, “What is the best use of my time right now?” This became referred to as Lakein’s question.

I ask myself the same question often. The answer is usually either to continue with one of the tasks on my shortlist or to take a five-minute break to recharge my mental energy. After the short break, I ask again, “What is the best use of my time right now?”

What about my secret to success? There is a misconception, a false assumption — I might as well say a prejudice — that many people have about me. They tell me that I’m analytical. They say that I’m smart and that I have a sharp brain. I have heard, “Your books on Pomodoro and Monotasking have been read by hundreds of thousands of people, and you have helped many large global companies become more efficient!” The truth is that I am neither unusually analytical nor exceptionally smart. My brain is not sharper than anyone else’s. My secret is that I am always well prepared. By writing the shortlist, starting self-fulfilling tasks, and asking Lakein’s question, I create optimal conditions for success in terms of what is important to me. Feel free to try it yourself, but don’t forget that you promised not to reveal my secret to anyone else. This secret stays between you and me.

Staffan Nöteberg is the author of The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, published by The Pragmatic Bookshelf. You can also read The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated on Medium.

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Staffan Nöteberg
The Pragmatic Programmers

🌱 Twenty Years of Agile Coaching and Leadership • Monotasking and Pomodoro books (700.000 copies sold)