Fifty minutes to productivity

Though I have purchased a couple of Tim Ferriss‘ books, typically I don’t subscribe to shortcuts and hacks and so forth for increasing productivity, mainly because they never seem to work for me (or, if they do, I can’t make them stick and become habit). However, there is one trick in particular that I learned from my former orthodontist and mentor Dr. Sarah Shoaf, who has more alphabets after her name than anyone else I know, and it has helped me immensely in my efforts to plow through my dissertation proposal, piles of grading, and various other projects. And it’s shockingly simple.

First, get yourself a kitchen timer that can go up as high as possible. Set it to 50 minutes. Prepare yourself mentally to work as hard as you can (whether that means writing, studying, reading, plowing through emails, grading–whatever it is that you need to focus on), and then start the timer.

Then work, work, WORK.

Even though 50 minutes sounds like a lot, you’ll be surprised how quickly the time ticks down. I don’t recommend that you keep the timer in a place where it’s within your eyeline; if you’re like me, you’ll want to glance at it occasionally. Resist those urges and keep pushing, because before you know it, the alarm will go off.

Then what?

It’s very simple, but also very important: TAKE A BREAK.

For ten minutes minimum (though sometimes I go up to as much as half an hour), take a break. Disconnect completely from what you were doing. Do not think about it, do not contemplate it–do not so much as lift a pen to do anything associated with your tasks at all. Do something else. Make yourself a cup of coffee; watch a half-hour TV show; flip through a magazine.

Then, when you’re ready to get back on that horse, set the timer for another 50 minutes–lather, rinse repeat.

I don’t know what it is about 50 minutes that seems to work so well (I bet there’s a neuroscientist or psychologist out there somewhere who could tell me, though), but this process has been a lifesaver in those times when I simply have to get massive amounts of stuff done. Give it a shot and see what you think.