This post is very much inspired by Kris's Girl Geek Sydney talk several months ago titled Do ALL the Things!

From her talk, I decided to try two of the 'Productivity Hacks' that I felt was most applicable to me: Pomodoro and Inbox Zero.

Neither of these were new to me, though I had never sat down and gave either a serious attempt - mainly because I was unconvinced with at least one aspect of each. However, Kris was very convincing so this time I decided to give each a decent chance and see how it would go.

Pomodoro Technique

If you're unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, the concept is simple:

  1. Decide on the task to be done
  2. Set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. Every four "pomodori" take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

The idea behind the Pomodoro Technique is to increase your focus in the 25 minutes (get more stuff done) but also have breaks in between to prevent burning out.

What prevented me from trying it earlier?

As a developer, the best thing that can happen is to get into the flow; the worst is to be disrupted from this flow. My thought was: with a forced 5 minute break every 25 minutes, this would surely break my flow!

What did I find?

Surprisingly, I found the 5 minute breaks didn't break my flow in the traditional sense. Yes, the alarm went off, stopping me from typing that extra line or two. However, because it was a planned break I was able to start where I left off almost immediately.

In fact, the feeling of "Just 5 more minutes and I can keep coding" helped greatly with concentrating and getting back into the flow easily.

Additionally, because 25 minutes of no distraction is a concrete goal, it was easy to stick to and made concentrating and focussing on the task at hand much easier.

A couple of tips (that helped me a lot, in no particular order)

  • Use a timer, don't just look at the clock. There are lots of free online timers (eg.
  • Work so you can't see the countdown, an alarm will go off when time's up
  • Close the usual things that you know will distract you, for me it is email. Other possible distractions: twitter, instant messaging, facebook etc
  • Know what your ideal environment for getting stuff done and get into it! eg. I find playing music helps prevent my mind from wandering
  • Instead of checking email/facebook in the 5 minute break, go and stretch your legs, grab some water, walk away from your computer!
  • Before you start your first Pomodoro for the day, take time to do all the usual things that distract you (facebook, email etc). Once you start your Pomodoro, that's it, no more!
  • Stick to it. Really try and consciously avoid distractions. There should be no reason that you need to check email or facebook in these 25 minutes. Don't open them at all.

Inbox Zero

It’s about how to reclaim your email, your attention, and your life. ... It’s not how many messages are in your inbox - it’s how much of your own brain is in that inbox. Especially when you don’t want it to be. That’s it.

~Merlin Mann. Inventor of the 'Inbox Zero' concept

What prevented me from trying it earlier?

My original email inbox workflow would be to read messages as they come in, and leave them in the inbox marked as read. For the ones that needed attention, I'd star them or leave them unread. In my mind, as long as I had an unread count of zero I had, in my own way, achieved Inbox Zero.

However, even though I had already read and processed the emails, to some degree they were still on my mind. Each time I opened my email, I would see a full inbox (of read emails) and have to think a bit to find the one I needed.

What did I find?

After a few times of failing to find important emails, Inbox Zero seemed like it deserved a try. It was a big leap. I had 9000+ emails in my inbox, but I bit the bullet and went ahead. I selected everything in the inbox, labelled them "DMZ" and then archived them. The next 20 min or so was spent cleaning up old filters, creating some new labels to help with organisation and finally I was at Inbox Zero!

Since then, I've had on average 3-5 emails in my inbox (so not quite Inbox Zero) but it has definitely made a huge difference. Although I never realised it, simply having old emails sitting in my inbox was adding to my mental load. Now, for emails to remain in my inbox there needs to be a good reason, otherwise they are archived or get moved to a different label.

It was such a huge difference (one that was not anticipated) that I dreaded opening my work email (which still had the thousands of old/read emails sitting in the inbox). Thus, I found some time and also archived all the emails. Now it longer gives me a headache opening either of my inboxes :)

Couple of tips (these are from Gmail, but should be somewhat applicable to other clients):

  • Don't be afraid to archive - chances are you'll forget about that email in a couple of days time anyway. No point leaving it in your inbox, all it will do is clutter your inbox
  • Remember, when you archive, your email is not lost! You can still get to it (via 'All Mail'). If you keep this in mind, it makes it so much easier (and less scary) to archive your email
  • Have some labels (or folders) to help organise your emails so you don't have to keep them in your inbox
  • "Out of sight, out of mind" really applies here - if it needed your attention, you should've already addressed it

If you are to take anything away from this post, it would be the following. Firstly, work in such a way that you can focus; distractions, multitasking and context switching will only hinder your productiveness. Secondly, actually give those productivity hacks you've read about a good shot; don't dismiss them without making a serious attempt.

To productivity and getting all the things done!