My Top Productivity Secret: The 50-Minute Focus Technique

Multitasking doesn’t work.

In fact, it’s a serious productivity killer.

The average deskbound professional gets interrupted every 10.5 minutes. These interruptions can be external or, in many cases, self-induced distractions.

Once we’re distracted, it takes us an average of 23 minutes to get back on track.

Whereas multitasking was once touted as the solution for busy professionals trying to juggle home and work life, more recent research shows that multitasking is anything but.

More eye-opening statistics:

  • 98% of people do NOT improve their productivity by multitasking.
  • Trying to focus on more than one task causes a 40% drop in productivity.
  • Distractions (whether external or self-induced) have been shown to cause your IQ to drop 10 points.
  • The average desk-job employee loses 1 hours a day from distractions and interruptions. Numbers for home-office professionals are probably not far off (or maybe even worse!).*

So if multitasking isn’t the solution, what’s a busy freelance writer to do?

For me, the 50-minute focus technique is the answer.

The 50-Minute Focus

The 50-minute focus forces us to create solid blocks time where we can focus and build momentum. Only with a solid block of time in front of us can we create flow and thereby increase our productivity.

Contingent on the technique is to schedule fewer individual tasks and projects every day. It’s better to make real and significant progress in one or two projects than to barely make a dent in six different projects.

How It Works

The 50-minute focus is simple to do. But it does require commitment and discipline.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Close your email program and all your social media sites. Turn off your phone ringer and close your office door. In other words, eliminate ALL external distractions. This is not a suggestion, it’s a MUST-DO! This technique won’t work without 100 percent compliance in this area.
  1. Set a timer for 50 minutes and work on one project for the entire 50 minutes. You may choose to play “focusing” music to help you concentrate and muffle background domestic or office noises. Personally, I use Focus@Will. The site has a timer and scientifically designed music to maintain productivity and reduce distractions. (You can sign up for a two-week trial for free.)
  1. If in the middle of this work session you suddenly remember something else you have to do (such as replying to an email or calling a client), do NOT stop what you’re doing. Instead, keep a notepad handy and write down that “to-do.” Then get back to your work and don’t stop until the timer goes off.
  1. At the end of the 50-minute stretch, stop what you’re doing and set the timer again for 20 minutes. This is your break. Step away from your desk and do something that will clear your head. Some ideas: take the dog for a walk, take a bathroom break, read, get a quick workout, stretch, do a bit of yoga, etc.
  1. When the timer goes off, set it again for 50 minutes and go back to the project you were working on (or another project). Work nonstop until the timer goes off again.

Make This a Daily Habit!

Don’t overdo this technique! Two or three sessions per day is plenty. This kind of focused effort takes a great deal of mental and creative energy. Trying to do too many sessions will backfire.

If the timer goes off and you’re on a serious roll, keep going for a few more minutes until you find a suitable stopping place. Don’t feel you HAVE to stop right there and then. I’ll often go two to five minutes over and just make it up at the end if the block.

Experiment with scheduling these focused time blocks. I like to do them back-to-back and insert a 30- to 45-minute break in between. However, you may find that doing a block in the morning and then another one later in the day works best. These productivity blocks are like Lego pieces that you can move around to suit your preferences and unexpected changes in your schedule.

When you first try this technique, use it on project work, not to-do lists. I’ve found the 50-minute focus technique has the biggest impact on projects that will take a few days or weeks to complete.

If, after implementing this technique, you find you’re still struggling to write efficiently, check out my interview with Daphne Gray-Grant where she shares eight steps for writing faster and better.

And if you need more help with organization and planning, you may want to adopt legendary business coach Dan Sullivan’s three bucket system of organizing your work week.

Or try some of these practical tips from writer and coach to creative professionals Mark McGuinness.

 

*Sources: http://blogs.payscale.com/salary_report_kris_cowan/2012/08/multitasking-kills-productivity-infographic.html

http://mashable.com/2012/11/02/social-media-work-productivity/

 

 

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  • John Simmons

    You can find other forms of this by googling “Pomodoro Technique”. The original length of the focus session is 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks and a longer one after every few. Ed is disturbing my OCD by suggesting 50 minutes with 20 minute breaks. I went for 45 minutes with 15 minute breaks because it fits neatly into an hour.

    • LOL! The reason I prefer the 50-minute focus technique to the original / standard pomodoro is that it takes me about 15 min to get into the zone. Fifty minutes allows for that warm-up period + another 35+ minutes of productive effort.

      RE: the offbeat timing, keep in mind that 50/20/50 is exactly 2 hours. Which is something else I love about it, because I work really well in 2-hour blocks. That’s about as long as I like to work on a single project before burnout sets in. 🙂