Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.

 

Pomodoro Technique: How a tomato can make you productive

Flat Tomato summary on iOS

Lately, I've been experimenting with a productivity method called the pomorodo technique. I'm not sure what "pomodoro" has to do with productivity (it's Spanish for "tomato"), but I like the technique, nonetheless.

The concept of this method is simple:

  • Pick a task you want to get done.
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes (a pomodoro interval).
  • Focus on that task - and only that task - until the timer goes off.
  • When the timer goes off, take a 3-5 minute break, and really quit working on the task when the time is up.
  • After the break, repeat the cycle again (you can continue on the same task, or pick a new one).
  • After 4 pomodoro intervals, take a longer break (usually 15-30 minutes) and do something enjoyable.

This method is great for momentum, particularly on boring or daunting tasks, since you always feel like the next break isn't far away. The feeling of momentum and progress is also hard to describe - it reminds me very much of the 'sprints' used in the Scrum method of software development. In essence, this is very much like time boxing, but I prefer the use of fixed intervals in the pomodoro technique.

Gadgets can help

No surprise, I turned to gadgets to help me with the pomodoro method:

  • Old school: I started this process using a mechanical kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, which I found on Amazon. This was fun, but not really portable (or at least I never remembered to bring mine with me when I left my desk). I eventually graduated to using my smartphone...
  • Flat Tomato for iOS: On my iOS devices, Flat Tomato is my go-to pomodoro app. It is easy to use, and is perfectly-aligned with pomodoro, including timing the intervals, the breaks, and remembering that you've done 4 cycles so you need a longer break. It also tracks user-defined categories so you can review how you've spent your time (in an attractive, graphical chart). It also shows the status of the current interval on the lock screen.
  • Clockwork Tomato for Android: On my Android devices, I use Clockwork Tomato. It has many of the same functions as Flat Tomato, with the addition of weekly and monthly summary graphs to show how you've spent your time.
  • Computer- and web-based apps: I tend to use my smartphone for my timer, so I don't really have a computer-based timer to recommend for pomodoro. If you have one that you like, please share it in the comments below.

Bottom line, I am a fan of the pomodoro technique as a way to keep me productive, help me get through mundane tasks, and to reinforce the need for regular breaks during the day (that last one is huge in terms of energy management).

By the way - this blog post took almost exactly one pomodoro to write.

4 Apps That Will Help You Achieve Your Daily Goals

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Many of us are busier than ever and increasingly more stressed. If you’ve got a long list of goals to accomplish, you might need a little help. The good news is there are apps you can download onto your smartphone that can help you accomplish those goals. Here are 4 that are interesting and a bit unusual, with a variety of focuses:

Pact

Going to the gym is something you know is important for reducing stress, helping your self-esteem and giving you more energy to do everything else you need to do. But, at the same time, working out tends to be one of the first things you put off.

To eliminate that problem, you can try using money as a motivator by downloading Pact. The concept is pretty interesting: LInk this app to your bank account and if you don’t go to the gym, Pact will take money out of your account. Where does the money go? It is redistributed to those who did make it to the gym. If you do accomplish things like completing your gym workout or taking 10,000 steps in a day, you’ll get a cash reward paid by those who didn’t meet their goals.

You can’t fake it either. GPS, photos and other services are used to keep everyone honest. It can also be used for other challenges, such as eating your veggies or tracking the food you eat.

CARROT

I've seen some people call CARROT "sadistic" because if you don't finish your tasks, the app gets very upset. However, it's not all bad -- if you complete your tasks, the task master will praise you.

This unique app works by calling you out for being a slacker. If you tend to forget to pick the kids up after school or don't pick up your dry cleaning, this app strives to ensure you don’t do that again. It can also be used like a tyrannical gym instructor if you’re trying to get fit or help you stick to your diet plan. CARROT will force you to accomplish your goals as if you have a nun hovering around with a ruler just waiting to make it sting. This one is a little intense for me, but you might like it.

BetterMe

If you have a difficult time waking up in the morning without several alarms or someone shaking you awake, BetterMe is an app that can do the trick. The twist? It’s based on public humiliation rather than private shaming. If you don’t get up when you’re supposed to, the app will post a message to your Facebook page that tells your friends you were too weak to get out of bed.

In addition to serving as a rude alarm clock, it can help you get to your classes or work on time. All you have to do is input the address and time of your commitment, and the app will use GPS to see if you’ve arrived at your destination on time. If not, it could be a little embarrassing when all your Facebook friends start asking why.

SmartyPig

If you’re having trouble saving money, SmartyPig is an app that can help you save for a specific goal such as a vacation or a down payment on a house. It also allows friends, family members and other users to contribute to your savings goal. It can make saving fun by "feeding the pig” and encouraging you to add money you would have spent on a latte into your savings instead. Because it shares your goals via Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites, it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll stick to those financial goals.

If you like edgy, you might like one or more of these apps. Enjoy!

OurGroceries Is A Great Family App

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For the past 6 months or so, my wife and I have been using an app called "OurGroceries" to manage our shopping lists, and I recommend it highly. Through a smartphone app, we can easily add things to various shopping / errands lists, see instantaneous updates as we shop, and a lot more. The app is very easy to use, both in adding and crossing off items on your shopping list - we use the iOS version on our iPhones, and there is an Android version, as well.

In spite of the "groceries" reference in the title, you can use this for just about any shopping or errands list. As you can see in the screenshot, we've set up lists for a number of our commonly-visited stores, as well as a general purpose "Groceries" list. As we think of something, it is very easy to add it to the list, and it automatically shows up for the other person.

As you use the list over time, you tend to repeat items, and the app makes it easy to add those items to the list. You can either start typing and it will autocomplete based on your history, or you can tap on one of the crossed off items (as seen below) and that item will be moved back to your list. I also find I am less likely to forget things if I scan through old items to jog my memory.

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Another cool feature is the ability to set up recipes (we only have one, at the moment as you can see in the first screenshot). With recipes, you can bulk-add items for a specific recipe or project. Once you define the recipe, a single tap will add all of its items to the appropriate lists. The recipes don't have to be literally recipes - for example, you might have a "Backyard BBQ" recipe that includes a bunch of items you want to stock up on to prepare for an upcoming event.

OurGroceries has two versions - a free, ad-supported version and a paid, ad-free version (paid via an in-app purchase). After seeing the value a few weeks in, I paid the $4.99 for the ad-free version and I haven't regretted it.

You can also edit and manage your lists via OurGroceries' website. We don't really use it that way, but it is good to know that the option exists.

If you need to coordinate shopping and errands with other people, give the free version of OurGroceries a try - I think you'll like it.  

5 Time Management Tips for Top Executives

Maren Kate Donovan

Maren Kate Donovan

I had the pleasure of talking with Maren Kate Donovan, the CEO of Zirtual on a busy day in New York the other day, regarding some insights she's developed around executive productivity.  She has distilled these down to 5 tips through things she's learned on her journey at Zirtual, where she has created a company that provides virtual assistant services to executives.  

She's learned through trial & error, watching more experienced people, and interviewing others who were already doing the things to which she aspired - an approach I love.  Here are her tips, along with some comments from me.

Maren's Top 5

1. "Hire people smarter than you."  Put another way, Maren says , "Don't be the smartest person in the room."  This is where you need to check your ego, and recognize that your success will be greater and more sustainable if you surround yourself with great people.

From my experience, this rings true.  After all, haven't we all heard the old advice that if you want to get better at a sport, you need to play against someone better than you?  

2. "Create a system of accountability." Set expectations by giving people a due date & time, and give them specifics about what you expect from them in terms of results.  Maren says this will help drive greater organization and focus.

I think what Maren says is true, but I'd go one step further - accountability is a two-way street, in that you can expect it all you want, but the other person has to accept accountability for this to truly work.  And that is where the clarity Maren describes comes into play: before you accept accountability for something, make sure you have a clear idea of what success looks like, and insist that you have the time, ability, and resources to deliver.

3. "Make sure your employees are familiar with your products." Maren believes it is vital that your employees understand your products, and how to use them.  Additionally, she recommends you share your expectations of product quality, responsiveness to customers, and other aspects that will come into play as they do their jobs.

She explains:  She often hires people who are experienced in "the business world," but when she brings them into her organization to function as virtual assistants (VA's), she needs to make sure they understand her expectations as a Zirtual VA.  She put them through hands-on training as a VA with a mentor, so they can learn and get feedback in real-time.  This higher touch model up-front pays dividends down the line, where they can work independently while still upholding Zirtual's standards.

I agree, of course, and believe this is critical to a couple of principles I hold near & dear: Know how your company makes money, and figure out what you need to do to stand out from your competition.  I also believe strongly in mentor/apprenticeship types of training - there is no substitute for doing the work when you want to learn quickly.

4. "Use the 'I'd have a drink with this person' test."  Maren believes part of success is in creating a connection with your employees and partners, and that you can tell if that is working by having a drink with them - whether that is coffee, tea, wine, etc.  That activity builds rapport, camaraderie, and helps a culture gel in a way that establishes behavioral norms within your company.  In other words, it is part of what makes it more than just a job.  I find that this kind of approach also helps you develop a natural, corporate, immune system that helps people who don't fit in your company decide to move on to their next gig - and that can be a good thing, believe me.

5. "Figure out what people are good at and leverage their strengths."  To continue along the lines of tip 4's theme of making work feel like "more than just a job," to keep people engaged, Maren suggests you spend time figuring out what your team members are good at and what they are passionate about.  Keep in mind that this may take you beyond the job they were officially hired to do.  She told me stories about people in her organizations that were financially-savvy and, even though their core job was something else altogether, she involved them in financial planning and analysis to keep them challenged and engaged.

I'm a big fan of this approach, too, because I believe it gets employees' creative juices going like nothing else.  It also gives you the opportunity to cross-train people in your team and build bench strength in your organization.  Furthermore, it helps with career progression, in that it makes it easier to provide more options for people who may want to move out of their current job into something new.

As a CEO herself, I asked Maren what her key advice is to new or aspiring CEO's.  Here are her thoughts:

Read everything you can.  Meet with other people who are doing what you're doing, or doing things you want to be doing.  Spend time networking to learn - ask other leaders to lunch, coffee, or just a phone call to chat.  Learn to use the power of delegation - for example, if you hire a virtual assistant for less than $20 an hour and your time is worth more than that, then you're wasting money by not finding ways to delegate tasks that don't play to your unique strengths.

Maren gives great advice, for sure, and I don't think its value is limited to C-level executives.  

What about you?  Do you have any best practices, practical advice, or tips for better time management?  Please share!


Have you checked out the "Toolbox for Success: What You Need To Know To Succeed As A Professional" yet?  In this Kindle-only book, you’ll find a collection of lessons learned, resources, and stories that I offer to help you on your journey to greater success. 

Productivity tip for podcast listeners

I listen to a lot of podcasts during my commute, while traveling, and while running or walking.  For me, this is a crucial activity to "feed my head" with data about topics I care about.  If you like podcasts, but feel like you don't have enough time to keep up, I have a tip to make it more productive:  Variable Speed Playback

Back in the day, I began listening to audio books on my iPod and discovered that the iPod had a built-in setting to allow me to adjust the playback speed of the books (you could slow it down, as well as speed it up).  I began to enjoy the time-compression advantages of listening to the audiobooks faster (typically 1.5x) - after all, a 30-hour book suddenly became a 20-hour book - what's not to love?

Since then, Variable Speed Playback is a must-have feature for any podcast player I use.

Here are some additional tips and things I've learned about this:

  • Not all time-compression algorithms are created equal.  All of the variable-speed algorithms attempt to speed up the playback while maintaining the pitch of the voice so people don't sound like chipmunks.  Some players use algorithms that are good at this, others suck at it - you have to try them out to find one that sounds 'natural enough' to you.
  • If you are bothered by the faster voice rate, give it 3-5 minutes to settle in.  Your brain will adjust and it will sound normal after a few minutes.
  • My default playback rate is 1.5x, but there isn't a "one speed fits all" option.  Some podcasters talk very slow, so you might need to go to 1.75x or 2x.  Others talk very quickly, so you may not be able to speed them up at all - no biggie, you're being productive enough because they are loading you up with high-density information.
  • Some podcasts are not well-suited for speedups - for example, those with a lot of music, or being presented by people with strong accents, or by groups of people with at least one "fast talker" in the bunch.  You'll get to know which of your podcasts are accelerate able, and which aren't.
  • Along the same lines, I prefer podcast players that can maintain a speed setting for each podcast so you don't have to adjust any time a new one starts.
    • On iOS, I love Downcast (image on the left at the end of this post) - it has a default setting that works globally, as well as making it easy to define a local setting for each podcast.  It also has a great variable speed algorithm that works well for a variety of podcast types.
    • On Android, I like BeyondPod (image on the right at the end of this post) - it has a default setting globally, an easy way to adjust the playback speed on the fly (with pre-set rates, or an variable slider), as well as a great algorithm for variable speed playback.  The only thing is lacks is the ability to remember the speed setting for each podcast individually - still on the hunt for that on Android in a player that isn't fatally flawed in some other way.

I've had a few folks who thought I was crazy when I recommended this, but several of them have come back telling me they are believers.  By the way, I use sped-up playback with the Audible player for audiobooks - also a huge time saver.

Give it a try and let me know what you think.

 

Downcast for iOS
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BeyondPod for Android
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