People say college is a waste of money these days, but I’m inclined to disagree. The two degrees in classical French horn I completed over a decade ago didn’t give me job security or alumni connections, but they did give me the formative experiences that come with relentlessly pursuing one skill set. Classical music fired up my penchant for deliberate practice. Whenever I had a new étude or concerto to master, focused work sessions were how I made progress.
As it turns out, I wasn’t the only student who preferred this approach. The late professor K. Anders Ericsson is best known for his 1993 study coining the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. But that research also found another interesting anecdote that’s been less publicized: The musicians at the top of their class often practiced in larger, deeper time blocks. They also took mental breaks in between their sessions.
When I later transitioned out of the arts and into marketing, I found that these longer, blockier chunks of time were better for making meaningful progress. Whether it was learning my way around emerging technologies or pumping out content, deep-focus sessions became my best friend and even helped me both work less and finish more.
It’s for these reasons that I can’t seem to get into the Pomodoro Technique. If you’ve hung around entrepreneur circles for more than a hot minute, you’ve probably run into someone who swears by the 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off approach developed by then-university student Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s.
Pomodoro is certainly one of the more digestible and approachable techniques for time and attention management. But it’s not the only way to work smart. And if you have to disconnect every half hour on the half-hour . . . are you ever even finding your flow in the first place? Here’s what science has to say about it.
Why we’re wired to focus in ninety-minute increments
You might prefer tapping into your ultradian rhythm, which not only sounds cool but is also your body’s natural energy cycle. While researching sleep patterns and circadian rhythm in the 1950s, scientists Eugene Aserinsky, Nathaniel Kleitman, and William C. Dement noticed how the principles of REM sleep also applied to wakefulness.
The good news is that this superhuman productivity technique is already built into you. To tap into it, however, you’ll need to get out of your own way. Ultradian rhythms rely on your endocrine system’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is as important as it sounds, so if your hormones are out of step you’ll have a hard time finding your flow. The classic side effects of stress, hustle, grind, and little sleep work against you rather than for you when it comes to flow state.
Sure, you could squeeze three Pomodoros into a 90-minute block. But why interrupt yourself when you’re on a roll? If you’re not sure what flow state feels like, allocate time to try different approaches and see what works best. Then replicate your process until it becomes accessible on command.
How to structure your schedule for success
Rather than defining productivity as doing things more quickly, consider an alternative in which productivity is taking action on those big rocks that will move the needle. If you’re not sure what that might be, here are a few ideas to get you started.
1. Embrace “relative prioritization”
The Eisenhower matrix is a tried-and-true way to sort tasks into quadrants based on urgency or importance. But what if, at the end of your plotting, you still have dozens of “urgent and important” projects? Sort yourself further using relative prioritization; a rule of thumb that’s worked for me, taken from Brian Tracy’s Focal Point, is to ask yourself what one task you’d take care of if you were about to go off the grid for a month. Repeat for each task to line up your to-dos.
2. Identify your zone of genius
While we’re on the topic of ideas that are overrated, let’s throw “being well rounded” in the pot as well. Gallup’s CliftonStrengths research notes that employees who feel they’re operating in their zone are three times more likely to report having an excellent quality of life and six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Knowing your sweet spot can help you identify not only what to prioritize, but also what to delegate or eliminate altogether.
3. Bet on yourself
Many of us stay plugged in all the time to try and get ahead, only to find ourselves ineffective and burnt out. Part of healthy work productivity is ensuring that you show up fresh when it’s go time. Checking your emails in bed at midnight steals cognitive energy that would be better spent recharging for tomorrow.
Flow state is a productivity superpower that lives within each and every one of us. But unlocking it requires that you try different approaches and figure out what works for you. Test out different workflows, find your sweet spot, and your winning rhythm might be closer than you think.
Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.