The popularisation of remote working has raised many questions about managing a remote team, especially when it is international. Such a system of work requires a completely new approach and tools, as well as setting priorities. In...
Here, on Teamdeck blog we tend to discuss strategies for more effective project and resource management. Their success often depends on knowing how to manage your time at work. This is why we decided to run a week-long test: get three people to try some popular time management techniques and describe the results. There are more variables in our experiment, as all three of us have different forms of employment (full-time, part-time and freelance). On top of that, we all have slightly different tasks in our daily work, you’ll read all about that below.
In order to make it useful for us as well, we tried to find techniques that we actually believed would be effective. After all, we wanted to become more productive.We’ve chosen three different time management techniques:
- Deep work (Ania, Content Creator, freelancer)
- Pomodoro (Joanna, Customer Success Specialist, part-time employee)
- Utilizing peak energy hours (Adrianna, Growth Manager, full-time employee)
We’ve been journaling throughout the experiment in order to capture our impressions regarding these time management techniques. Here are our stories:
Time management technique I’ve tested: Deep Work (based on Cal Newport’s book)
In his book, Cal Newport describes a couple of approaches, including the one in which you completely eliminate the so called shallow work. Since my role requires me to do a fair amount of shallow tasks daily, I’ve decided to go with the rhythmic philosophy of deep work scheduling. Basically, I will plan two uninterrupted blocks of deep work everyday and work on shallow tasks in between.
My deep work time slots will last 90 to 120 minutes. During that time I will only work on an allocated task. My phone and SM notifications will be off, and I’ll have some fresh water to drink, so that I’m not tempted to leave my desk.
I am really looking forward to try out the deep work method. Have you ever seen any “distracted puppy” gifs (like this one)? I’m that puppy. My biggest challenge work-wise is to stay focused on the task at hand, without trying to multitask or checking something I don’t need to do for another week or so.
The author of the deep work technique describes it as the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. This sounds a little bit too-good-to-be-true to my distracted self but, at the same time, it’s a great goal to work towards.
My very first observation about my deep work sessions was that they seem like a very short time. 3 hours of super-focused work per day don’t sound that impressive. The results of those 180 minutes, however, were more than satisfying: I’ve accomplished a lot!
I’ve noticed very quickly that deep work is the most effective for me when I have a single task that doesn’t demand any Internet browsing. Writing a blog post, which was my main task for one of today’s blocks went great. Researching an article, on the other hand, felt a little bit more unstructured. It’s difficult to tell when you’re still researching the topic and when you’re just reading an interesting piece that’s more or less on the subject.
Based on my experiences from the previous day, I’ve decided to dedicate both of my today’s deep work sessions to plain old writing. No phone, no social media, no internet (except for my dearest friend: the thesaurus).
Wow, it went fast! I did much more than expected. See, I would normally be very tuned in to my mood when writing and at the slightest sign of fatigue I would take a break. That seems to be a good tactic, because I don’t want the quality of my writing to drop. With deep work, however, I felt more determined about sticking it out till the end of the session.
Speaking of signs of fatigue, the most obvious one for me is when I start to fixate on a single sentence or a heading, and then try to perfect it multiple times without seeing any effects. I was aware that this kind of mental looping could actually distract me from my deep focus. Today, instead of trying to figure out the solution, I would just make a “to be improved” note and move on. This made the whole thing much more productive.
The first session was dedicated to writing so it felt familiar and went great.
I had to run some errands around lunchtime, so I was only able to start my second deep work session at around 4:30 pm. I was a little bit tired: errands drained me + I had a burger for lunch which is not the greatest idea if you’re not planning a nap afterwards, but hey, let’s see!
Today’s second session was dedicated to creating some ebook layouts in InDesign. I find making that kind of stuff on my own very satisfying, so I’m trying to learn and become more proficient in using Adobe tools. It turned out that my maker’s enthusiasm totally kicked the afternoon slump and I even spent more in the deep work mode than I had initially planned.
BTW I’m using the built-in iPhone timer to set alarms for my deep work sessions.
The first session was great (proofreading the articles I need to send out to my clients) but I finished the task well before the 90 minute mark. I didn’t feel like starting a completely different task right away, so I decided to simply prolong the second session and make it 105 minutes instead.
By now, I totally see the value of being distraction-free during the deep work sessions. The shallow work tasks for today (replying to emails, sorting out some documents, creating a simple banner for a Facebook group) took me much longer than needed, because I wasn’t paying that much attention to my focus level. Perhaps it could be a good idea to create a time cap for shallow work tasks as well?
Once again, I struggled with some shallow work that engaged me at the very beginning of the day. Note to myself: I need to go through the first deep work session of the day before checking my inbox.
Other than that, I didn’t really feel any different today, even though it’s Friday and I expected to feel a little more lazy than during the first part of the week. Nope, didn’t happen – I love that deep work requires you to follow the same steps regardless of the day, time or place. It really supports productivity.
I’m really excited about this time management technique. Deep work allowed me to do everything I had planned for the week, without stretching my workdays. Quite the opposite, actually – I had more time to spare than usual. The strict no-distractions rule made me finish some demanding tasks in a much shorter time than usual.
I’m planning to continue experimenting with deep work: perhaps I could add a third daily session or make them 2 hours long? My only weakness was that I would totally get back to my old distracted ways during my shallow work time. I should definitely work on that.
I’m not sure whether this technique would be easy to implement for people working in teams, but I can totally recommend it for freelancers who are in control of their daily schedule.
Customer Success Specialist
Time management technique I’ve tested: Pomodoro (developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s)
Main premise: I will be working on chosen tasks for 25 minutes (that’s one pomodoro) without interruptions, then take a 5-minute break. After 4 pomodoros, I will take a longer break, then start over.
Back in college, I used to study uninterrupted for 45 minutes and take 5-minute breaks in between study sessions. I think this will be similar.
I’m excited to try out this technique. The only thing I’m worried about is that it will be difficult to divide my tasks into 25 minute time blocks. Interacting with clients is my highest priority, so I don’t want to give it up because of the Pomodoro’s fixed schedule.
I’m a little bit confused – does journaling about the method counts as a break or not? It’s my long (25 minutes) break and I decided to use it to report my first impressions. Of course, it’s not the problem of this technique itself, it’s more about my planning.
Anyway, the 25-minute working sessions are difficult to align with daily standups or calls with Adrianna. Neither of this regular calls lasts full 25 minutes and I’m struggling to find tasks for the rest of that pomodoro.
The app I’m using to time my pomodoro sessions has a ticking sound that helps me to focus. On the other hand, however, it’s too quiet to cancel the noise of office conversations, plus, it doesn’t mix well with music.
I have a feeling I’m working faster because I want to make it by the end of the 25-minute pomodoro. I’m basically challenging myself.
My “to do” list has been edited several times because I underestimated the duration of a certain task. I had to add 3 more pomodoros to finish something I’d initially estimated for 25 minutes.
It’s a little bit stressful when I know I need just 2 minutes to finish a task but my timer shows I have only 11 seconds. Oh, and I missed one break today, because I’ve mistakenly scheduled a client call for that time.
Today, I decided to tailor the Pomodoro technique to my way of working. I’ve shortened the long breaks to 15 minutes. When creating my “to do” list for today, I’ve taken their priority into account but also my planned meetings. On top of that, I’ve written down the planned start and end times next to each task:
10:00 – 10:25 – DAILY
10:30 – 10:55 – sending LinkedIn messages about our Product Hunt campaign
The app I’m using (Focus Keeper) has a fixed length of breaks (in the free version), so I’m only using it to time my pomodoros, not the breaks. I’ve also given up on the ticking sound. I’m a lot less anxious than yesterday and still working very efficiently. Listening to music is helpful to keep my focus. Not once was I distracted by office conversations today!
All in all, the app is within my sight and I use it to time my pomodoros but knowing I’m supposed to finish a session at exactly, say, 11:30, makes everything less abstract. I’ve even managed to have a full client demo scheduled ideally within one pomodoro.
I’m creating a “to do” list for 4 pomodoros at a time. After the long break I plan the next 4 sessions. I’m more flexible that way and my list needs fewer edits.
One more thing – time flies when it’s divided into 25-minute bits!
Pomodoro is not that great when the unexpected happens: an Internet outage mid-session or new vegan snacks at the office that have to be immediately sampled, or when 6 people have their standup meeting next to your desk.
No day 4 – I’m a part-time employee, remember?
Today I really failed at keeping the 25-5-25 working rhythm. Partly because of a cancelled meeting and partly due to urgent 10-minute tasks coming up.
I think that 25 minutes is too short of a working period for me. The break would be more irritating than not. I find it easy to get into the state of flow and when I’m there and I’d rather finish the task. On average, I’m working 5 hours per day and I feel that I don’t really need frequent long breaks. I did try to have a 25-minute break and it honestly felt like a waste of time. I need just one longer break per working day to eat a snack.
Time for some Pomodoro-praise:
Creating a “to do” list is great and helps me to complete them without moving tasks to the next day.
- Dividing work into 25-minute sessions makes tasks and challenges less scary and more digestible. It’s also good for those tasks you keep pushing to the next time. In my opinion, it’s helpful to fit the Pomodoro lifecycle to your capacity. For me, the 25-minute break was a bit draining: when I had a good flow going it was a shame to stop.
- I liked the fact that I had my prioritised to-do list in my sight at all times. When a client demo or an unplanned meeting would come up, I was able to get back to my list and didn’t worry about forgetting anything.
- Pomodoro limits the chaos, that’s great!
- When you mute your Slack notifications for 25 minutes you miss out on a lot of office fun or actually important things like the sandwich vendor coming in. It’s challenging to withstand the urge to reply instantly with “haha”.
- You need to be flexible and sensible about priorities. Pomodoro teaches you to take good care of your tasks but you have to know when to stop your session when something urgent is happening (e.g. your team needs help).
- The initial stress – the first day with Pomodoro made me a little anxious. The time pressure and the ticking timer were both: motivating and stressful. You have to remember it’s not the end of the world when a task takes you 28 minutes instead of the designated 25.
One final thought: this time management technique works best when your teammates know you’re following it. Once they understand you want to, say, fit a daily standup in one pomodoro, they will be less prone to drag it out. And who knows, perhaps they will get a productivity boost as well!
Time management technique I’ve tested: Peak energy hours
Main premise: I will try to find my peak energy hours (times when I’m the most productive) and utilize them to do the bulk of my work.
What do I expect? Finding the time when I’m the most productive in order to plan my work better. Working constantly from 9am to 5pm doesn’t give you a lot of options in that area. That will be something new, so I’m really excited to do that!
I’ve managed to wake up at 5 am, switched on Slack and started writing a report. The first three hours were extremely productive, no interruptions, I loved it.
I had a call planned at 5pm, so I took a longer break mid-day (I wasn’t keen on working for over 12 hours). The break turned out to be a big fail. Since it overlapped with the team’s standard working hours, I received multiple messages and questions, plus I had to review some visual assets. I left some tasks for the late evening working sessions, so my total for the day will be over 10 hours.
Update: I was so tired in the evening, that I only managed to put in an hour worth of work. I will have to check whether late evenings could be my peak energy time later in the week.
I still felt the fatigue from the previous day, but I’ve managed to wake up early and work. The late evening session didn’t happen because I spent too much time working during the day.
Day 3 & 4:
I switched things up: I stuck to my morning sessions but started them a little bit later (around 8). I worked till 1pm and then only replied to Slack messages. This time I was able to try late evening sessions and it was really productive.
All in all, I think it’s a matter of communication. When your team works from 8 to 4, you need to be at least partially available. If you really need to focus on doing a specific task, I strongly recommend this method, but first let your team know and prepare them that you won’t be available from X to Y.
Day 5 was a bit difficult, I had to be present and engaged during the normal working hours from 8 to 4, I had a couple of meetings scheduled and I couldn’t skip them. This also showed me how flexible I need to be at work and how I can adjust my peak energy hours to the office schedule.
I’m happy that I was able to find my personal peak productivity times (that was my goal at the beginning). I tried different hours: early mornings as well as late evenings.
My peak energy hours? The break of dawn (except for the 10-minute post-alarm denial phase).
The downside is that this approach is not best suited to working with a team. As a Growth Manager, I need to be available to make decisions or answers questions from the development team.