Do you wish you could quickly focus to get more things done? Do you desire to have a system in place that would guarantee you could easily get into a state of high productivity? Pavlov can teach us a thing or two about how we can accomplish these goals.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist from the late 1800’s. Most people associate Pavlov with his dogs. Pavlov’s main area of study was how it was possible for his canines to connect an object or event with food. He noticed one day that his dogs started salivating when they saw their food in his hands. Pavlov was more surprised though, that they also salivated every time they saw him, even if he wasn’t carrying their meal. The dogs had learned to correlate Pavlov and food, with their brains automatically sending signals to their bodies in anticipation of the meal.

Pavlov devoted the rest of his career to studying this stimulus and response reaction and used other objects, such as a bell, to train his dogs to expect food. Once his dogs associated the bell with food, they would begin to salivate anytime they heard its sound. This process is known as conditioning, and a similar method can be used to form new habits that increase your productivity.

We all have habits we wish we were doing to lead a healthier, happier, and more productive life. Many of these wishes come to light during the New Year as we make our New Year’s resolutions. Typically we’ll list a form exercise, a new way of eating, perhaps some reading to keep our minds sharp, and either saving more or spending less. Besides the fact that all these goals could benefit from a lesson in SMART goals, they’re typically doomed to fail because we don’t pair them with well-established routines and because we don’t attach a reward to them.

Understanding How Habits Are Formed

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg states that habits work on a 3-step loop. There’s a cue, routine, and a reward. The cue is your trigger, the routine is your action, and the reward is what you get after completing the routine. Bad habits form the same way. For example, it’s 6:00am, and your alarm clock goes off. Without even opening your eyes, you press the snooze button and get another 5 minutes of sleep. The next time the alarm goes off you do the same, and again and again, until before you know it you’ve been in bed for 40 minutes and are late for work. The cue is the alarm sound, the routine is pressing the snooze button, and the reward is 5 more minutes in a cozy bed. Pretty soon the procedure becomes automatic and you don’t even remember turning off your alarm.

To break this habit and make it a good one, when your cue signals, the routine would be to turn off the alarm and immediately sit up in bed. You may be asking, “Where’s the reward in that?” It could be, for example, having time to make yourself a deliciously smelling fresh cup of coffee first thing in the morning. You’ll get a double reward with the sense of accomplishment you feel from knocking off a bunch of items on your to-do list.

The best way to create this new habit is to practice it several times the night before, and to keep practicing until you’re able to accomplish it. This way your brain can familiarize itself with the new routine. Remember, your lousy snooze habit has become automatic and chances are you’ll be too sleepy to override your impulse to turn off the alarm if you wait for the morning to start trying.

So what does all this have to do with your productivity? Everything. Once a habit is formed, your brain goes into autopilot and you can do things without even thinking. You can capitalize on this by creating cues to get yourself quickly focused on the task at hand and into “flow”, that intense mental state where you are fully immersed in what you are doing and have a feeling of energized concentration. One of the best methods for this is The Pomodoro Technique.

How The Pomodoro Technique Can Help You

The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s. It’s a simple system with robust results. Here’s how it works:

    1. Pick a task you want to accomplish.
    2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
    3. Work on ONLY that task and nothing else until the timer is up.
    4. Check off your time box on your task list showing you accomplished 25 minutes of uninterrupted work.
    5. Take a short 5-minute break.
    6. Repeat 3 more times.
    7. After every 4th pomodoro, take a 15–30 minute break

What’s especially important to note is that once your timer has started, you aren’t allowed to stray from your chosen task to do anything else. That means no checking your email or social media accounts, no responding to texts, no calling back a friend, and no getting up and grabbing a snack because all of a sudden you’re famished. Sometimes your brain uses these desires to avoid the work at hand. If you give into it, you will need to cancel out your pomodoro and start the timer again at 0, no matter how close you were to finishing. This is so that when you look back at how many pomodoro’s you’ve done for the day, you know that each block you checked off was 25 minutes of pure, focused, uninterrupted work.

Initially, Cirillo used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato, hence the name The “Pomodoro” Technique. Taking what we’ve learned from Pavlov and Duhigg, what makes using the kitchen timer particularly effective over something like the native timer that comes on your phone, is the ticking noise the timer makes as it’s counting down. As you work on cutting out distractions and train yourself to keep focused on nothing but your work for those 25 minutes, the ticking sound becomes a reliable cue for your brain that it’s time to get serious. The more you associate the ticking sound with working, the easier it will be to quickly get down to business and start hacking away at your work. Soon enough your brain knows that once the ticking begins, it needs to be fully engaged with the work you’re completing and that you will not indulge whatever to-do’s come to mind. In short, you condition yourself so that ticking = working.

At the end of 25 minutes, you’re rewarded with a 5-minute break, in which you’re free to do as you please. Maybe you search online for whatever information you were dying to know, make reservations for dinner, or get up and stretch your legs since we all know how bad extended periods of sitting can be for our health.

Adapting The Pomodoro Technique to the Modern Era

Not everyone nowadays has a mechanical kitchen timer they can use, and even if they do, the loud ticking sound may be too distracting in the beginning when you’re still getting used to the sound. In that case, it’s best to use an app such as Be Focused Pro (available on the Apple App Store and Mac App Store) where the volume of the ticking sound can be adjusted. There are also many other apps based on The Pomodoro Technique that can be used as well. If you can’t set the volume within your chosen app, you can always lower the sound on your phone or computer instead.

You may be tempted to keep working after the timer has stopped and work through your 5-minute breaks, but research has shown frequent breaks will increase your productivity overall, will fend off fatigue, and as previously mentioned, will keep you healthier.

The exception would be if you’re in the flow state, in which case it may be a good idea to continue working while you’re getting things done and the ideas are pouring out of you. Even so, try not to skip more than 1 break as your brain needs brief periods of rest to keep functioning at high levels for extended periods of time.

What cues do you use to signal your mind it’s time to work? What techniques are a part of your toolkit to keep you productive throughout the day? Share your thoughts below.


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