Do focused work and be responsive to external demands

We are expected to quickly respond to things such as email and personal messages, but we also need to do focused work, for instance when we need to write an important document. We can manage to do both if we set up our day so that it fits our activities and our rhythm. Follow these five steps to find out how.

Do you also get drawn into the craziness of being available all the time? A study by Jackson and colleagues shows that the typical person checks email every five minutes and then, on average, it takes 64 seconds to resume the previous task after checking the email.

This leads to worse performance for almost all of us; a study by Watson and Strayer shows that only 2% of the population can pay attention to two things at the same time. When we hear this, most of us think we belong to that 2%. Sorry to break it to you, but we probably don’t.

As much as our culture idolizes multitasking, for almost all of us trying to do many things at the same time leads us to perform worse. It looks like we’ll need to put our beloved multitasking to rest and focus on one thing at a time, the old-fashioned way.

We can do both: allow time for focused, uninterrupted work and also respond to external demands. Here’s how.

1. Do one thing at a time

Since we’re not good at multitasking, we need to do what we do well: do one thing at a time. Choose one task to work on for the next 30 minutes of one hour. And commit to it. Set a timer and begin.

Make sure you eliminate distractions during this time. Also close your email app, close any messaging apps, put your phone on silent and out of reach. Close the extra tabs on your browser; they attract your attention, and you may find yourself clicking on them without even noticing. If you habitually open your browser and end up distracting yourself, you can turn off the wifi on your device or even turn it off in your house if you’re working at home.

Observe yourself and learn about your own tendencies. What attracts your attention? What distraction is so irresistible that you end up pursuing it? If you notice what distracts you, you know what you need to address, and then you can come up with a way to minimize it.

2. Set aside blocks of time for certain activities

Make sure you’ll have time for all those other things that are calling your attention. If you keep wondering what’s in your email, schedule time to look at email after you’ve worked on your important task. If you want to check social media, make sure you give yourself 10 minutes to do that after your focused time period is finished.

One way to do this is to schedule specific time blocks for certain activities. For instance:

Image credit: Marisha Manahova

Another way is to pair two activities: after you’ve completed the first one, you can do the second one. For example:

“After I’ve worked on my article for 45 minutes,
Then I will look at social media for 10 minutes.”

Knowing that you will get to the activities that are attracting your attention puts your mind at peace. Even if you’re not responding to your emails right now, you will get to them in a hour.

3. Figure out when you have the most energy

It is also important to figure out when is a good time for you to do focused work. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to figure this out.

On a free day, at what time do you wake up? This doesn’t refer to the day after you’ve been out all night. Rather, if you’ve had a few days when you could go to sleep and get up whenever you wanted, what does your wake up time end up being?

That is your natural wake up time. After that, the body has some sleep inertia (i.e., remaining sleepiness) which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has lifted, then your peak energy starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:


Image credit: Marisha Manahova

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should schedule your main task for the day sometime in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

4. Set your main task for the day

According to James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, each day should have a main task, also known as an anchor task. This is the most important (and often most difficult) thing you need to do that day. It should be prioritized over other tasks, and you should devote uninterrupted time to it during your peak energy window.

5. Prepare for the next day
At the end of each workday, spend 10 minutes planning the next day at work. Look at your calendar and at your tasks for the next day and decide what would be the best time distribution. What will your anchor task be? Schedule 1.5-2 hours to work on it during your peak energy window. What other 1-3 tasks will you need to work on? These are smaller tasks (i.e., not your anchor task) that still need to get done but are not as important and don’t demand as much attention as your anchor task. Schedule time for those either during your peak energy window or outside it.

Also, schedule time for email, messages, and other external demands. It usually works well to have two time blocks scheduled for that, for instance, one hour right before lunch and one hour at the end of the workday.

Putting it all together

To put this all together, you can take the following steps:

  • Start by figuring out when your peak energy window is;
  • For each day, decide on an anchor (i.e., main) task;
  • Schedule time to work on the anchor task during your peak energy window;
  • Schedule time to work on smaller tasks during other times of the day;
  • Schedule blocks of time for email, messages, external demands, social media, or whatever else tends to call for your attention.

Once you’ve planned out your day, all you need to do is set the timer and get going.

Have you tried this? What did you find? Let me know by commenting below or on FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn.

How I un-freaked myself out about planning my own wedding

I was seriously freaking out about my wedding. But once I figured out what was important to me and how to put that into practice, it became much easier and less stressful.

When I mentioned I am planning my wedding, many of my friends made jokes: “You love organization, so this must be heaven for you!” Everyone knows planning a wedding is stressful, but people assumed it was easy for me.

The truth is, it wasn’t heaven at all. I was freaking out. Completely! What kind of event should we have? Where should it be? How should we do it exactly? I had no idea.

Also, there are so many expectations around weddings. They are supposed to be gorgeous, elegant, fun, romantic, delicious (the food), entertaining… I felt like there was no way I’d be able to fulfill all these expectations and that the guests wouldn’t enjoy the event for one reason or another.

Whenever I shared this concern with friends, they said, “But you don’t need to worry about that! It’s not about the other people, it’s about you. This is your day!”

“Really?” I thought. “This is supposed to be my day? But if it really were my day, I would do it very differently.” But this was a strange thought because I had an idea of what weddings should be like, and that didn’t particularly attract me.



Photo credit: Logan Zillmer

I was fortunate enough to have multiple people around me consistently ask, “What do you want?” The truth was that I didn’t know what I wanted. I had never thought about it, and I had no clue.

In the end, it all came down to identifying my priorities. What’s important to me and what do I enjoy? I am not much into ceremonies and formal rituals, but I enjoy being in nature and being together with friends and family. (Fortunately, my fiance has the same priorities.) Once I identified these things as the most important, instead of expectations based on past experiences, things became clearer in my mind.

I also had to battle FOMO (the fear of missing out). What if, at some point in the future, I regretted not having a formal wedding? What if it turned out this was something I wanted?

I had to think about something Gretchen Rubin said: “If it’s right for us to throw something away, we should, even if someone else would pick it up.” In my case, it might be right for someone else to have a formal wedding, but it’s not the right thing for me. Why? Because it’s not what feels right right now. I have no idea what will feel important to me in the future, but I can try to figure out what feels right now.

Once I identified what my priorities are and what feels right to me, I knew what to do. As I described in the blog post about my system, I made a Trello board for our wedding, identified projects and tasks, and started getting stuff done.

Before, I had felt paralyzed and couldn’t start acting because I didn’t know what I wanted. But once I identified what I wanted and broke it down into manageable tasks, it became easy to act. It’s amazing how having clarity about what we want and why we want it can reduce our stress and get us going.

Have you been stressed about a major project you had to undertake? Did you find a way to reduce the stress and manage the project better? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Find your peak energy window

By doing difficult or important work in your peak energy window, you can greatly increase your productivity and the quality of your work. Here is how to find out when your peak energy window is.

Have you ever been asked, “Are you a morning person or an evening person?” If so, what did you answer?

While this is a useful question in order to get to know yourself better, the truth is more nuanced than that. Till Roennenberg, author of Internal Time, developed a useful way to think about this. With a couple of simple steps, you can figure out for yourself when your peak energy window is.

Let’s say you’re on vacation; you don’t have to wake up early for work, and you also didn’t stay up too late last night. You went to bed when you got sleepy, and you woke up rested.

On that morning, at what time did you wake up? That is your natural wake up time.

After you’ve naturally woken up, the body has some sleep inertia which lasts for 2-3 hours. Once the sleep inertia has receded, your peak energy window starts and lasts for about 4 hours. To illustrate this, let’s take an example:

Natural wake up time: 8:00
Sleep inertia: 8:00-10:30
Peak energy: 10:30-14:30

In order to take advantage of your peak energy, you should work on the most important task for the day (or the most difficult thing for the day) in that peak energy window. Other tasks, such as email and administrative tasks, can be left for other parts of the day.

So if your natural wake up time is around 8:00 and you start work at 9:00, you’ll be trying to work in the middle of your sleep inertia. It’s not surprising, then, that you can’t get yourself to focus or be productive. You’d be better off doing some simpler tasks until about 10:30 and then starting on the important/difficult task.

You may have noted that lunch falls right in the middle of that peak energy window for most of us. This could be a bit of a waste since many of us experience an after-lunch dip. To minimize it, you may eat a medium-sized lunch instead of a big one since a smaller meal will make you less sleepy. Also, metabolizing carbs tends to make us more sleepy than metabolizing protein or healthy fats, so you may want to minimize carbs at lunch and include more at dinner, for instance.

If you’ve seen my previous blog post about swallowing the frog first thing in the morning, you may be confused: these two blog posts seem to give conflicting pieces of advice. This may very well be the case, and you need to figure out what works best for you. That’s why it’s best to try out both and see how you feel and perform with each.

For someone with an early natural wake up time, doing the important task first thing in the morning may be effective since it coincides with her peak energy window. For someone with a later natural wake up time, however, this would mean trying to work on something difficult during their sleep inertia period, which may not be a great idea.

My natural wake up time is early, so my peak energy window is approximately 9:00-13:00. Often I actually move my lunch to 13:00, so I’ve used all my peak energy time for focused work. In the afternoon, I can focus, but it’s more difficult (unless I have some green or black (!) tea). After 17:00, don’t count on me to concentrate well.

In contrast, I know people who are only really awake from 14:00. A colleague of mine knows this about himself and has purposefully switched his working hours to 12:00-20:00. He does his best work 14:00-18:00. He used to try to work in the mornings, but he ended up not delivering results because half of his days were wasted.

This is why it’s important to figure out when you do your best work and, if you have the possibility, try to adapt your schedule to that. I realize that not everybody has such a flexible schedule, but for those of us who do, it’s a shame not to use such a simple tool.

What is your natural wake up time? Do you experience sleep inertia? When is your peak energy window? Are you able to focus in the afternoon/evening? I’m really curious, so please let me know! Comment below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

My little experiment with “swallowing the frog”

Starting with the most important task of the day every morning for a week made me more satisfied with my work, a little more productive, and a little bit anxious about what was waiting for me in my inbox.

Okay, I did it! For one week, I started with the most important task of the day and worked on it for 1.5-2 hours before checking email, messages, or any other external demands. To see my thoughts on this before I began, read this blog post.

My verdict is that “swallowing the frog” was useful. It was amazing that by 10:00 in the morning, I had done a great deal of work on my most important task of the day. It felt satisfying and calming in a way. No matter what came up during the rest of the day, I had already made remarkable progress with an important work task.

In terms of productivity, I think it helped a little. I managed to get a lot of things done this week, but it’s difficult to say if I would have gotten less done had I not implemented this. The benefit was that once I had the big task out of the way, I had time for many smaller tasks which I probably wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

For somebody else who works in a busier environment with more interruptions, this could be a bigger game changer though. If it is really difficult to find uninterrupted time for focused work during the day, getting in that time first thing in the morning can really help. Since I’m doing a PhD, nobody ever really needs me urgently, so I don’t get interrupted that much.


There’s really no reason to include a picture of a frog, except that I wanted to.

Image credit: Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

With that said, it was still strange for me to not check email before starting my work. I had an uneasy feeling: “Who knows what emails I’ve received? Who knows what messages are waiting for me?” Inadvertently, once I checked my emails and messages after my first ~2 hours of focused work, there was nothing urgent there. There were things I had to take note of or respond to, but nothing that I had missed or delayed by not responding a few hours earlier.

Actually, I noticed something interesting. What I sometimes do (in general, not this past week) when I have an important task to work on is that first I quickly check my emails and messages to make sure there’s nothing urgent. Once I assure myself of that, I close my email without responding and begin working on the important task. Intuitively, this should calm me down because I know there’s nothing urgent.

However, in reality, my mind is drawn to those messages. How should I respond? What do I think about this? So instead of focusing entirely on the important task at hand, part of my cognitive resources are drawn towards the emails I just skimmed. This detracts from my focus.

During this past week, I didn’t experience this because I didn’t take a peek at my emails before starting with the task. This turned out to be a very good idea because my attention was entirely devoted to what I was working on. And afterwards when I did check my emails and messages, I responded to them right away without wasting cognitive resources on planning my answers.

For now I’m going to stick with “swallowing the frog.” It felt good to have important work done early in the day, and it boosted my productivity a little. And I will keep working on the struggle of not checking email and messages first thing in the morning. I will probably get used to working in this way and thus feel less anxious about it in a few weeks.

How about you? Have you tried “swallowing the frog” first thing in the morning? If so, does it work for you? What type of workflow works for you in general? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

The eternal debate: “Swallow that frog” or start with small tasks

My struggle and search for the right way to start the workday.

On most days, I enter my office early when there’s nobody there yet. Time feels precious: it’s quiet, and the sun is tentatively streaming through the window. My mind is sharp, and I feel like I can tackle anything.

But I don’t feel like taking on the most difficult project of the day yet. This is what numerous productivity books recommend and refer to as ‘swallowing that frog’ because it’s the thing you don’t want to do. I have the whole day ahead of me, do I really need to start on that daunting task already?

Instead, I’d much rather read an interesting paper or respond to some emails. Maybe send out a couple of announcements or complete several small tasks. That feels much more manageable and fun.

By the time I’ve done all those little things, hours have gone by. My golden morning hours are over, the office is buzzing, meetings are about to take place, and external demands start coming in. It becomes difficult to concentrate because so many things are competing for my attention. It’s a challenge to try to do deep, focused work.

Swallow that frog

Ah, why didn’t I use my early morning to work on that difficult task? The later it gets in the day, the more difficult it becomes to find uninterrupted time to really focus on a task. Often it takes me longer (e.g., 2 hours) to complete a task that would have taken me less time (e.g., 1 hour) in the morning when I’d have been able to focus solely on that. Alternatively, I might not find the time to work on that task at all, so it may get pushed to tomorrow.

In principle, I know the benefits of tackling the most difficult thing of the day first thing in the morning. But I don’t want to. It feels too daunting, and it’s just so much easier to start by doing something small.

Also, I am afraid that if I don’t check my email, Slack, and Trello the moment I get to work, I might miss something important. Maybe someone needs my response urgently. How can I keep them waiting?

To be honest, there are very few urgent matters in my job. I can’t think of an email or message that couldn’t wait for a couple of hours. So this concern is mostly in my head. Nothing would happen if I responded to an email in a few hours rather than immediately. Nobody would even notice.

The Pledge

Okay, blogosphere: I pledge to you that next week I will start every day by “swallowing the frog.” I will begin my work day with that big, daunting task and work on it for about 2 hours before doing anything else. Only after that will I look at emails, respond to messages, or do small tasks.

At the end of the week, I will give my verdict: does it make a difference? Did I get more done by working on the main task first thing in the morning? Or did it not matter? Also, did it make me nervous to not respond to external demands right away? Or did it feel good to have the main task, that gray cloud hanging over my head, out of the way early? I’ll let you know.

Stay tuned for the results of my little experiment!

What do you do? What do you work on first in your day? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

How to Be Organized and Spontaneous

Make room for spontaneity. And also: how freedom radiates from your calendar.

Yesterday, I gave a workshop at Donders Discussions about priorities and personal organization. I received lots of positive feedback as well as one of the most common questions: How can you be spontaneous if you plan out your time?

It certainly seems like a contradiction. How can we be spontaneous and follow a schedule at the same time?

When somebody is being spontaneous, she is being free, playful, unburdened by the world’s troubles and expectations. It’s a break from the constant cycle of working, doing, and pleasing. It’s refreshing.

Perhaps even more importantly, being spontaneous reminds us that we are in control. The idea is that if we are spontaneous, we can do whatever we want to whenever we want to. Our to-do lists and calendar appointments often feel oppressive, as though we’re subdued by outside forces, and we can only just bear the pressure. At the first moment when we can break loose, we leap into the air and do something spontaneous.

A way to bring some balance is to schedule time to be spontaneous. It sounds strange, but it’s crucial if you’re trying to be organized. What I’ve seen happen again and again is that people fill up all of their waking hours with work, errands, and things that are good for them. Unfortunately, then there’s no time left to let their soul dance. This leads to rebelling against the system they’ve established and giving it up altogether. Now, this is not helpful. The best system is the one that makes you more productive and does not feel oppressive but rather is sustainable. Such a system must include time when you can let go.

I usually keep 30-60 minutes every evening for doing whatever I feel like at that time. I make sure I’m done with all the tasks and activities for the day about an hour before I go to bed, and then I have time to do whatever I feel like. That usually turns into reading a book, watching a show, or talking to my boyfriend. In this way, I make sure I can let go for some time every day.

On the weekend, I make sure I have a longer block of time, such as an afternoon and/or evening, for doing whatever I want. Usually that turns into going for a hike, reading a book, watching a movie, or hanging out with friends. I had high hopes for this unstructured time: I imagined I would paint or go to concerts. But I realized that less glamorous activities such as hiking or reading a book make me immensely happy. This is just me. It’s important to figure out what makes you happy and what you like to do in your free time.

Remember: schedule free time.

Image from Chris Ford (CC BY-NC 2.0)

This is only one aspect of the problem, however. The main issue is that we see our tasks and appointments as oppressive, which creates the need to rebel against them. For example, if we are privileged enough, we have chosen the job we’re currently doing. We have chosen to buy groceries and cook dinner. We have chosen to have a family to take care of. These are not things that have been forced upon us; for the most part, they are the result of our own choices.

This is why priorities are so helpful. By setting and reviewing your priorities, you can remind yourself of the things you’ve chosen as important for yourself. For instance, when my work gets difficult or stressful, I go back and remind myself why I wanted to do this job in the first place. If I am tired and don’t want to cook dinner, I remind myself that I want to feel good and take care of my body.

Remembering our ‘why’ makes us feel like a powerful agent again instead of a helpless victim thrown about by circumstances and external expectations. For the most part, our tasks and activities are a result of our choices and thus should reflect our priorities. If not, we need to make a change.

Once you see your to-do list and calendar as reflections of your priorities and not as things you simply have to do, spontaneity begins to lose its appeal. If you’re already doing things you want to do during most of your day, you don’t need to break free and be spontaneous in order to feel like you have a choice in your life. You know you have a choice, and this is reflected in your daily activities.

In fact, you don’t want to break free anymore. Because what you put on your calendar is a reflection of your freedom to choose. Your freedom radiates from your calendar.

What do you think? Will you schedule free time now? I do you want free time to be completely free and unscheduled? Let me know by commenting below or on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.

Eliminate things you don’t have to and don’t want to do

Over the past few weeks, people have approached me and said, “Your system sounds great, but it’s so complicated! I can never see myself do all that.”

While it sounds more complicated than it is when actually applied, I understand this concern. So many things to apply, where to even start?

Therefore, I’m going to suggest one simple thing you can do: eliminate one activity that you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

It is quite simple and very powerful. There are four steps:

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.
  2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.
  3. Eliminate it!
  4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

I’ll explain each one in turn.

  1. Monitor how you spend your time.

Before you can make any changes, you need to know how you, in reality, spend your time. That doesn’t refer to how you’d like to spend your time ideally, but how you do so realistically.

If you have a calendar that accurately describes how you spend your time, then you can just take a look at your calendar. If your calendar only contains appointments, though, you’ll need to do some more digging and reflection.

You could also track your activities. For a couple of days or a week, you could track how long you spend on different activities. You can use a stopwatch (i.e., your phone), pen, and paper or an app such as Toggl. Whatever you’d like to use is fine; the point is to get a realistic overview of how much time you spend on different activities.

The first time you track your time can be a bit shocking. I remember my first reaction after a week-long tracking and looking at the output from Toggl: “This is how long I spend showering, putting on cosmetics, and doing my hair?! I’m never putting on lotion or drying my hair again!” Now, that’s not the point. The goal is to realize how long these things take and to then make an informed choice about whether these things are important enough to us to deserve that time.

2. Find something you don’t have to and don’t want to do.

Now that you know what you spend your time on, make a list with two columns:

  • Things you don’t have to do;
  • Things you don’t want to do.

Do you have any items listed in both columns? If you do, great! Those are your items to eliminate.

For instance, many people are surprised by how much time they spend on social media. They find that they neither want or have to spend so long on those apps and websites. That’s a clear one to eliminate because you really don’t have to do it. But the appeal of social media lies in the powerful reward mechanisms that are in place there, so for an effective way to eliminate those, see 4.

In relation to work, we sometimes find we are attending meetings we don’t want to attend and, strictly speaking, we don’t have to attend. It’s important to ask yourself here, “What function is this meeting serving for the institution I belong to, and what is my (possible) contribution in this meeting?” If your contribution in that particular meeting is minimal or none, you will probably do better skipping the meeting and contributing to the institution in a better way. Alternatively (and what I deem the better choice), you can decide to step up your game and actually contribute during that meeting.

Similarly, sometimes we get involved in projects we don’t really want to participate in, whether at work or in the community. We often don’t need to participate in these projects but somehow get dragged into them. Importantly, when we spend time on something we don’t care about, that saps our energy for things we do care about. So, if you don’t have to be on a project you don’t care about, find a way out! Apologize and say that your priorities have shifted. You owe it to yourself and to your institution or community to spend your time on things you care about, whenever possible.

As another example, we often get irritated by the amount of time we spend cleaning our homes. Most of us don’t get a lot of fulfillment from cleaning our kitchen or vacuuming our floor (although mindful housework is definitely a thing). Thus, you can consider whether you can afford to hire somebody to clean your house. Usually, it’s not that expensive, and it makes a huge difference in your life. I was amazed at how much quality time I got on my weekends by outsourcing those 3 hours of cleaning per week!

3. Eliminate it!

Just delete it from your calendar! Yeaaahhh!!!

On a more serious note, if necessary, discuss this with any people who are influenced by your choice. Don’t be mean about it but also be firm and affirm your priorities.

4. Replace it with an activity you’d like to do.

This one is crucial! If you just leave the time free, it will get filled with… stuff. That’s how life works. And then you won’t be any happier with the way you’re spending your time. As useful as it is to eliminate activities you don’t want to do, it’s even more important to actually do things you want to do.

The social media example is a really good one in this case. We tend to spend lots of time on social media in our free time when we have nothing to do. It’s an easy way to get some quick enjoyment even though it’s not really satisfying in the long term. In the end, we often feel guilty afterwards because we wanted to do something more valuable with our time, but we just didn’t manage.

I’ve heard lots of solutions for this one. I think it’s useful to time ourselves and stop when the time we’ve allotted for social media is up. But even better is to decide what you’d like to do instead. Would you like to watch your favorite TV show? Or would you like to read? For instance, I have replaced most of my social media time with reading, and it’s so much more rewarding and relaxing for me.

Someone specifically shared that she noticed she went on social media mindlessly. It was as though her fingers clicked on the icons themselves. To change this, she moved the icons of her social media apps to a different place on her phone, and in the old place she put her Kindle app. This helped her to change her habit of visiting social media to reading. I thought it was brilliant!

I have done something similar by adding an easily-accessible icon to my Gmail folder with emails from my favorite blogs. In this way, I can quickly access quick reads that I know I will enjoy.

Regarding the work example, once you’ve freed up time from unwanted meetings or projects, make sure to replace that with time for things you actually want to be working on. This will help you make more progress on the work you care about and will also make you feel more fulfilled.

About the house cleaning example, you can replace this with pleasant, quality time activities! Many of us clean on the weekend, so ask yourself: “What would I like to do with three extra hours on my weekend?” That sounds fantastic, doesn’t it?

Once again, the key is not just to eliminate unnecessary activities but to replace them with things you actively choose to do. In this way, you spend more time on things you truly care about and want in your life, so the way you spend your time can be more aligned with your priorities.

How do you choose how to spend your time? Have you tried this, and how did it work for you? I’d love to hear from you! Comment below or let me know on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. As always, thanks for reading 🙂

Practical Tips: How to Pace Yourself So You Don’t Burn out

In my previous blog post, I wrote about how I had overworked myself and the lessons I learned from that. Here I will share the practical things I do today to avoid depleting my energy and feeling burnt out. I use tips and tricks on different time scales:

  • Hourly
  • Daily
  • Weekly
  • Monthly
  • Seasonally/Yearly


The modified Pomodoro

I used to work non-stop for hours, and I thought it was normal to feel completely depleted at the end of a three-hour work period. Now I impose breaks on myself every hour (I follow the guidelines of Brendon Burchard). When I start working, I set a modified Pomodoro timer for 45 minutes of work, 15 minutes break, 45 minutes work, 15 minutes break, etc. I use the Custom Timer at Marinara Timer.

When the 45-minute work period is over and the timer goes off, I usually take 2-3 minutes to finish the specific thing I’m doing. I hate being interrupted, so getting up at the moment the timer goes off really annoys me. This means that I have around 12 minutes of break time. But what to do during a break? I usually go to the bathroom, get a cup of tea, walk down the hallway and back, climb some stairs, or do some stretches. I specifically make sure not to spend my break on my phone because that defeats the purpose. At the end of the break when I have 2 minutes left, I sit back down on my chair and take a few deep inhales and exhales. Then I think about the work I’m going to do during my next work block and set an intention for what progress I’d like to make and how I’d like to do my work.

The mid-day break

I can keep working for a long time using my modified Pomodoro system, but at some point it’s time for lunch. I usually take 30 minutes to eat lunch and then go for a 15 minute walk. Afterwards, I get myself a cup of tea and get ready to start working again.

Since I’m a relatively social person, I enjoy talking to people while having lunch. These conversations are often relaxing and sometimes super fun (ah, the things that get shared during Friday lunches…), but I sometimes expend too much energy talking to people over lunch and then need a break from my break. That’s why I like to take a 15-minute walk by myself. It clears my mind and also helps me avoid the after-lunch dip by energizing me. If I’m having a really busy day and I need a longer break, I just have lunch by myself.

Daily movement

I make sure to include some form of movement every day after work. Sometimes that means going to the gym, and other times it’s going for a brisk walk in the park while listening to a podcast. If it’s raining or I’m in the mood, I just dance in my living room! It’s awesome! And if I need some really gentle movement, I do some light yoga at home.

Wind down time

In the evenings, once everything is done (prepare food, eat dinner, do housework stuff, and shower), I have ‘Wind Down Time.’ This is usually half an hour to an hour where I can do whatever I want! In my case, that’s usually to read. I love reading on the couch with an aromatic candle and soft music. This me-time is really fulfilling. A day of work, movement, cooking, etc. (a.k.a. doing all the right things) feels very different after a little bit of me-time. It feels indulgent to read just for the sake of reading and because I enjoy it. I am much more willing to face the difficult parts of the day, knowing that there will be completely easy, indulgent parts as well.


Sleep is quite a priority for me, so I try to get a decent amount of sleep every night (usually eight hours). I have a bedtime I respect, which makes it easy to wake up refreshed when my alarm goes off. Also, I try not to push back my bedtime by more than an hour on the weekend, so I don’t completely mess up my sleeping rhythm and end up super tired on Monday morning when I need to get up early again.


It has become increasingly important to me to do my meditation every morning. This is my way of taking care of my mind and checking in with my mental and emotional state at the start of the day. It also allows me to put my thoughts and feelings in perspective and not take myself too seriously.


Social time

All kinds of research show how important social connections are, and socializing can be truly relaxing. For me, too much socializing can be overwhelming, but I make sure I spend quality time with people 1-2 times per week. Usually that’s my Friday and/or Saturday evening. I enjoy going out to dinner with a friend or two because then we can really talk and connect. Spending time with good friends can also truly put things in perspective.

Time in nature

I really enjoy being in nature, so on Saturdays or Sundays I often go for a little hike in the nearby forest. I just walk without listening to music or podcasts, and I really enjoy the sounds, smells, and the overall feel of nature. It is very refreshing, and nature has the ability to quickly put our human struggles into perspective.


Special event

A special event can get you out of your routine and make time feel special. Approximately once a month, I do something special. That can be a dance performance, a concert, or an arts event of some sort. In the autumn and winter months, my boyfriend and I go to a spa for a day, and that’s a real treat! It’s wonderful time spent together, and it’s truly relaxing. Other times we take a little trip such as visiting a city for the day or going camping for the weekend. These are all little treats that are easy to include in a weekend but make time feel special.


Intense vs. easy-going periods

I find it useful to label periods of time as “intense periods” and “easy-going periods.” For instance, July-August is a relaxed period, while September-November is an intense period. This helps me really focus on work during an intense period and know that that’s okay because I will have more rest during the relaxed period that will follow. These periods are well delineated for students with summer and winter break, but I find it helpful to have these for other people too. It can help us focus on what we’ve chosen as important during the current period.

Vacations and trips

Vacations and trips are like “extended special events” (see above). They definitely break the routine, allow us to experience new things, and make time feel richer. I like to have a trip or vacation once every 3-4 of months because it serves as a breath of fresh air in between two intense work periods. I find that people (including myself) often feel reluctant to take a vacation. We think, “How could I possibly take time off? I have so much work to do!” But once you are on vacation, it’s great! And when you’re back, you’re refreshed, energized, and motivated to work again. So vacations are a win-win: good for both our rest and our work!

These are some tips and tricks I use to alternate work and rest and make sure I don’t overwork myself. Implementing these things allows me to have stable energy levels, continue doing high-quality and fulfilling work over the long run, and feel happy with my work-life balance. How do you make sure you have good amounts of work and rest in your life?

How I Learned to Pace Myself So I Don’t Burn out

Six years ago, I got close to burn out for the first time. I was in college, it was exam week, and I had my last exam the following morning. It was for the course Psychopharmacology, probably the most difficult exam I’ve ever taken. I had studied so much that I knew I’d do well, but nevertheless I was miserable. I lay in bed, trying to sleep, but names of pharmacological compounds and various brain areas were swimming in my head incessantly. What was more, I had a fever, and I kept tossing and turning in bed. My stress levels were through the roof because I couldn’t sleep, and I knew how important sleep is for performance at an exam. Needless to say, trying to make myself sleep only made things worse.

It was a truly terrible night. I felt exhausted beyond belief but still unable to rest. My mind was incredibly anxious, and every single thought was torture. Perhaps the worst was that I felt helpless to change anything or to make myself feel better. None of my usual tricks worked, so I just had to lie there, waiting for morning to come.

Lying there, I thought about what I had done to bring myself to this place. The answer was clear: I had overworked myself. I had worked hard for many weeks and months on end, without taking proper breaks and without letting myself rest. I was taking five classes instead of the recommended four (because of course I could do more), and I had three side jobs (because I could do it all!). My only time off of studying and working was Friday and Saturday evenings. Literally.

I still can’t believe I did that to myself. I know how important it is to get some rest, exercise, and have at least a little bit of free time. But I found myself in a situation where every single minute was crammed full of things to do, and I felt constantly anxious about whether I’d manage to complete everything I needed to do.

I think it had a lot to do with the environment. When everybody else appears to be pushing themselves to their limits, it seems to be the right thing to do. And since my self-worth was on the line, i.e., I felt like I would not succeed if I didn’t do that as well, it seemed like the only thing to do. There was no choice, I just had to keep pushing.

On that night when I lay in bed and couldn’t sleep before my last exam, I felt incredibly sad for us humans. We push ourselves so far, to the point of breaking, and we usually only realize it once we are broken. We feel that the only way to be happy, or to deserve to be happy, is by completing that impossibly long to-do list. But we never quite get to that happy point; instead, we just pass out at the end of the day, utterly exhausted. The next morning, we have a new to-do list to complete.


That experience (and many others like it) have led me to make some changes. For me, that sleepless night marks a ‘before and after’ point. Before it, I used to take on as much as possible on my plate, trusting that I would figure it out somehow. After that night, I knew that I was able to do all those things, but that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. What’s the point of succeeding at a bunch of stuff if I broke myself in the process? To me it was clear that it wasn’t worth it.

What followed was an extended (and still ongoing) search for how far it’s good to push myself. It must be a dynamic balance: I don’t want to sit around and do nothing all the time, but I also don’t want to burn myself out. So what’s the right balance?

I immediately made some changes after that psychopharmacology exam. For the following semester, I signed up for four courses (apparently, it’s the recommended number for a reason) and dropped one of my part-time jobs. I also made time to exercise regularly and to meditate. Moreover, I prioritized sleep: I made sure I got seven hours of sleep each night. (Side note: seven hours a night was still not enough for me, but I only realized that a couple of years later when I started sleeping eight hours a night and suddenly I didn’t need caffeine anymore! How surprising!)

Nowadays, I am much stricter about taking care of myself. I monitor my energy levels and my anxiety levels to make sure I steer clear of ‘the danger zone.’ It’s still a struggle sometimes when other people are (or appear to be) so much busier and doing so much more, but I need to do what works for me. Even if I feel that anxious urge to do more, I force myself to do less. For example, at the end of the work day, I know it’s time to get up and go to the gym, but I feel guilty leaving my work. If I could only stay and do a couple more hours of work… but no, I get up, go to the gym, get moving, and give my mind a break. I inevitably feel better than if I had stayed at my desk and kept working until I felt exhausted. And the next morning I’m actually excited to do my work again! What’s more, in this way I have more energy for the important relationships in my life as well.

There are several simple things I prioritized to make sure I don’t overwork myself:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Good food
  • Meditation
  • Rest/free time (at least a little bit)

In the next blog post, I will describe specific things I do to ensure I don’t overwork myself and to maintain stable energy levels and a fulfilling lifestyle. Stay tuned!

My Organization System: An Overview

Over the last two months, I explained my Organization System:

  1. Blog Post 1: Your Priorities
  2. Blog Post 2: Get More Specific
  3. Blog Post 3: Dealing with Tasks
  4. Blog Post 4: The Getting Things Done Approach
  5. Blog Post 5: Useful Tools for Personal Organization
  6. Blog Post 6: The Review System

And that’s it! Remember: break it down and write it down!

PrioritiesGoals → ProjectsTasks

Your best friends are your workflow tool and your calendar. They make life so much easier!

Use whatever tools you like to schedule tasks and keep track of your workflow.

Review your progress regularly and how that fits with your priorities. This will keep you on track and will you motivate you.

And one last tip: Schedule time for fun!

Whatever is on the calendar gets done. Whatever is not on the calendar does not get done.

So put it on your calendar, whatever your idea of fun is!

And let me know! How does this system work for you? What tips and tricks do you have? What tools do you use? I’d love to hear from you 🙂