How to boost productivity with two simple methods: the Ivy Lee method and the pomodoro technique

What information companies really need is to boost their productivity. This doesn’t always call for complicated techniques, methods or tools. Sometimes the simpler methods are more effective and easier to implement too. This article looks at two of these productivity-boosting techniques.

High productivity entails striking the right balance between efficiency (best use of available resources in daily activities) and effectiveness (meeting the organization’s goals or objectives), according to each particular situation we may have to cope with.

High productivity is achieved by using the right combination of resources. An ongoing increase in employee productivity will also raise the company’s competitiveness.

Productivity is the result of combining effectiveness and efficiency. Effectiveness means “doing the right things” and depends mainly on the quality of the decision-making process. Efficiency is “doing things right”. In other words, achieving the best possible result from the resources to hand. In any knowledge work one of the most coveted resources is attention.

The figure below shows that the highest productivity is achieved from the right combination of efficiency and effectiveness.

The efficiency-effectiveness equation

The efficiency-effectiveness equation

To improve effectiveness the crucial thing is doing the right thingsand the most important feature here is choosing what our next actions are going to be. This decision is the most important one and will determine the effectiveness of the work done, ensuring our activities are those that have the biggest impact on results sought or goals in view. A simple method that will help us improve here is the Ivy Lee six-task method”.

To improve efficiency (doing things right), the most important thing we have to do is to focus our attention on carrying out the previously-selected task. To do this we will use the pomodoro technique”.

But what do these simple methods consist of?

The Ivy Lee six-task method:

The shipbuilder and steel magnate Charles Schwab discovered this method back in 1918 thanks to Ivy Lee, a productivity expert.

The advice Lee gave Schwab’s employees was very simple. At the end of each work day they were to write down the six tasks to be carried out the following day. Only six, not one more. They were also to prioritize them in light of their true importance. It is crucial here to identify the tasks or activities that will impinge most on the company’s goals. When you arrive tomorrow, the employees were told, concentrate your fresh, early-morning energy on the first task as if the rest did not exist. When you’ve finished the first, make a start on the second, similarly ignoring the third. And so on until reaching the last. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.

There are other more modern versions of the six-task method, such as the MITs or “Most Important Tasks”, i.e., those tasks you necessarily have to deal with and finish that day.

Lee speaks of prioritizing the tasks in light of their true importance. This should be the general working principle. It is vital here to “eat that frog” as early as possible, as Brian Tracy explains in his book “Eat that Frog!” There are times, however, when the timing may not coincide with the order of importance. It might well be the case that the day’s most important task is to prepare a report for which the information will be available only in the afternoon or that some of the tasks have to be performed within a set timeframe.

Ivy also provides for the possibility of drawing up separate morning and afternoon lists, if there are many tasks to be carried out, and also having a fallback list with the rest of the less important activities you need to do, to dip into them during any dead time or when energy is flagging.

But what exactly are the advantages of this method?

  • Drawing up a set number of tasks forces you to choose the most important ones, those that impact most heavily on your goals. This avoids wasting time on performing other less important tasks.
  • It forces you to establish a chronological order and will help you to avoid the error of putting off the most important tasks for later.
  • By ordering tomorrow’s tasks you’ll be able to switch straight into execution mode the following morning rather than having to start in organization mode.
  • It will help you to avoid multitasking, with the concomitant loss of effectiveness. You will work better by focusing on a single task as if the rest do not exist in that moment.

The Pomodoro Technique:

The pomodoro technique was developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo and remains one of the world’s most popular time management techniques. The name pomodoro (“tomato” in Italian) comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used.

The pomodoro technique helps us to become more effective, enabling us to keep up our attention span during the pomodoro time-blocks until the timer rings. This method could also be used by writers, lawyers, developers, parents, directors, students, teachers, leaders …


But what exactly does the pomodoro method consist of ?

  1. Choose a task you’d like to do. It doesn’t matter how big or small it is; the important thing is that it is a task calling for full-on attention.
  2. Set the timer for 25 mins and shut out any kind of interruption during this time
  3. Work on this task until the timer rings. If you realize during this pomodoro time block that there is something you need to do, jot it down on a sheet of paper.
  4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper. Congratulations! You have managed to carry out one pomodoro without getting sidetracked.
  5. Take a short rest, breathe in deeply, collect your thoughts, go for a cup of coffee, tea or a drink of water, take a short stroll or even do something non-work-related that relaxes you. Your brain will thank you for it.
  6. After this short break, switch back into planning mode and reset the priorities; decide whether to continue with the former task or start a new one, and switch the timer back on. Repeat his whole cycle at least four times, which will be tantamount to 100 minutes of quality work every two hours.
  7. After four pomodori, take a longer break of 20 or 30 mins. Your mind uses this time to assimilate the new information and rest up before the next pomodoro session.

This technique is directly related to the concentration curve theory :

  • Spend a certain time concentrating on a single task (ideally 30-40 mins) to achieve the best concentration level
  • Take small, periodic breaks (5-10 min.) to avoid concentration fatigue and keep up the required level for as long as possible
Concentration Curve. Source:

Concentration Curve. Source:

The pomodoro technique not only helps us to do things properly but also to learn how to work in a timesaving way in the future and improve our results by shutting out any non-pomodoro interruptions.

Crucial in this technique is the review phase, i.e., looking back at the end of the day at actions carried out and the pomodori you needed to complete them. This information can then be fed back into our future performance, predicting more accurately the time needed for the intended activities (in pomodori) and thus planning our time m0re efficiently.

But what advantages does this method afford?

  • It allows you to perform as many tasks as possible in the shortest period of time, keeping up a high concentration level while the brain is fresh and rested.
  • It improves concentration and attention by reducing interruptions. It greatly improves site awareness, focus and attention, making it much easier for the worker to find the zone or flow state.
  • It applies the Kaizen principle and the divide-and-conquer algorithm, staving off the temptation of procrastination generated by longer tasks and projects.
  • It increases the underlying awareness of decision-making procedures and the use of time.
  • It refines the time-estimation process both quantitatively and qualitatively.
  • It favors learning.
  • It lowers anxiety levels.

Pomodoro office apps:

  • Focus Booster- free network program. Works only as a timer.
  • Marinara Timer- free web application.
  • Moosti – online version
  • Tomato Timer- online version
  • TimeWise: A pomodoro Timer (For Android).

Related links:

Author: M. Inocencia García Martín

Las opiniones vertidas por el autor son enteramente suyas y no siempre representan la opinión de GMV
The author’s views are entirely his own and may not reflect the views of GMV

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