Deep Work or Frequent Breaks?

After countless hours of self-improvement Youtube consumption, I can stumble upon contradictions.  I remember that personal growth is not one-size-fits-all.

One such contradiction contrasts deep work with the Pomodoro technique.

Deep work, as explained by Dr. Cal Newport, calls for sustained, uninterrupted blocks of time for profound productivity.  Multitasking is inefficient.  Rather than processing multiple tasks in parallel (how many of us experience multitasking), our brains rapidly cycle our full attention between competing tasks – like how a computer processor manages simultaneous programs.

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But I can’t multitask while shucking oysters.  That’s how people stab themselves.

The problem with short work intervals and frequent distraction, according to Newport, is the delay required to reestablish concentration.  After a text message, a passing co-worker, or a Facebook update, our brains need upwards of 20 minutes to reestablish focus.

Moreover, deep work closely associates with low, a psychological phenomenon characterized by complete task absorption, temporal distraction (losing track of time), and enjoyment.  If we allow too many breaks and distractions to gum up our working time, we fail to fall into flow.

On the other hand, many productivity tutorials on Youtube advocate for the Pomodoro technique.  This technique alternates short working intervals with shorter breaks. Many Pomodoros punctuate 25 working minutes with 5-minute breaks.  After four blocks, many take a longer 15-20 minute break.

The rationale is intuitive.  First, the technique outsmarts procrastination.  For example, suppose a project takes six hours of work.  For many, six hours seems daunting. It may prove difficult to start, especially if the project is not especially motivating.  However, 25 minutes of work is far less terrifying.

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But my fashion sense by the end of the trip was absolutely terrifying.

“Relax.  Just set the timer.  You only have to work for 25 minutes.  Then you can stop.”

Many times, once we start, continuing becomes easier.

Second, the technique can prevent burnout.  Our minds can only engage with a task for so long before we become mentally exhausted and give up.  When we are in flow, we may ignore the symptoms of bodily and cognitive fatigue. But once we snap out and become aware of our fatigue, we may struggle to get back to work.  

A similar analogy applies to the gym.  Many bodybuilding experts agree that volume is the driving force behind muscle growth.  

Volume = Number of Repetitions x Number of Sets x Weight Lifted

This is overly-simplistic but can serve the purpose of the analogy.

One person may choose to do 10 sets of 10 repetitions on squats.  This large workload confines them to a wheelchair for the rest of the week.  However, another person does 4 sets of 10 squats on three different days of the week. This person feels a little bit sore, but not sore enough to skip the next workout.  They finish 120 repetitions to the first person’s 100 repetitions. By taking a break in between their muscle training, they accumulated more training volume than their one-shot counterpart.

In a similar vein, Pomodoro proponents can accumulate more “study volume” by taking a short break every 25 minutes than a person who studies for two consecutive hours, tires out, and logs into Facebook.

So which technique is best?  Both deep work and Pomodoros seem to have reasonable benefits and rationales.

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Just like Mommy Sharks and Daddy Sharks each have their own benefits.

The solution may come down to the task at hand.  For creative activities such as writing assignments or presentation preparation, deep work may be best.  By foregoing breaks and interruptions, you may allow yourself to enter a flow state and become oblivious to work fatigue.  If you can enter this state and minimize distractions, it may be more time-efficient to finish a project in one straight shot.

Interestingly enough, however, one writer attributed her academic colleague’s prolific writing output to the habit of leaving things unfinished.  Rather than ending a writing session with a finished draft, she would end mid-paragraph. One possible explanation is the lack of cognitive closure.  This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect.

By leaving our session open-ended, our minds become subtly anxious and motivated to finish the assignment. As a result, for recurring projects like blog posts or PowerPoint presentations, leaving work unfinished may prove beneficial.  Simply end your work session mid-project. In the next work session, finish that project and begin work on a new project.

On the other hand, I find less creative activities like studying test material lend themselves to the Pomodoro technique.  These cognitively-demanding tasks benefit from taking regular breaks and conserving of mental energy. When I give myself a brief recovery break following 25 minutes of work, I have stronger study stamina over the long haul.

Finally, I find that I can combine these methods quite effectively as well.  For example, when I have to plan a lesson but continue to procrastinate, it’s easy to start with Pomodoros.

“I only have to work for 20 minutes.  After 20 minutes, I am free to stop.”  

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That’s right.  Tea time is only 20 minutes away if you have the right mindset.

20 minutes later, the timer tells me to take a break.  I have an open project and no cognitive closure.  I feel compelled to continue and consequently forgo the breaks, transitioning into deep work.

Self-improvement is an iterative process.  We can only learn what works best for us when we try new techniques and habits, tweaking the process to forgo what doesn’t work and to integrate what is effective.  The best productivity hacks are the ones we can stick to and the ones that get the job done.  One is not superior to the other, but one can be more or less effective in different contexts.  Ultimately, only we possess the necessary self-knowledge to match techniques with contexts effectively.

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