The real value of productivity hacks
The power of pausing, and other life lessons from drawing little squares
The back of my notebook is filled with alternating black squares. The pages are dotted, so if I connect four dots with four lines and colour them in, I get a little square. Leave one blank and repeat.
If you’ve been reading this newsletter for some time now, you’ll know how much I love the Pomodoro Technique. The simple productivity hack of working on a single task in 25-minute bursts with a five-minute break in-between.
I used to think this worked for the obvious reason that I was giving something my undivided, undistracted attention. I’ve been using this method for five years now and I still marvel at how much I can get done when I close all the other tabs and focus, even just for 25 minutes.
But I’ve come to see there’s another reason this work-break-work technique works that I’d overlooked: the pause.
I started my monochrome doodle in the five-minute breaks between writing sprints because I realised that whenever my timer went off, I’d reflexively reach for my phone. By checking my emails during the break, I was still multitasking; switching my focus between things, albeit at a longer interval. Surely that defeats the point of trying to focus on one thing at a time?
And so I started drawing my little squares. It keeps my hands busy and away from the phone. It’s repetitive enough that my mind can still wander – but not too far, because I still have to focus so that I don’t accidentally fill in a square that should be left blank. More often than not, a good idea comes to me while I’m doodling, or I make the connection I was struggling to forge.
If I were a productivity influencer, the lesson here would be to optimise your break-taking in order to supercharge your output. But this isn’t about productivity for productivity’s sake. For me, the best “productivity hacks” are the ones that have applications beyond getting more work done. This is about learning – slowly and painfully – how to pause.
Personally, I’m not very good at pausing. I don’t take enough holidays. I don’t think before I speak; I think as I speak. I prefer semi-colons to em dashes. And so I find this daily act of micro-pausing good practice for me. Emphasis on the word practice. If I think of my doodles as training wheels, holding me upright while I learn how to sit in stillness, I’m not ready to take them off yet.
When I think about the true power of pausing, a quote often attributed to Viktor Frankl comes to mind: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Taking a beat gives us thinking time. We can choose what to do next rather than just react. A lot can happen in our hearts and minds when we just open up a sliver of space in our lives.
My doodling breaks have been instructive. They’ve taught me to see that a pause is different to a stop. You don’t pause forever because, by design, a pause is bookended; a gap between two other things. It’s the inhale before – and after– the exhale.
When I step back and look at the whole page, I can see the chequerboard I made without even realising it.