Choose Your Conventions Wisely


I ran on the treadmill for an hour. Why did I stopped at the hour mark? Because that’s when the treadmill stopped the workout. If a workout was for seventy minutes, I probably would have gone that long. I also could have turned it on again. The only thing that stopped me from running more was my convention.

Conventions are all around us, and something we’ve highlighted here in the Cookie Method of Productivity post, but it’s worth a deeper look to set up and think about. Conventions will guide our actions and rather than not choose any conventions, we can choose conventions to guide us in the right direction. Good conventions will eliminate a choice and bring focus to one thing.

PomodoroThis idea isn’t new, The Pomodoro Technique is one example of why this works. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and the technique comes from the Italian tomato timer that you can set.

Most suggest setting it for 22 minutes and working head down on central work during that time. This number works well because it’s an amount of time most people can spend on deep thinking, but it works for another reason too, it’s on the timer.

It could be 21 or 23 minutes just as easily. For some people it will be longer for a project at work or writing a piece of fan fiction. For other people and other situations it will be shorter, like when you are learning something new. The time doesn’t matter in absolute terms, it matters in relative ones – what convention helps you do your best work? Here’s three ideas to start building your own conventions.

  1. Begin with the end in mind. This Steven Covey wisdom is just as true here as anywhere else. If you are trying to write a book, then the 22-minute pomodoro technique may not be a good fit. New York Times Bestselling author A.J. Jacobs said that it takes him thirty minutes just to get warmed up for writing. His convention is to write something – anything – for that amount of time and after that start on what he really wants to get done.
    For my run on the treadmill, one hour was a bit of a poor choice. My ultimate goal is training for an upcoming marathon and I need to run a certain number of miles rather than a certain number of minutes.
  2. Begin to experiment. Rachel Aaron wrote a wonderful little book about writing more where she began question when she did her best writing. She “embraced her inner geek” and began to fill out spreadsheets that included when, where, and how much she wrote. She soon figured out that her best time wasn’t in the morning, but was in the afternoon, at a coffee shop, and for more than three hours at a time.
    For Aaron, the work was asymmetrical. Her first hour yielded 100 words, her second 250 words, her third 550 words. The more she worked, the more work she got done – up to a point. Aaron couldn’t write for 12 hours at a rate of 20,000 words per hour, but she only found this change in output by experimentation. Her convention became to set up in a coffee shop in the afternoon with her wi-fi turned off.
  3. Remember that all solutions are custom solutions. The internet is great for giving advice, especially with number involved. 10,000 hours, 22 minutes, inbox 0, 9 tips for a better, more productive, happier, enthusiastic, fulfilling life. Whew. Remember that conventions have to be customized to be correct. There’s nothing that works all the time for everyone. Even here, where we feature app reviews, we don’t think you need all these apps. The only apps you need are the ones that make your best conventions for working in.

Setting up good conventions will go a long way to getting better work done.

Let me know in the comments what conventions you use to be most productive.

Updated 3/2. The original post listed David Allen rather than Steven Covey.