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The Flowtime technique: A complete guide

The Flowtime technique: A complete guide

Ever longed for more hours in your work day?

Maybe (just maybe) you’re not doing enough with the ones you have.

Bear with me. I’d argue that the time you’ve got to spend working is likely not the cause of your lack of productive output. Often, it has more to do with what you do with that time.

The good news is, using the right productivity method that suits your working needs and natural tendencies – one that helps you focus on accomplishing your work without requiring you to work overtime or cram even more work into your day – can make all the difference to your output.

That’s where the Flowtime technique comes in. This post will give you a brief overview of this less well-known (but arguably no less useful) variation on the Pomodoro technique. We’ll cover how the Flowtime method works, how it’s different from Pomodoro and what kind of people tend to find it useful.

As Flowtime is essentially a modified version of Pomodoro, it’s useful to recap what Pomodoro actually is. Then we’ll jump into why Flowtime could be a better alternative to Pomodoro for your particular working style.

The Pomodoro technique explained

The system was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo as a way to combat multitasking and improve focus at work.

The thinking behind Pomodoro is to get more work done in shorter bursts. You’re splitting your to-do list into shorter, more manageable chunks of time (called “pomodoros” after the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used to track his work at university).

The aim of the game with the Pomodoro method is to break your day down into a few short work sessions, with staggered breaks in between to help you conserve your energy levels. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Compile your checklist of what needs to be done for the day. Try doing this first thing in the morning.
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes and get cracking with a particular piece of work.
  3. Once the timer (tomato shape optional) goes off, you’ll take a short break. Typically, five minutes is what’s recommended you take at a time.
  4. Continue on to the next 25-minute work interval.
  5. After you complete four Pomodoros one after the other, take a longer break (usually around a half hour).
  6. Every time you finish a Pomodoro, remember to put an “X” next to your progress.

The idea here is that setting time limits on how long you plan to focus on a task makes it inherently easier to stay focused if you have a tendency to procrastinate or jump around from task to task. The structure of comparatively short working durations (and that dangling carrot of a break on the horizon, yay) can really help you stay focused and productive.

Working in shorter sprints of time can be especially useful on those days where you’re feeling unmotivated. It’s also great for tackling monotonous tasks that you dread or that don’t require much brainpower on your part.

Still, Pomodoro isn’t for everyone.

Dig deeper: For more alternatives to Pomodoro, check out our in-depth guide on the most popular productivity techniques.

How the Flowtime technique differs from Pomodoro

Although Pomodoro can be seriously useful to fall back on – especially if you have a large and varied to-do list to crank through – the fact is that it just doesn’t work in every scenario.

Picture this: you’re really getting into a groove with a mentally-taxing piece of work.  Something that really requires you to use your creativity and problem-solving skills. You’re feeling super focused and super motivated. Your energy and willpower are at an all-time high.

Outside distractions aren’t stealing your attention like they usually tend to do, and you haven’t so much as glanced at your clock. Time seems to melt away. You really feel like you’re on the cusp of doing your highest-impact work, and it feels almost effortless. Sounds glorious, right?

Suddenly, your alarm blares, forcing you to take a five-minute break. Signaling an abrupt end to that state of mental clarity you were just in. Womp, womp. And that’s not even getting into the fact that a five-minutes break might not be enough to refresh you before heading into your next work sprint.

It’s clear that, when it comes to really meaningful tasks, Pomodoro has some serious shortcomings.

What is the Flowtime technique?

Enter Pomodoro, with a twist: The Flowtime technique is Zoe Read-Bivens’s spin on the Pomodoro system of working in blocks of time.

The clue’s in the name – it derives from the state of “flow” you achieve in those times when you become fully immersed in a task.

Read-Bivens found that setting up strict time constraints was actually more detrimental to her productivity (not to mention stressful) and invented a new system to counteract some of the drawbacks of the more rigid Pomodoro technique.

Flowtime encourages you to spend periods of time immersed in specific tasks (yes, just like Pomodoro), but the duration and frequency of your work intervals and breaks are not scheduled (unlike Pomodoro).

Who does the Flowtime technique work best for?

Developers, creators and creatives (essentially, anyone who’s responsible for delivering on tasks that require an enormous amount of energy) can benefit from having Flowtime in their productivity toolkit – yes, even if you already use and love other methods, like time blocking or Pomodoro.

Timely tip: Often find yourself working on certain types of high-value tasks that require you to spend an extended period of time in a state of flow (examples include writing, brainstorming, coding, planning complex projects and formulating business strategies)? We recommend opting for Flowtime over Pomodoro.

Leaders who spend the bulk of their time on formulating high-value activities that move their team and business forward might also prefer using this technique over Pomodoro. Reason being, it allows for an uninterrupted train of thought when in that all-important state of flow. It could be worth giving Flowtime a shot if:

  • You’re prone to context switching. We’ve got endless to-do lists, constant meetings, and plenty of ad-hoc interruptions that pull us away from your objectives for the day.
  • You struggle to get in the zone with a big task. Distractions from phones, emails, that laundry you forgot to put on – fully immersing yourself in anything can feel like an impossibility.
  • You work on tasks that pose a little bit of a challenge for you, or take you out of your comfort zone. When you’re working on more complex projects, it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed about the sheer quantity of work. When that happens, everything from your work quality to your overall productivity can take a hit.

How to use the Flowtime technique

Want to try the Flowtime technique out for yourself? The basic process is simple and straightforward, but we’ve got a few tips that will help you apply the method consistently and successfully:

  1. Consult that giant to-do list (gulp). Divvy it up into more manageable and specific tasks.
  2. Choose one clearly-defined, realistic task to work on (Read-Bivens calls this “unitasking”). Make a note of your start time.
  3. Kick off your work session with a singular focus on that one task. Keep working on your task so long as you’re in a state of flow. Don’t worry about working any set amount of time.
  4. Keep tabs on any distractions (we’re talking calls, text, emails, last-minute Zoom meeting requests) that happen as you work. The aim here is to learn exactly what’s taking you out of your flow so you can cut down on any common distractions for future work sessions.
  5. Once you find yourself getting mentally drained or distracted, or you’ve finished the task at hand, take a break. The aim here is to recharge physically and mentally so that you can focus on your remaining tasks for the day, so take as long as you need to. Jot down how long you worked and how long of a break you took.
  6. If you’re looking for a rough guideline of how long to take, here are Read Bivens’s suggestions:
  7. Repeat this process as many times as it takes to get you to the end of your workday.

Generally, the longer the focus session, the longer break you’ll need to take. This way, you’re less likely to lose concentration. The idea here is to help you figure out how to schedule deep work during those times that you’re naturally more focused and less easily distracted.

Remember, if you don’t take time for yourself to recharge in between intense bouts of work, you run the risk of burning out. By being constantly “on,” you never allow your mind or body to have the rest it needs to recharge. So, when you feel the need for a break, don’t be afraid to take it and use the downtime to its fullest potential. 🙌

Getting started with the Flowtime technique

It’s pretty simple to get started: all you really need is a pen and paper or a spreadsheet.

Here’s a breakdown of my first attempt at using the Flowtime technique using a basic Google sheet. You’ll see I’ve added tabs for the task description, start and stop times, as well as any interruptions I encountered along the way. I’ve also calculated my time worked in each sprint, as well as rest time lengths:

flowtime technique example

Of course, an automatic time tracker like Timely (bet you didn’t see that one coming) would have saved me the hassle of checking the clock by automatically recording my time spent on different tasks and logging my break intervals for me.

Psst… Still here? Don’t forget to sign up for your free Timely trial to start automatically tracking your Flowtime data.

Final thoughts

When we log out for the day, we all want to feel that strong sense of accomplishment. Timer-based techniques, like Flowtime or Pomodoro, are a great way to build momentum around your workflow. But here’s the rub: there’s no one foolproof method of staying on track and completing all of your to-dos for the day. It’s completely fine to switch between these two (or any other) productivity methods, depending on the type of work at hand.

And by the same token, don’t feel disheartened if you’ve tried Pomodoro and Flowtime out and they’re just not working well for you. Maybe what you really need is your own personal twist on one of these productivity methods.

And take some time to regularly assess whether your approach to working on tasks is really helping you accomplish more. If you’re still using spreadsheets and manual timers to track your time at work, for example, consider whether your approach could be overhauled so you’re wasting less time and energy on yet another unproductive task on your to-do list. Good luck!

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