Last Updated: February 2023
When it comes to being productive, staying focused is our biggest challenge. Every day, we deal with pings and notifications and human-shaped distractions that threaten to take us away from what we’re doing. And it’s even worse during a pandemic, when we’re all cooped up at home!
I’ll be shouting until the cows come home about the benefits of switching your phone to Do Not Disturb (or Airplane mode, if you fancy). But what if you’re still struggling to stay on task?
Enter: the work sprint. This tried & true technique has been keeping me focused since my university days, back when I first learned about The Pomodoro Method. That’s the OG work sprint, and I’ll still switch on a Tomato Timer extension when I need a quick boost in the work day. But nowadays, I use a slightly different method for my work sprints, both for myself and whenever I run a Productivity Party.
What Is a Work Sprint?
While I’m sure work sprints take many forms, my personal definition comes from my friend Moni.
For several years, Moni was a high-level stage manager on huge international productions (think: an opera at Versailles, the palace) and her job would often involve the set up and take down of sets and stages. To stay motivated & beat boredom, she and her colleagues started “sprinting” their tedious work tasks. If they thought it would take them five hours to break down a set, they gave themselves two and a half. No matter the task, they challenged themselves to complete it in half as much time as they expected it to take.
This approach has several advantages. First, you have to stay super focused on what you’re doing for the full time. You can’t be goofing off on YouTube and still expect to meet your deadline! Second, you really don’t have time to overthink anything. You have to make quick gut-check decisions, pivot quickly, and forge ahead. There’s no time to endlessly weigh out options or second-guess yourself. Decide, and move on.
And of course, another huge advantage to a successful work sprint session is that you get the work DONE sooner and you’re free to go about your day! While Moni & her colleagues wouldn’t always fully complete their work in the allotted time, they’d definitely get it done a lot quicker than they otherwise would have. Suddenly, they could go grab a drink instead of being stuck in the stuffy auditorium all night!
How to Do a Productive Work Sprint
1. Decide on Work Sprint Logistics
You’ll have better results if you take the time to set up a few pieces of the work sprint puzzle:
- Timing: What time of day are you the most focused? What time of day are you least likely to be interrupted? How long are you going to do this work sprint for? (I like about an hour, but it also depends on your task!)
- Environment: What kind of environment do you need to do your best work? Who do you need to inform that you need X minutes of uninterrupted time? Can you close the door?
- Accountability: Who will you be accountable to for this work sprint? Can you call those people on Zoom? Do not skip this step! We always think we “should” be able to motivate ourselves to stay on task, but now is not the time to be a Willpower Martyr™. It simply works better to have some accountability! So set it up for yourself (or come borrow some of ours!)
2. Eliminate All Distractions
I know I sound like a broken record, but minimizing distractions is actually the key to having a good work sprint. Here’s the checklist I go through for myself:
- Phone notifications are turned off or muted ✅
- Phone is physically out of my line of sight: either in another room, in a drawer, or just hidden out of reach ✅
- Computer is on Do Not Disturb mode ✅
- Email tab or program is closed completely ✅
- All irrelevant browser tabs are closed or minimized ✅
- Desk surface is relatively clear of anything that would grab my focus ✅
- I am warm enough and have something to eat or drink ✅
- People in my house know not to interrupt me, the door is closed ✅
- For certain kinds of deep work, music with lyrics is turned off (I find it too hard to concentrate) ✅
Woof! Yes, it’s a long list. But yes, it’s what I personally need to do my best work. You might be very different from me in terms of what you need, but I would encourage you to be really honest with yourself! It might surprise you to discover that watching TV in the background while you work is, in fact, draining your focus completely.
In summary: Figure out what things distract you. Figure out what things help you stay focused. For the length of your work sprint, eliminate the distractions, and give yourself a boost.
3. Set a Clear & Realistic Goal
Before you sit down and start working, take a few minutes to set an intention for this particular work sprint. I like using a single post-it note to write my intentions, because it means I can’t be too ambitious or vague. I have to commit to one specific task that fits on a post-it note, and that’s it.
This is also when you can decide how long your sprint will be. At the Productivity Party, we sprint for an hour, which is actually a LOT of time when you’re staying focused. But depending on your task, you might only need a classic Pomodoro of 25 minutes.
While you can sprint anything, here are a few types of tasks that seem to work well:
- Boring administrative tasks you’ve been putting off
- Deep work, especially writing (ie. newsletters, blog posts, Instagram captions)
- Creating the basic layout & design of a new sales page or PDF
- Planning a project, essay or slide deck
4. Set a Timer
This step is short, but very important. Set a timer for the length of your sprint! This relieves your brain of the pressure of needing to constantly check the clock to see how much time you have left. Sure, you’ll still check occasionally, which may keep you motivated and on task. But the goal is to get into a state of flow to the point that the timer actually surprises you when it goes off.
When the timer goes off, I recommend that you stop. While you can definitely extend the time by a few minutes if you’re really in a flow state and close to finishing your task, it’s important to take breaks! Not only that, but it’s nice to keep our word to ourselves. We said we’d do an hour, and we did, so now we get to rest.
5. Share Your Results
My favourite part of the Productivity Party is the end, when folks share glimpses of what they worked on during their work sprint. It’s so inspiring to see how others used the time, and it feels so good to be celebrated for what we accomplished.
Remember that accountability you set up in Step 1? Now is the time to use it! Take a few minutes for each person on the call or in the room to share what they worked on with everyone else. It’s such a lovely way to give yourself credit for staying on task, and to cheer others on. One of the other benefits of a work sprint is that it gives us a feeling of momentum to move forwards. Sharing our wins with others is a simple way to amplify that momentum!
Wanna know something meta? I wrote this whole blog post about work sprints during a work sprint. Was I tempted to check my phone once or twice? Sure. Did I? Nope! At this point, I’ve had a lot of practice with staying in this kind of focus vortex that work sprints create, so I now know how rewarding it is to come out the other side (in way less time than you originally thought!) with a finished product to show for your efforts.
It sounds so simple: remove distractions and work in short, efficient bursts. But I promise you that if you try it, your results will probably surprise you. I’d love to know: Do you use the work sprint technique in your business? What kinds of factors help you stay on task and focused while you work? Let me know in the comments below or on Instagram @stephpellett.
PS. Need some more accountability for your work sprints? Join us for a Productivity Party!