Everybody knows such situations: tight timelines, high expectations and many things to do!

But how can we work effectively in such situations. Many different productivity experts have written about this topic.

In this episode, I’m speaking about how to implement these approaches and also my personal learnings and challenges during a time, where I needed them.

I’m applying and discussing the following topics:

  • Prioritization
  • Delegation
  • Managing expectations and communication channels
  • Music as a productivity booster
  • Make productive breaks
  • Setting up a effective systems
  • Methods against procrastinate
  • Managing disturbances
  • Setting up your body for productivity
  • Multi-tasking
  • The pomodoro method
  • Morning routine
    • Silence
    • Affirmation
    • Visualization
    • Exercise
    • “Reading”
    • “Scribing”
  • Habits to get into the deep work mode
  • Deep Work by Cal Newport
  • Working from home

Some resources for productivity:


Getting things done, when timelines are tight – learnings from a self-experiment in deep work


Welcome to the Effective Statistician with Alexander Schacht and Benjamin Piske. The weekly podcast for statisticians in the health sector designed to improve your leadership skills, widen your business acumen and enhance your efficiency. In today’s episode I’ll talk about an experiment, my personal deep work experience.

For this episode, it’s the first time that I’m actually alone. Actually, it’s the second one, but it’s the first that I’m really alone recording here in my home office. There’s a lot of interesting learning for me over the recording of this episode, which actually is a recording across a couple of different days, which is also quite unusual. And I’m sure…

What I will tell you there will be some familiar things, but I’m also pretty sure that there are some things in terms of productivity that you haven’t heard about it yet. This podcast is sponsored by PSI, a global member organization dedicated to leading and promoting best practice and industry initiatives.

Join PSI today to further develop your statistical capabilities with access to special interest groups, the video on demand content library, free registration to all PSI webinars and much much more. Visit the PSI website at psieweb.org to learn more about PSI activities and become a PSI member.

Hey, this is Alexander Schacht and today I’m alone at home because I need to get a lot of work done in a short period of time. A rather large work package dropped in and it had really priority, high timeline pressure and I think you can all relate to that. So of course I had a lot of other things to do.

And I discussed that with my supervisor and in alignment with him, I canceled all meetings, not directly related to get this specific deliverable done. And that is basically nearly all meetings. So, and compared to my usual work days where it’s kind of fragmented with a couple of meetings, now I don’t have any meetings.

And that feels a little bit awkward. And I will see how that goes over the next days. So I will report a little bit about this experience. I will try a couple of different focus techniques and will just report about this. So for me, I thought this is a nice opportunity to do some experimentation with.

focusing techniques and just report to you about that so that you can see what’s out there and what you maybe can apply to your day-to-day job. So what’s happening with all the stuff that I actually originally wanted to do in the next two weeks? And this is all now delegated to somewhere else, shifted,

things were delegated and yeah, let’s see how that goes. In terms of how I prepare to that, I send a separate email after those, email to all those where I cancelled a meeting, I send a separate email to my direct reports so that they know I’m still there and in terms of any urgent help.

I can help them, but I have a great team and I trust them very much, so that shouldn’t be a big problem. Okay, I will publish everything of this together in the end as one or two podcast episodes. Let’s see how that works. And yeah, stay tuned. This is the start of day one. And tomorrow then I will… Yeah.

recap on what happened on day one and you will learn more about how I started my project with cleaning up things and how I’m setting up systems so that I can work really, really effective. So stay tuned.

Okay, today is day two of my experiment. In terms of day one, I think the commitment to actually do things and to complete things at times really helped a lot to get things going. And I think the other really big thing was to break a big task down, because actually you can’t really write a protocol or write a SAP or write a manuscript. I think all these tasks are too big to be tackled.

So we need to break them down into smaller actionable tasks that can be done maybe in half an hour or an hour or something like this, but where you actually have something that you can end by the end of the day, at least. And that makes it much more easier to do them. And of course, at the end of the day, you can tick the box and move on.

and you can see what you have actually achieved. Or if you’re writing something longer, maybe you can just say, OK, I will write five pages today, or something like this. But something that is that you can tick off, because that will help a lot in get going, as well as seeing what you have achieved in the end of the day.

Of course, there’s work and there’s always these urgent things that come up on top of this bigger project that I’m working on. And it’s difficult to say no, but I think it’s absolutely needed to say no to certain things. And it’s also important to delegate as much as possible. And delegation is a…

topics that we are talking here on the podcast quite a lot, because I think it’s the biggest leverage to have a bigger impact at work. One other little tip that I have for focus time is I downloaded an app yesterday called Focus at Will. I heard about it a couple of times already on different podcasts about productivity.

music app, which has scientifically evaluated music on it that helps you to focus. So I listened to really nice track, all just music, no vocals in it, and that helped a lot to stay focused. And it also helped to be not…

distracted by anything that goes around me. I’m working from home at the moment to get things done, so I don’t hear when someone opens the door or something like this.

I also noticed that I had a hard time to concentrate for longer than, let’s say, 15 to 25 minutes. Then I needed a short break. And I recently listened to a tip to how to use these short breaks. And it’s good to do kind of just from a brain side to do something completely different.

So not go off and read further stuff on the internet or on social media, but maybe do something with your hands. And as I’m working from home, I do a little bit of cleanup here or I empty the dishwasher or something like this. Just a short amount of time, not cleaning up the whole house or something like this.

have a short break, but actually a productive break. And it also makes my wife happy and my whole family happy. So that’s a nice other thing. In the morning, I actually started up with cleaning the email because I wanted to know whether there’s any burning issues. But of course, I also have times where I try to first focus.

on my most important deliverables. And that also helps a lot. There’s quite a lot of debate among the productivity guys whether to start with email in the morning. And there’s lots of people that say, don’t do that because that will drive your whole day. Another thing that I started with is setting up a system, getting an overview of all the different things I needed to do.

collecting all the different files that I need, organizing them. And that helps a lot to kind of make a system out of it. And it also helps you to work productive through things and that you’re not kind of searching and asking for other material all the time. Another very, very important thing

to shut off all social media things. So no Facebook or whatsoever somewhere. And also to maybe even put away your smartphones. You know, there’s some research that says that even if you have a smartphone next to your computer, so you can see it, that will distract you quite a lot. So…

I put the smartphones away so that I can’t see them and not kind of easily grab them. And that helps a lot. And finally, like many companies, we also have a chat system. And I put that on Do Not Disturb to make sure that I’m really not interrupted by even smaller things. I closed my email program.

One other thing that I want to do is actually to clean up my desk, but yeah, haven’t been that good on this one. Some other smaller tips is have enough water to drink. So I always have water on my desk here. That is one of the things that I always do in the morning with my kind of startup routine, have a coffee and have enough water to drink.

because that helps me a lot to keep concentrated. OK, that’s it for today. Let’s talk again tomorrow.

Okay, now I’m starting day three of this experiment. And yesterday was overall doing very good. However, I got distracted from time to time. But I think that’s not the problem so much. I think the problem is to kind of keep on being distracted. So it’s important to notice it and then get back on track.

What helps me a lot is to have visual notes in front of me. So notes about what I want to do. There’s a problem with these electronic to-do lists because they sit somewhere on your computer. And if you’re working on your computer, you don’t see them anymore. And they sit directly next to all the other distractions. So it’s good, actually, for me to have this hybrid system of.

some paper notes that especially on kind of what I need to do now and some electronic versions of kind of what’s my overall to-do list. Another point of course in terms of not being distracted is to be sure that all the different things get done and I realized yesterday

to get things done. They have the freedom to do so and I encourage them to do so. But of course it also needs people that actually walk through these open doors. And it’s just such a great relief to have this great team. This morning I started with some sports. And

get into a very, very positive mood to already have something done in the morning. And well, I just have it for half an hour because that is for me the time where I’m then not completely exhausted afterwards and still energized. And it’s also kind of the time that helps me to balance enough sleep.

with also getting some sports done. I’m also started this morning very much with doing some focus work first and then doing emails later thereafter. And another thing that I want to focus on today is actually what I eat. And what helps me in the morning very often is just to have some little bit of cereals.

with lots of fruits and curdsheese because that is not so heavy. And so I get a good start into the day. And yesterday I had a lunch with just salad and a little bit of meat and that helped a lot as well. Especially as I combined it with a very short power nap after lunch. And I think a power nap is a…

really, really good way to get re-energized because the little time you spend on there gets paid back a lot in terms of being able to focus for the rest of the afternoon. So, report to you back about the next day tomorrow. Okay, and now day four. Yesterday was actually overall a pretty good day.

I noticed that it’s not only important about staying on task, but also to within the task, stay on the task. So no editing between the writing and really kind of minimizing the different task shifts. Because every time you need to shift from one activity to the other, and writing is something very different than editing.

burn a lot of energy. And time management is really not so much about time management as it’s much more about energy management. Because time is really fixed. It doesn’t flex, whereas energy really does flex. And you can make sure you have the right energy at the right time. And in terms of that, I also tried different musics.

with this Focus at Will app that I’ve introduced. And it seems that Classic actually works best for me. There’s a couple of other music that you can listen to. But I also tried the up tempos, it was okay, but I think Classic really works best for me. Maybe because I played piano for quite a time. Anyway, the other…

point about being productive was really to have some breaks in between. And actually you can, even with this app, schedule the breaks so that after a certain amount of time you build in a break to regain the energy and then go into another focus time. And that is very similar to…

a technique called Pomodoro. Don’t know exactly where the name came from and what it has to do with tomatoes, but anyway, it’s a very, very specific energy saving technique, and it has these different steps. First, you decide on what task to be done. Then you set the Pomodoro timer. So traditionally, that’s 25 minutes


Focus at will app, it’s actually 30 minutes, but I guess that depends also a little bit on your training on how good you’re focusing. Then you work on the task, you end the work when the timer rings, and then, you know, check a piece of paper. If you then have…

For check marks, you take a short, so for the viewers and for check marks, you go make a shorter break. And when you have done four check marks, you take a longer break, something like 15 to 30 minutes. And then you start again. So basically you have four half an hour sessions that always have something like five minutes of break at the end.

And then after these four half an hour sessions, so after these two hours, you have a longer break. And that’s some things that I will try today. And we’ll report on tomorrow. See you again.

And now day five. So yesterday I tried the Pomodoro technique and that worked overall quite well. Even if I got distracted due to some, you know, telephone calls and other things here. But the 25 minutes seems to be a really, really good timing to stay concentrated. Afterwards, that’s really where I started to watch on the clock.

and things like this, so, and then I really needed a break and I could start again. Today started not so good because I slept really bad tonight. I still went running this morning, which helped a lot to get going and to really get into a good mood and to a good condition for the work day and really wake up.

I had already everything set up for the run yesterday evening. So I had all my running gear there and was kind of already had decided to go running. And so I lowered all the different hurdles to actually do it. And I think this is generally a good idea for any more difficult task or any task that you keep procrastinating.

uh, keep moving around, keep kind of, you know.

which you know these tasks that always kind of stay on your to-do list. Is there anything that you can do to lower the hurdle to do it? Can you make it more kind of structured? Can you kind of, you know, prepare anything? Just maybe think about what is the one little step that you need to do to actually get it done or is there any kind of pre-work you need to do to get it done? So kind of…

try to lower the hurdle for getting these kind of things done. Another topic that I thought about in terms of having a good start into the day is to have a morning routine. And there’s lots of things written about morning routines. Some people spend something like two hours in the morning for their morning routine. I have a young family with three young kids. So

I don’t have that time. I would possibly need to get up at four o’clock in the morning to have that time and that would kind of collide with the sleep topic. So I have a quite short morning routine, but I always try to start with some silence and try to be grateful about things. Then I…

I really try to also get myself going in terms of some affirmation for myself and visualization of where I want to be. In terms of visualization, I really try to think, okay, if I reach my goals, what does that actually mean to me? How would my life be different? That helps me going. During the Zimkamp exercise.

As I said, I went running and there’s some guidance to have some kind of reading and journaling in the morning. I tried journaling a couple of times. It didn’t really pay out for me. In terms of reading, I combined that with the running by listening to podcasts or e-books or audio books. That helps a lot, though, in terms of…

Reducing the time. OK, so the other thing that I did this morning is I looked into my yearly goals. And that also helped me to restructure my to-do list in the morning. Having yearly goals is pretty important, I think. But what is even more important is to break them down into your day-to-day tasks. Because if you’re going to be doing

push the ball down the field every day a little bit, you see things add up over time. But it needs to be a little bit in the same direction all the time, and not going kind of off all the time. And that’s how to get bigger things done for me. And so building into your morning routine, having a look into the overall yearly goals is really, really important.

If you don’t do it on a daily basis, do it at least on a weekly basis. So put it in your calendar to every Monday morning look into your goals or build it into your morning routine. Okay, that’s for day five.

Okay, this is day six. On day five, actually things went very well. I finalized most of the things that I needed to do for this bigger project, and also could get a couple of smaller things done. So really what I reflected on is what habits do I have established to get into my deep work mode.

And I think everybody has different habits and kind of different ritual to get into that. And I think it’s good to kind of be aware about it and to then use it to your strengths and, you know, prepare for it to, and then go deliberately into these kind of rituals to get into the deep work mode. And for me, it’s very much kind of, especially as I’m working from home.

I drink an espresso and some water, and that kind of, you know, this ritual to go to the espresso machine to get it, to have the water, and then that kind of sets me up for getting into something that I really need to do deeply. And sometimes it’s a, if it’s a task that I’m not…

particularly happy about doing and not enjoying too much, then it helps to also give yourself a little bit of pep talk to get things going. In terms of DeepWorks, there’s a book I can highly recommend. It’s called DeepWork by Carol Newport, and it goes through a couple of very, very interesting topics. First, it starts, of course, with why DeepWork is important for you.

how it can help you to differentiate yourself in the marketplace. And he has lots of examples of how people have used deep work to accomplish major things and how that helps them really with their overall career and their life. He also talks about what distinguishes deep work from what he calls shallow work and what are the barriers.

to get into this deep work mode, especially kind of the barriers in our ever connected life and what we need to do about it. He also speaks about different deep work habits. So he has a couple of different examples of how people work with deep work. So from very, very extreme cases of, you know, work.

getting disconnected in deep work mode for very, very long months into something that is more maybe on the journalistic style, kind of going into deep work mode whenever there’s some kind of gap in the calendar. And he also gives some very, very nice and actionable advice on training your deep work capabilities.

a couple of different exercises you can do on a regular basis to train yourself to be able to longer stick in these deep work habits and also kind of easier get into the deep work mode. What for me is really a major driver for getting into this and also sticking on it.

and I think it’s a major driver for lots of all what I’m doing, is having enough sleep. And I think this is a far underestimated problem. So if you look into all these different surveys around sales at ARC report on how long people need to sleep and how long they actually sleep, there’s a pretty significant gap between it. And I think…

we as a society underestimate the importance of sleep. Maybe at a different episode, I’ll talk longer to that, and maybe I can even get some expert on sleep to interview about this topic, because I think it’s really, really fundamental. And I think it’s mostly in our hands how we wanna shape it. And so it’s, you know, most of the people

eight hours sleep. And harnessing that and kind of protecting this period is really important. Of course, sometimes life gets into the way, you know, little kids wake up in the middle of the night or, you know, there’s something happening early in the morning and, you know, maybe something keeps you up at night, whatsoever. But I think it’s always important to kind of…

plan for it, resist the urge to watch yet another episode of Netflix. I know that is really really difficult, especially in the evening if you’re tired and if your decision powers anyway decrease, then it’s really really important to kind of set up front some boundaries. So watching just one episode or something like this.

Also, what I really find important is if life gets in the way and kids wake up three, four times during the night, it’s sometimes really important to, really helpful to have a nap during the day to recover your energy. Okay, now I’m going into day six. I think I can finalize lots of topics today.

and then tomorrow will be the last day of this experiment and I’ll talk to you then again. [“The Last Day of This Experiment”]

Okay, now I’m starting into the last day. Yesterday was a good day. I got all the feedbacks that I wanted for the product, which I will include today. And I got also one additional piece of the product that I actually delegated. It’s really important to delegate things. And it’s really nice if you have tangibly nicely defined work packages that you can delegate.

Delegation is probably the way how you can improve your impact and leverage things mostly. And being really good on delegation is really, really important. So really important is clearly have it defined, and also include reporting back on it. And here, of course, reporting back was very easy. Just send the product back to me. That was basically the reporting back.

Now, through all the days I worked from home. And working from home has a couple of advantages. So no commuting time. And my mother-in-law told me, well, then basically you can work less because you can stop working because you save one hour of commuting time each day. I guess.

For most of us working from home, we spend an enormous amount of this commuting time actually working and not kind of doing something else. But anyway, so there’s a couple of rules that I found for myself to be really useful when working from home. So first is to close the door. And of course, if closing the door means you need to have a dedicated room.

A dedicated room set is for your office only or set is your office during the day that it’s not needed during the day. If it’s your sleeping room and during the day it’s your office and it’s for sleeping in the night, then I think that probably works as well. But I can’t work in the kitchen or the living room.

that just doesn’t work. There’s too much kind of distraction there. These rooms are dedicated for completely different purposes. And going into there, you don’t get into the right mood. You don’t have, you know, can’t develop any rituals. And also kind of setting up everything, you know, the laptop and everything around that.

I just find it really, really helpful and really productive to go to my desk, have everything set up there. Well, especially, of course, with podcast settings and stuff like this, it’s a little bit more of a setup here. But anyway, it’s really important, I think, to have a dedicated room for as an office. And also that helps to set up boundaries.

So I have clear kind of rules for my kids. Of course they come in when they need help or stuff like that, but when I have my headset on, that means don’t disturb me. And because then I’m on the phone and they get that, and also if I have my headset on and I’m in deep work mode,

That is also a clear signal, okay, only when it’s really, really important. Disturb me now. And it’s also quite helpful to have a discussion with your spouse about it. So what are the expectations? Working from home is not kind of, oh, you can interrupt me at any time and we can have a coffee chat. Of course we can have a coffee chat from time to time.

I will get out of my office and if I need a break, of course we can have a coffee in the garden together and just chat about other things. And of course I really enjoy talking to my spouse much more than to my co-workers. Sorry for the co-workers, but well, let’s face it, that’s reality. The spouse and the kids are just much more important.

So it’s really good to have some clear rules and boundaries if you want to make that work. And as I’m thinking about it, it’s probably very similar in the office as well. So it’s probably also very, very helpful to have some clear rules of how to work together in the office. And I think very often these rules are

kind of, they are just not clearly defined. There’s actually one exception where I sometimes get out of my office and that is sometimes to get some kind of creative break. So sometimes if you just kind of wanna brainstorm or if you kind of wanna think through a new project or you just need to kind of…

get some creative energy, sometimes it actually helps to change the setting. And so, you know, go into the garden or go into some other rooms. Some people like to go into a coffee shop or something like this. I think that is kind of the exception where leaving your office space actually helps a lot.

Okay, so now I’m going into the last day and at the end of the day I will report back.

Okay, this was the end. And it was a lot of learning for myself. It takes a lot of training to get back into long time of concentrated work, of really deep work. You know, things that you have done at university where you spend hours sitting on your desk and just having, um…

insights into complicated things, learning new things, and staying on focus for a very, very long time. Well, maybe for me it was a little bit easier because when I studied, we didn’t have any smartphones. That was a little bit easier and probably tells you how old I am. But anyway…

There’s a lot of deliberate effort actually needed to withstand all the challenges of the current workplace that interfere with all these efforts to do concentrated, focused work. There are meetings, there are distractions via emails, messenger, smartphone, phone calls, well phone calls maybe not so many anymore, colleagues, well life gets in the way all the time.

And so to build a system is really important to get into these kind of focus time and maybe schedule time in your calendar to do it on a regular basis, taking into account when you can actually do it best. You know, is the morning time the best or is the evening time the best? Maybe late afternoon is your best time for that.

Um, taking this into account is really important and creating a system is important, but also defending the system and refining the system is a never ending story because there’s always kind of

meetings that get scheduled, all these new emergencies that get in the way. And it’s ever so easy to fall back into habits of just, you know, going from one shiny object to the next. And that, yeah, let yourself being distracted all the time because I think just our brain is wired that way. Our brain is kind of gets a dopamine hit if it gets these kind of…

shiny new objects and whether that is the next Facebook tweet or the next thing on your email or you know, oh there’s something new that I can look into. And so to kind of train yourself to stay away from it takes a lot of effort, at least for me it takes a lot of effort and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

So the underlying pattern here is really that self-management is super important. And I think it also is helpful for all these kinds of different leadership activities. And if you can self-manage yourself, that will also, if you’re a supervisor, set a good example for others in your team. But of course that starts with being honest to yourself. And

I personally overestimated my capabilities to really stay focused and I was surprised how easily I get distracted when I’m watching myself. So if you want to start with that, maybe that’s the first good activity to dig into. Keep a log of what you’re doing over the day.

and just kind of check every 15 minutes of what you’re doing. Are you chatting to someone? Are you on email? Are you on Facebook? Are you on any other distraction? And how long can you actually stay focused on just one task? So that’s the first thing. The other thing is,

What really helped me a lot was to have these long-term goals visible for me all the time. And of course, for me, having this recording helped a lot because that created lots of accountability for myself. And I tried to create routines and habits deliberately about it. Of course, this takes much longer than these couple of days that I worked on it.

Creating routines and habits takes a couple of weeks at least, probably more two to three months. And you can create all these habits and routines at the same time. That’s just too stressful. So I think it’s probably better to start with one routine and then another one and then another one. And consciously over time.

build more of these habits. Okay, that’s now the end of it. Thanks so much for listening and talk to you again next week. We thank PSI for sponsoring this show. Thanks for listening. Please visit thee to find the show notes and learn more about our podcast to boost your career as a statistician in the health sector. If you enjoyed the show, please subscribe to our channel.

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