How Working in Focus Cycles Helped Me Be Less Stressed and Get More Work Done

Working in focus cycles can not only increase your productivity but also reduce your stress and increase your happiness.

1. What Are Focus Cycles?

Focus Cycles are time periods that start with a plan of work, end with a review of work and have intense focused work in between beginning and end. Also, they have a period of recovery in between focus cycles. Thus, focus cycles have the following elements:

  • Beginning: plan the work
  • Focused Work: Focus only on the planned work
  • End: review the work accomplished and the way of working
  • Recovery: time to rest in between focus cycles

These elements can be visualized as follows:

2. Importance of Off-Time

An essential element of working in cycles is the off-time in between the cycles. Off-time is the time in which we do not do any work, regenerate and take our minds off work.

The problem in today’s work is that we are constantly in on-modus and do not get enough off-time, which leads to a decrease in our productivity. This can be symbolized as follows:

The blue line represents the productivity of a person who is in constant on-modus. As the person gets tired the productivity decreases and the work accomplished becomes less.

In comparison by working in cycles a person is able to regenerate and thus be at the highest productivity, as illustrated in the comparison below:

By working in cycles you let yourself recover in the recovery time so that you can regain maximum productivity. 

The importance of cycles in our lives and more specifically for our productivity was introduced to me many years ago by the book “Power of Full Engagement” by Tony Schwartz and James Loehr. In the book the authors talk about their experience in sport science, where the ideal recovery has been studied intensively. For example, when sport scientist work on the best off-time for tennis players they study cycles at different levels:

  • Off-time in between tennis seasons
  • Off-time in between tennis tournaments within a season
  • Off-time in between tennis matches within a tournament
  • Off-time in between tennis games within a tennis match
  • Off-time in between points within a game

Every single one of these off-times is of great importance for the performance of the tennis player.

The authors of “The Power of Full Engagement” discovered that while the off-time is important for athletes in tennis and other sports, it is even more important for workers working long hours using their mental energy. Even though off-time is of vital importance, most people are not aware of it.

You can see how I mix in off-time during by workday with physical and mindfulness activity here:

How to Be More Productive, Fit and Mindful All at the Same Time

3. Popular Focus Cycles

While you probably have never thought about your working periods of on- and off-time, it is likely that you are already working in them. For example, we are all working in natural cycles of a 5 days work week with the recovery period during the weekend. 

Having a weekend by itself does not make the work week a focus cycle. As we have seen in the definition above, we also need a work plan at the beginning and a work review at the end of the cycles. But by taking off-time, at least you are working in a cycle of on- and off-time, even without doing work planning and work review.

But even in the narrower definition of focus cycles, many people are already working in focus cycles, such as the following: 

  • Work sprints
  • Yearly plans and reviews
  • Daily task lists
  • Pomodoro sessions

We will analyze each of these focus cycles below:

3.1. Work sprints

Sprints are short stints of work that last most commonly around two weeks. At the beginning of the sprint we plan the work to be accomplished during the sprint (sprint planning). During the sprint we focus only on the work that we had planned and do not let us be disturbed by any additional work that might come up. At the end of the sprint we review what we have accomplished (sprint review) and how we have worked (sprint retrospective). After the sprint we have a short sprint recovery before starting the next sprint.

The sprint is a concept of Scrum which is the most popular agile methodology. As the agile way of work and Scrum have become constantly more popular, many offices workers are already working in sprints.

The length of the sprint is most commonly two weeks. I personally prefer to work with two sets of sprint one shorter and one longer. My shorter sprint is one week and the longer one is one month. The one week sprint is for planning at the task level, where I want to have maximum flexibility to change tasks to work on. The longer sprint of one month is for planning at a project level, where I want to have more stability. 

You can see my personal sprint split into two level of sprints in this article: 

What is the Ideal Length of a Work sprint?

3.2. Yearly plans and reviews

At the turn of the year many people set new year resolutions (yearly focus cycle plan). Also, some people reflect on the year when it is coming to an end (yearly focus cycle review).

Furthermore, people often use the vacation between the years to take a break from the old year and get ready for the new (yearly focus cycle recovery). This is especially true in China where according to the Chinese calendar the new year starts with the Chinese spring festival (Chunjie). Many Chinese will take the most important decision such as changing jobs or moving to a new apartment  right at the time of Chunjie.

3.3. Daily plans and reviews

A day is another cycle. We naturally take a break at the end of the day for sleep, and wake up the next day to start our work day. 

Besides having a natural break during sleep, a lot of people also engage in the other elements of the focus cycle: plan in morning, focused work and review in the evening.

At the individual level, you can create a daily task list in the morning (daily work plan), then focus only on those tasks during the day (focused work) and then review this daily task list at the end of the day (daily work review).

At a team level, you can meet with your team for a daily standup meeting in which each team member talks about the task for the day (daily work plan). At the end of the day each team member sends their daily accomplishments in a daily email (daily work review).

3.4. Pomodoro session

The Pomodoro session works as follows: You set your alarm to a certain time limit, like for example 45 minutes. Then you work for these 45 minutes until the alarm rings.

The method was popularized by an Italian guy that finally was able to get his academic thesis completed after starting to work in short time periods delimited by a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro means tomato in Italian). 

You start the session by deciding what to work on setting the timer (work plan), then you only focus on the task at hand (focused work). When the timer rings you quickly review what you have done (work review) and then take at least a 5 minute break (recovery).

4. Similarities and Differences Between Different Focus Cycles

The different focus cycles have some differences but also many commonalities.

4.1. Commonalities

The different focus cycles mentioned above all have in common the basic elements of a focus cycle:

  • Recovery in between cycles
  • Planning at beginning
  • Review at end
  • Intense execution at the core of the focus cycle

4.2. Different time frames

The most obvious difference between the different cycles is the time frame:

  • Pomodoro session: 15 min – 1 hours
  • Daily session: 1 day
  • Weekly sprint: 1 week
  • Monthly sprint: 1 month
  • Yearly plan/review: 1 year

The different focus cycles can work simultaneously. That means that you can follow all of them at the same time. We can symbolize this as follows:

As we see above a person can work in daily sprints, while at the same time having weekly and monthly sprints.

4.3. Different goal levels

The next difference between the focus cycles is the level of planning and review.

The longer the time frame the broader the goals we analyse in the planning and review session.

This can be illustrated with the following goal pyramid:

As you can see above in the daily focus cycle plan you focus only on small tasks and subtasks, creating your daily tasklist of small actionable tasks. 

During the weekly sprint planning you only deal with small projects and tasks, as large projects have to be broken down first at the monthly sprint planning.

And at the monthly sprint planning you plan the project. However, you do not want to plan and review your overall mission as this should only be done on a yearly basis, for example during a mission planning retreat.

5. How Do I Plan, Execute and Review Focus Cycles?

Another difference between the different focus cycles is how the planning, the review and the execution is done. 

Below you will see how I personally use different focus cycles in my own work. Some cycles I use only for myself personally, while others I use with the teams I am working with.

5.1. Pomodoro session

The very short focus cycle of a pomodoro session I use on an individual level only.

5.1.1. Pomodoro Plan

The planning of the Pomodoro session only lasts a couple of seconds. I will first look at my calendar and then at my task list. If I have something scheduled in the calendar this will automatically be a priority. If not I go over my daily task list and decide on one or two of the tasks to work on. I then set a timer and start my work.

5.1.2. Pomodoro Execution

During the Pomodoro session I try to be as focused as possible on the task at hand. That means I avoid multitasking, interruptions and distractions.

Distraction by social media is inherently difficult to control. What has worked for me is to write three 15 minutes calendar appointments each day explicitly for social media, and only allow myself to access social media during these 15 minutes.

5.1.3. Pomodoro Review

A Pomodoro session will generally take between 20 and 60 minutes. After the session I will quickly review what I have done and record the time worked in my work tracking system. 

5.1.4. Pomodoro Break

After each Pomodoro session I will take a break between 3 and 15 minutes. In that break I could be eating a snack, going to the toilet or doing some physical exercise. 

5.2. Daily plan

Every morning I will make a daily plan for myself. Also, if I am working with a team I generally meet every morning with the team for 10 minutes in a daily stand up meeting, where we discuss tasks for the day. 

5.2.1. Daily Plan

I start every day by making a daily task list. I do this by looking at the tasks within my weekly sprint and then select the tasks to work on during the day and put them into my daily task list.

Transferring tasks from the weekly task list to the daily task list, and having all tasks lists be in sync, is something that is tedious to do with a pen and paper. Also, traditional project management systems do not provide that functionality. For that reason, me and a group of friends had to create a system that works with the focus cycles work system. This project management system is called Workiamo.

Workiamo is a very simple tool that is ideal for anybody that wants to be less stressed and more productive. As you are reading this, we let you access it for lifetime for free! In order to do so, you have to register at by entering this code: ILOVEWORK.

I will generally limit my daily plan to only 5 hours, knowing that there will be more work coming at me during the day.

5.2.2. Daily Execution

During the day I only focus on implementing my task list as focused and as quickly as possible. 

As I already decided what to work on in the morning, I now can limit my planning during the day and focus on execution only.

5.2.3. Daily Review

At the end of the day I quickly review what I worked on. As I record my work time I can easily see the hours I worked in total and what project I dedicated my time to.

In the past I sometimes have encouraged my work teams to send a daily mail with the 3 most important daily accomplishments. However, after developing our project management system, Workiamo, we no longer need to do this, as Workiamo makes what everyone has worked on public to every other team member. Workiamo also automatically generates interesting visual reports on my work as well as on the work of my co-workers. These reports help us tremendously in quickly reviewing our work progress.

5.2.4. Daily Break

After the work day I have a routine to wind down and then try to get 7 hours of sleep, before getting up and starting the next daily focus cycle.

5.3. Weekly sprint

As explained above, I work in both weekly and monthly sprints.

5.3.1. Weekly Plan

On Sunday I plan the week for me individually, and I do a quick pre plan for the whole team.  

For my individual weekly plan I will first put into my plan the recurring tasks that I do every week. Then I will look at the uncompleted tasks from the week before and drag them to the new sprint. And finally I will see what tasks within the monthly sprint plan are still not completed and decide which of these to put into this week’s sprint. 

Doing this manually with a pen and paper gets very tedious and few project management systems provide such a functionality. This was the biggest reason that prompted us to develop our own focus software called Workiamo, With Workiamo you can easily drag tasks between monthly, weekly and daily plans, and all of these lists will stay in sync.

For the team planning I do a sprint planning meeting on Monday morning. In that meeting we plan for around 20 minutes what to work on during the next week.

5.3.2. Weekly Execution

During the week I try to just get the tasks I planned for the week done, nothing else. While I allow myself to reschedule the execution order of tasks, I seldom change the tasks to be done during the week. 

5.3.3. Weekly Review

For my personal tasklist I do a quick review of my weekly accomplishments on Sunday. 

Similarly, for the teams I am working with I will generally have a sprint review meeting on either Friday afternoon or on Monday. During that meeting we will have a sprint review and a sprint retrospective and if it is on Monday also combine it with the sprint planning for the next week.

During the sprint review we quickly let everyone present what they have been working on, and while simultaneously looking at the reports generated by our project management system, Workiamo. 

5.3.4. Weekly Break

We will take a break on Saturday and Sunday. For me this does not mean complete freedom from work. But it means that I focus on more reflective tasks and conversations with fellow entrepreneurs.

5.4. Monthly sprint

The monthly sprint is very similar to the weekly sprint but it goes into less task level issues and more strategic issues.

You can see a more details explanation of the difference between my monthly and weekly focus cycles here: 

What is the Ideal Length of a Work sprint?

5.5. Yearly plan

My longest focus cycle is yearly. 

5.5.1. Yearly Review and Yearly Retrospective

At the end of the year I review my personal diary and the different work projects I was working on. This my yearly review.

I also do a yearly retrospective, in which I analyze what went well and what needs to be improved.

5.5.2. Yearly Plan

After finishing my year review on the 31st of December, I will start my yearly plan right after midnight on the 1st of January.

In order to get a high level perspective I try to be at a quiet place in nature and revisit my overall life goals to come up with a plan for the coming year.

6. Benefits of Focus Cycles

Working in focus cycles can give you a lot of benefits:

  • Maximum productivity
  • More happiness
  • Más enfoque
  • Less time spent planning
  • Continuous improvement

6.1. Maximum productivity

One of the most important benefits of focus cycles is that they increase productivity. This is due to the fact that the recovery in between focus cycles helps you maintain a high productivity level. 

6.2. More focus

The planning at the beginning helps your mind to stay focused on the task at hand. Having clearly defined what you will work on and what you are expected to accomplish, helps you fight off distraction and interruptions.

6.3. More happiness

With the guaranteed and regular recovery time you can work long hours without feeling overworked. Also, the fact that you have a clear plan and that you can see your progress towards your goals contributes to your happiness.

6.4. Less time spent planning

The concentrated planning at the beginning of the focus cycle makes planning during the focus cycles redundant. Therefore, the total time you spend on planning and non productive tasks is reduced.

6.5. Continuous improvement

As focus cycles end with a review of your work during the cycle you can regularly evaluate your progress and what is working and not, so that you can continuously improve.

In conclusion, we have seen that:

  • We already work in focus cycles, although most likely without knowing it.
  • Focus cycles can be at different levels -year, month, week, day, Pomodoro period.
  • All of the different focus cycles have a lot of benefits.
  • To be more productive and happier you should follow the advice above on working in focus cycles.
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