I sucked at my first job.
It’s a weird thing to admit, but it’s true.
When I started as a management consultant in 2010, I was worse than useless. I had spent my summers during university cleaning yachts for rich people and working on my tan.
Case in point: during my first week of consulting my manager had to hold my hand and walk me through how to book a meeting in Outlook.
No offence, but you probably sucked at your first job too. Don’t feel bad; everyone sucks when they start their first job.
Even if you have a few internships under your belt or are already an Excel wizard, your first job has a steep learning curve.
You learn things like how to take good meeting notes, how your firm builds financial models, and even how to bribe the print shop guy to get your stuff printed first. The first 6-9 months of work are fast-paced, challenging, and exciting.
But after the initial sprint, a lot of people hit a plateau. You’ve improved leaps and bounds since you started, but now each incremental improvement requires more and more effort.
And so you stagnate at work. You start just going through the motions as each new day feels the same as the day before. It’s the corporate version of Groundhog Day, but Bill Murray isn’t there and it’s a lot less fun.
Feeling stagnated sucks. It’s draining, it’s boring, and it makes you want to quit. No one wants to stop learning, but oftentimes it just happens.
Today, I’m going to share with you a tactic I use when I feel stagnated. It’s a simple system I use to measure my performance and make sure I’m getting better, every single day.
How to go from the top 5% to the top 1%
As part of my business I spend a lot of time studying top-performers. There is one thing they all have in common: continuous improvement.
A good example is billionaire Warren Buffett and his business partner Charlie Munger.
Buffett estimates that he spends 80% of his day reading, and he’s been famously quoted as saying, “I just sit in my office and read all day.”
Munger agrees, saying, “I don’t think any other twosome in business was better at continuous learning than we were, and if we hadn’t been continuous learners, the record wouldn’t have been as good.”
Now compare that to some of the summer interns or new analysts you’ve worked with (or maybe even a younger version of yourself). You know, the type that has an answer for everything and criticizes the decisions of the CEO after 2-weeks on the job. Frankly, I’m amazed Buffet is still in business considering that “Incoming IB analyst Billy Know-It-All” is a visionary stock-picker before he even starts his first job…
The simple fact is that the difference between the top 5% and the top 1% is that the best of the best never stop learning and get better every single day.
So, we’re all in agreement that continuous improvement is a key ingredient to success? Excellent. Now let’s talk about one way to guarantee it happens.
‘The Pomodoro Technique’ — A system for continuous improvement
There are a lot of ways to improve your performance, but today I’m going to talk about just one.
It’s called ‘The Pomodoro Technique’. It was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, and named after the tomato shaped timer he used for the technique.
You’ve probably seen me write about this before (like in my “All-Nighter Survival Guide”), so I won’t go into too much detail of how or why it works. Basically, it’s an all-in-one solution for eliminating burnout, managing distractions, and creating a better work-life balance.
Here’s how it works:
- Choose a task to work on.
- Set your timer to 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the timer goes off.
- Take a 5 minute break.
- Take a longer break of 15–30 minutes after four work cycles.
The Pomodoro Technique
Today, I’m going to focus on how I use The Pomodoro Technique for continuous improvement.
Like most people, you probably start your day with a to-do list. You write down everything that needs to get done, and then prioritize what to work on first.
And then you dive in, starting with task #1 and then moving onto task #2 when you’re finished.
Here’s where The Pomodoro Technique changes things:
- Step 1: Before jumping into work, I estimate the number of 25 minute Pomodoro cycles it will take me to finish each task. For a little project like “Incorporate PowerPoint edits” it might be 1 or 2 Pomodoro’s, but big projects can easily grow to 6 or 8 pomodoro’s (3–4 hours).
- Step 2: Now I get to work using the 25-minute work / 5-minute break cycle I described above. Each time I finish a 25-minute pomodoro, I make a note using a paper tracking worksheet (You can download the PDF by clicking here). I keep going until I finish the task.
- Step 3: After finishing each task, I count the actual number of pomodoro’s it took to finish the task and compare it to my estimate. Then I pause for a second and think about it. This is the most important step. If my estimate and actual are different, why? Was I distracted or unproductive? Did I get sidetracked with an unimportant detail? How can I do things better next time?
The goal here is to get better and learn from your mistakes. Remember the saying, “what get’s measured, get’s managed.”
Every time I finish something, I’m forcing myself to assess my performance and look for ways to improve. I’m tweaking my approach to work. I’m finding new angles to get ahead of the competition.
Actions like this is what separates the top 1% from the top 5%, not the big career leaps you imagine in your head. We all have innate natural ability, and we can all work extremely hard. But not everyone has the desire or the will to do the work to get better every single day.