Crush your workload in minutes using Tabata Time

When I finally went full-time in my coaching business in May of 2008, one of the biggest challenges I faced was making effective use of my time. Overnight, I transitioned from being in a corporate office surrounded by colleagues – rushing from meeting to meeting and trying to work less than 60 hours a week – to me sitting alone in my home office, trying to prioritize the million things I could spend my time on. Once I grew my client portfolio, I quickly realized being a one-woman show was harder than it looked. 

I had to become a master time manager. 

How much work can you get done in 4 minutes? 

I had an epiphany because of my regular 5:30am cycling class. Sometimes the instructor would push us the last 4 minutes of class with 8 cycles of 20 seconds of MAX effort + 10 seconds of rest. This was a real lung and butt burner, and a great way to finish class. If you’ve experienced it, you know what I’m talking about! 

On the surface, 4 minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to get anything of value accomplished. Yet, that’s exactly the length of Olympic training coach Dr. Izumi Tabata’s intense full-body workout. You have probably taken a class at a gym or online that features Tabata-style high-intensity interval training with 20 seconds of all-out effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest. This incinerates calories and builds strength, especially when repeated during certain activities.

Long before I heard of the Pomodoro technique with its cute tomato timer, my mind made the leap to try the interval training approach with a task I had been putting off. I decided to set my kitchen chicken timer for 20 minutes and put all-out effort toward the client proposal I had been struggling with. It felt like a miracle when I had actually completed the proposal when the timer went off. 

I yelled “Woo-Hoo!” Then I set the timer for another 20 minutes to tackle the next thing on my list. 

Interval training for the mind

Whether you set your intervals to 20 minutes, 10 minutes or even 4 minutes, it’s about giving the task all your attention and brain power during that time.

… to work to its full potential, you really do have to give it everything you have during the high intensity periods!

James Driver, HIIT – High Intensity Interval Training Explained

I shared my lessons learned with clients and in keynote audiences. Hundreds of clients and many audiences later, I am still recommending the same basic guidelines below, and being rewarded with their success stories later.

1 – Decide which one task to work on

If you’re not immediately sure what to tackle with your focus time, you’re not alone. Many people confess to me that they feel a little lost when they take a pause from the normal “too busy” mode.

While you could use the Tabata time technique for multiple action items, it typically works best for ONE specific task that is clearly defined.

 Here are some strategies to select an important task that pays off for you:

  • Choose a task you’ve been procrastinating. But…only if it has value to you. Let me explain: Procrastination occurs for several reasons. One reason to put off a task is if it feels more like a “should” than something meaningful to you. Consider why it’s on your list. If it doesn’t truly need to be done by you, delegate it or delete it.
  • If you’re trying to select from several options, it may be helpful to rank them in order. For sorting to-dos, you could use the old standby label of “A” for top priority tasks, “B” for important but less urgent, and “C” for nice to do, but not required. Focusing on the A category, rank them in priority order 1-10. Start with A1.
  • If the task is too large to complete in a 20-minute session, break it down into smaller bites.   

RELATED: Clear Up Stale Tasks with the Breadcrumb Technique

  • Feel like you need to review your big goal(s) or take a breather and reset first? Try this 5-minute reset to get back on track. Once you gain clarity, determine 1 task that will move a big goal forward.
  • When in doubt, keep it simple: Ask yourself, “What is the most important use of my time right now?” or “If I could get one thing done in the next 20 minutes, which task would give me the biggest payoff?”

2 – Set yourself up for success

To get the most from your focus-work session, do a bit of prep before you set the timer. 

First, it’s vital to acknowledge that when the timer is running, it is GO TIME. In other words, between start and stop, the ONLY thing you’re doing is hustling to get the task completed. Commit to total focus! 

This Tabata time technique helps you concentrate your ability to get things done just as a magnifying glass can concentrate sunlight. Racing the clock helps force you to make faster decisions and not over-analyze, or waste time in other ways. When you know you only have 20 minutes to get as far as possible on your task, you can harness your natural problem-solving abilities and sense of urgency. This is essentially the same thing as when people swear they are better last-minute (like writing a paper the day before it’s due or pushing a work project off until you can’t allow other things to distract you).

Refill your beverage of choice before you get started, so there is no excuse to get up. Also, my own list always includes “use the bathroom” because I drink a lot of water and coffee throughout the day, lol. 

I also grab a notepad and pen for any ideas that pop up so I can jot it down and get right back to the main task. Trying to hold it in your mind so you don’t forget later steals some of your focus. Much better to just write it down and move on quickly.

Silence the ring, ding, and buzz of notifications. Close your email program, put your phone on silent and face down (or in another room). Especially if you think this doesn’t apply to you. (!)

3 – Don’t use your phone 

Use a separate timer. These days, I like a cube timer like this, but any kitchen-style timer will do. It doesn’t need to make the ticking sound like my old chicken, but if you struggle with focus that can help keep you in the zone.

 I’ve also learned that it’s best not to tempt yourself with a snooze button, so if that’s going to be a challenge for you, buy the OG timer that doesn’t offer any extra features.

 Now let’s pull things together and go for the win:

  • You’re clear on the task: You’re either going for total completion or using the 80/20 rule to get the main points done without getting lost in less valuable details.
  • You’ve set up your work area.
  • You’re ready.
  • Set the timer.
  • GO!
  • Work with high intensity to complete the task quickly!

 When the timer goes off, assess how you did. 

Enjoy the win! Bask in the glow from completing that task, especially if it was camping out on your to-do list for a while. 

Or set yourself up to work intensely again. Repeat as necessary but after a few rounds, it’s time to take a break.

Harness this productivity gem as often as you need it, working in focused blocks to get your most important tasks completed. Balance these sessions of racing the clock with intentional rest or play time. You’ve earned it!

There you have it. A simple 3-step process can take you into the “productivity is my super power” arena. 

Want more?  Check out my posts on and check out the Productivity section in Lead With Moxie

Heather Legge
Verified Coach
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Since 2006, Heather Legge has worked with business owners to help them achieve their vision. You too can develop the productivity habits and leadership skills for business success. Email or book a free call with Heather now .

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