With the Covid-19 virus limiting travel and interaction, many workers are finding themselves working from home for the very first time. While this may seem like a relaxing way to get work done, most people find being productive challenging when they have limited structure. Luckily, this is a problem that has been faced by the self-employed, creatives, and entrepreneurs for years, and they have come up with ways to deal with it. In today’s article, we will focus on one method, the Pomodoro Technique
“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.” ~Sidney Sheldon
Getting stuff done can be hard. It’s harder when we are left to our own devices and have plenty of free time to fill up. There always seems to be something else to do; email to respond to, a phone call to make, a dog to pet. The things that we should be working on often pushed and delayed, often with the rationale that ‘there will be plenty of time to work on it later.’ The problem is that we then lose the time where we could be working and end up facing deadlines and the stress that they bring with it.
This problem compounds with the constant flow of new information, notifications, and other issues that present themselves as ‘pressing.’ The beeps, announcements, and unread message icons all play into this, vying for your attention and causing distractions. Each of these distractions may seem small, only a few seconds or a minute to handle, but it’s much more than that. Recent studies have shown that it takes up to Twenty-Three minutes to get back on task after a distraction. So that thirty seconds of checking an email are going to cost you Twenty-Three minutes and Thirty seconds of productivity. Extrapolate this out, and a full eight hours is getting back on task from only Twenty-Four distractions. And most people are going to have many more than Twenty-Four emails in a given day. And looking at the psychological effects of these distractions gives us even more reason to avoid them, as Gloria Marks of UC Irvine says, “[A]ttention distraction can lead to higher levels of stress, a bad mood, and lower productivity.”
A way to deal with the blank page of an unstructured day that could quickly fill with an inflow of distractions is to set aside blocks of uninterrupted time for work. This is difficult in the current work culture of always being connected and a focus on multi-tasking. There may be exceptional people who can work on multiple things at once (like DaVinci or Mozart), but most of us need to focus on a single task at hand. Continually being distracted and dividing attention will result in very little forward progress, it is better to set aside time to deal with all of the distractions in batches and focus on a single task at a time.
“There was Mozart, of course, He could, it seems, work on several compositions at the same time, all of them masterpieces. But he is the only known exception. The other prolific composers of the first rank — Bach, for instance, Handel, or Haydn, or Verdi — composed one work at a time. They did not begin the next until they had finished the preceding one, or until they had stopped work on it for the time being and put it away in the drawer. Executives can hardly assume that they are ‘executive Mozarts.’” ~Peter Drucker, “The Effective Executive”
A method to deal with this focusing attention is called “The Pomodoro Technique,” which was first laid out by Francesco Grillo in the early 1990s. Grillo was a developer, entrepreneur, and author who named the system “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work when he was a student. The Pomodoro Technique is a favorite of writers, designers, and developers who regularly need to tackle unstructured creative work. However, it is also useful for people who don’t necessarily have the same ‘blank page’ problem. It can be helpful to anyone who has to balance the distractions of an Inbox with accomplishing their productivity goals.
The methodology of this technique is as simple as it is useful. Break your work into short, timed intervals (called “Pomodoros”) that are broken up by short breaks. By having defined breaks from focus, it allows an uninterrupted time of focused work with the knowledge that the brain will have a regular respite where it can be distracted. The consistent focusing on a single task can help to train the mind to focus during its “working” periods while also helping to achieve goals. This type of regular focus and relaxation of the brain also has shown to help improve attention span and concentration.
This technique is a cyclical system that can be modified to best fit your work and schedule. The key benefit of it is that it structures time for distraction, which allows for consistent productivity during the rest of the day. In structure, it is probably one of the simplest productivity methods to implement, requiring nothing more than a timer. Nothing else is needed (although there are plenty of apps, articles, and books available). The technique is simple and can break down into five steps:
1. Choose a task to be accomplished
2. Set the timer for 25 minutes (this is a Pomodoro)
3. Work on the job until the 25 minutes are up
4. Take a 5-minute break from the task
5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a more extended break, usually a full Pomodoro
In theory, a day of perfect “Pomodoro-ing” would result in you having Thirteen workings Pomodoros, Six short breaks, and Three more extended break “Pomodoros,” giving you over five hours of focused work.
This technique can also take on some of the benefits of gamification. The goal of each Pomodoro is for it to be an indivisible unit of work. That means if a distraction occurs partway through, you are forced to postpone the distraction or you “lose” the Pomodoro. To build up your productivity, set a goal of how many “Pomodoros” you can complete distraction-free, and then attempt to beat it the following day. An excellent place to start is trying to achieve four perfect Pomodoros in a day. If you do that, you will have 100 minutes of uninterrupted work. Having less than two hours of focused work may seem like a small amount. Research has shown that in an average 8.8-hour workday, the average worker is productive for less than three hours of it, and that’s not necessarily undistracted productivity. If you can get yourself to achieving six perfect Pomodoros, you are already far ahead of the curve.
The best defense against distractions is to stop them before they start. Before each Pomodoro begins, set your phone and notifications to Do-Not-Disturb. It may feel weird being ‘out of touch,’ but remember it is only for 25 minutes. Turning off these notifications should handle the majority of your daily distractions, but other things may still pop up, or your mind may jump to another project, which wasn’t the task you sat down to do. You will then have the choice of either ending that Pomodoro and “losing” or postpone the distraction.
Barring any real emergency, the goal is to train yourself to “win” the Pomodoros, so postponing the distraction is the preferred option. If the distraction is from an external source, like a co-worker, Inform them that you are working on something, Negotiate a time that you will get back to them, Schedule that follow-up immediately, and when you have completed the Pomodoro call them back. The key here is to postpone the distraction as quickly as possible so you can deal with it later. These same types of distractions can come from within ourselves as well. Our brain may wander while we’re working, or something we are currently working on may give us insight into another task on our list. We need to decide whether it is worth “losing” the Pomodoro to switch jobs, or if it is better to delay that work. I find keeping a small pad of scrap paper right on my desk allows me to jot down anything that pops up during the Pomodoro that I can then review and schedule during the break.
This system is simple and flexible enough to add value to anyone’s workday. Like any productivity system, though, it is a tool to help you, not a set of rigid rules that you must follow dogmatically. If you hit your groove and the Pomodoro timer rings that the 25 minutes are passed, there is nothing forcing you to stop working. The purpose of the timer is to give you a reprieve from work and a reminder that it’s ok to relax. The end goal is a regular state of getting into a zone of focus and productivity. There are limitless productivity methods out there, and it may be that no single one is a perfect fit for you. Take from each what you find most useful to create a personal system. And always remember, that productivity is not an end unto itself, it is a means to an end where you spend less time doing the tasks you have to do so you can free up the time to do the things you want to do.