When I was in university, Facebook had just really started to take off, and I remember just letting this crazy new social network totally consume my mind and my focus and massive chunks of my time every day and every night — both when I should’ve been studying and when I should’ve been paying attention in class.
I never got ANYTHING done in proper time because I was obsessed with refreshing the news feed (back before it auto-refreshed) and I was obsessed with getting friends to write cool things on my wall (back when there still was that thing called “your wall”) and I was obsessed with seeing exactly who was online at every given moment (back before the chat feature existed and you couldn’t even control your online visibility).
I honestly have no idea how kids even make it through school these days now that everything’s mobile and we’ve got Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest, and everything else that glistens and gleams and scrolls and beeps at you.
Anyway, my productivity skills sucked harder than a Hoover vacuum, and even though I somehow managed to graduate with a B-average, I still didn’t learn my lesson years afterward when I became further obsessed with ALL forms of social media and websites and blogs and videos and other cool junk to look at online.
Weirdly enough, I took everything on the internet that consumed my mind and turned it into a freelancing job, which was cool and all, except for the part where I hit peak unproductive misery in 2011 by realizing I was barely getting started on working on anything until 5 o’clock in the evening almost every day.
My worst productivity habit has always involved the vicious cycle of spending a few minutes working on something — like writing a sentence or two — then spending three times that amount of time doing something else like browsing my social feeds, or checking my email, or snacking on some crappy rice crackers.
I’d jump from task to task, to social feed, then to a completely different task, to my email inbox, back to the original task to finish it, then back to one of my social feeds, and then I’d take a break to go eat or something.
And I’d wonder how I only got three sentences done in an hour.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but the older I get, the more I realize how important it really is to use the time I have more wisely, even if that means giving certain things up.
“Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” — William Penn
What about you?
Even if you don’t sit at a desk during your day job, you probably can attest to never having enough time or focus to do certain things like do your online banking, edit those family photos in Photoshop, research that thing you want to know more about, organize all those loose papers lying around, brainstorm a list of home decor ideas for a room you want to redo, or whatever else you have in your life that just needs to get done.
Sure, things take time to get done, but when it comes straight down to it, we all have the same 24 hours in a day to work with and it’s up to us to manage that time we have responsibly.
Over the past month or so, I’ve been experimenting with a time management technique called the Pomodoro technique.
Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
The Pomodoro technique was developed in the 1980s by a guy who used a regular kitchen timer (in the shape of a plastic red tomato) to complete a set of tasks as quickly as possible via mini workflow sessions and breaks.
Why does it work?
Because you get a nice balance between work and breaks, which essentially helps you keep up your momentum up and avoid burnout.
I haven’t actually taken the course or bought the book as shown on the Pomodoro technique website, although it’s simple enough that I’ve used the technique on my own by reading about it on other blogs and websites.
Here’s what it involves:
- One “pomodoro” or time frame of totally focused work lasts 25 minutes.
- After you complete one pomodoro, you get a 5-minute break.
- After you’ve completed four pomodoros (and their respective 5-minutes breaks), you get a longer break of 25 minutes.
- Aiming to complete 12 pomodoros is equivalent to about a full day’s worth of actual work.
12 pomodoros measures up to be exactly five hours of real work, not including the breaks you took.
You may work eight hours a day or longer, but chances are a lot of that time isn’t spent actually working.
Now, here’s the catch.
There are strict rules to making it work — other than setting a timer for 25 minutes, “pretending” like you’re actually doing something and then patting yourself on the back when it rings.
Rule #1: You must completely eliminate all distraction.
I’m talking to you, dear reader who has fifty tabs open on your computer right now and is about five seconds away from checking your phone for the twelfth time this hour.
Depending on how bad you want to make progress, you’ll either do it, or you won’t.
You need to discipline yourself to shut ’em all down if you want this to work.
For me, this means closing every web browser tab that I don’t need, putting my phone on silent and placing it somewhere out of reach, going into a space where I can be alone and undisturbed, and finally drowning out distracting music or noise by turning it off completely or putting on soundproof headphones with music or sounds that don’t have any lyrics.
If you try to apply the Pomodoro technique to your life by doing it with the TV blaring and Facebook open on your desktop and your BFF texting you about plans Friday night and your kid screaming about something related to his Lego Minecraft set, then you’re doing it wrong.
This technique is all about being laser focused for just 25 minutes.
And I mean, come on, anyone can do 25 minutes!
If you find yourself reaching for your phone or staring off into space or chatting it up with a coworker when you should be getting shit done in that time frame, you have to end the pomodoro then and there.
Rule #2: You must focus on and work to complete one task at a time.
The Pomodoro technique is not about multitasking.
And thank god, because nothing ever good comes from trying to do a million things at once — I don’t care who you are or how great you think you are at it.
You’re always better when you focus on one thing at a time.
This rule goes hand in hand with distraction, because let’s face it — many of us let multitasking become our distraction.
But we *think* we’re being productive because that distraction is task-related.
Focus on one thing and one thing only until it’s complete before you move on to something else.
The Pomodoro technique is ideal for anything that requires a lot of focused thinking to produce output.
It’s for creatives, analytics, entrepreneurs, teams, and everything in between.
Whether you’re a student, a web designer, a writer, an accountant, or even an artist — if it means you gotta sit down and get the ol’ wheels spinning, then the Pomodoro technique is for you.
All you need is something that can help you track your time and ideally notify you when it’s time to move on to a break or another pomodoro.
A simple watch, clock or even your smartphone will suffice (if you can resist the temptation of using your phone while you’re working), but I discovered when I did some hunting around for a good timekeeping option that there are actually a lot of great mobile apps you can download out there based on this technique.
I use a premium app called Pomodoro Keeper.
It has a really minimal yet gorgeous interface with background colours that change according to what you’re doing (and you can customize these colours in your settings).
Because the app is based on the Pomodoro technique itself, it has 25-minute and 5-minute timers set up by default, but if you want you still have the option to adjust these time limits yourself.
It shows how many rounds out of a chunk of four that you’ve done, along with how many of your daily goal you’ve completed.
But what’s really cool about this app is that you can view your progress in chart form over the past 14 days and the past month, with your average pomodoro time length provided.
It’s worth the $2.29 if you’re serious about trying this technique, but if you’re still on the fence about it, I’d recommend giving it a go with a regular timer you already have or can use for free online.
When done right, the the quality of output you produce in such a short amount of time can blow your expectations out of the water — with the added benefit of sustained energy and a tool to help you break free from the sedentary office work/couch potato lifestyle.
Sure, getting more work done in a shorter amount of time is fantastic, but a productivity method that supports your health too?
THAT’S A BONUS.
Look, we all know that humans aren’t meant to have their asses planted in office chairs for hours and hours every day.
It’s detrimental to our health, even if we do take the time to sweat it out at the gym for an hour every day, and the Pomodoro technique acts as a great little reminder that you that you really need to get up and move regularly throughout the entire day.
God bless technology and the internet and our computers and the typical office job.
When people get “in the zone” with their work, they often lose track of time too, not realizing that they’ve been sitting in one spot and working for longer than they should’ve been.
Sometimes this leads to body aches and pains, decreased focus or energy from avoiding those much needed breaks, and even total burnout.
When you try this technique and get in the zone the first few times, you’ll be surprised how fast those 25 minutes will fly by.
And if you already have a pretty bad habit of hitting it hard for as long as possible until you can’t focus anymore, you should see a noticeable improvement in stamina that lets you at a maintainable level of good focus for much longer than you did when you went all out.
Those five-minute breaks are perfect for getting up and going to the bathroom, getting some water, doing some stretching, or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air and a few sunbeams.
Is there anything the Pomodoro technique isn’t good for?
In my experience, yes there is.
I’ve used the technique often enough to know when it will and won’t work for me.
Disadvantage #1: The Pomodoro technique doesn’t work so great when you don’t have a clear task plan, or when you need to do something that’s very open-ended and can easily lead to distraction.
What the hell does that even mean?
I’ll tell you what it means.
For me, the Pomodoro technique works well when I’m focused on one thing and one thing only — like writing, or invoicing, or spreadsheet updating, or editing, or pitching, or email answering.
Sometimes, those laser-focused tasks turn into huge, distraction-filled elephants that put me way off track.
A writing project may take more research than I anticipated, so I find myself searching deep for information… and getting distracted.
An email may need a specific type of action taken in order for me to answer it, so I go looking for an answer… and I get distracted.
A pitch I want to make may need specific stuff included that I’m not familiar with, so I try to seek out advice online from others who’ve done it so I can figure out how I can come up with it… and I get distracted.
It’s those time-sucking, mind-messing obstacles that need to be considered, researched, figured out, and taken care of first that really don’t work well with the Pomodoro technique.
Disadvantage #2: It really sucks when you’re right in the zone and in the middle of doing great work, when all of a sudden the timer tells you to take a break.
Sometimes, you’ll find that you’re not ready to take a break.
This one is easy to fix, though.
I’ve figured out that you can cheat a little when it’s absolutely necessary.
If the thing buzzes while I’m in mid-thought, I just pause the timer and finish the very last thing that absolutely must get done before I take a break so I don’t forget about it when I come back.
Cheating on the timer never takes more than a couple minutes or so.
It’s the same thing with that distractions that can’t be avoided, either — like urgent phone calls or people who need your attention immediately for cryin’ out loud.
Even though prolonging or skipping a break probably isn’t that big of a deal, as long as you take it within the hour, I wouldn’t make a habit of it. (If you did, why even bother with using the technique anymore?)
If necessary, jot down some extra notes before you break so you can revisit your train of thought five minutes from then.
So, yeah, go try this thing!
I’m looking at you, fellow procrastinators.
Here’s the link to the iOS app I use again — or just do a search for “Pomodoro” in the App Store or Google Play and see what sorts of free alternatives come up.
It’s worth it to focus hard now, so you can enjoy more leisurely time later.
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