How a simple kitchen timer can beat your procrastination.

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When I was in college, I had a particularly bad habit of procrastination.  I would not complete most assignments or study for exams until the last minute, often resulting in subpar performance.  Sounds familiar?  However, instead of giving in to the culture of procrastination, I decided to make it a goal to figure out a solution.


One time, I took a writing class and the professor saw great potential in me despite my mediocre performance for much of the class.  He met with me to offer additional help on several occasions outside of classroom and office hours hoping I’d write a killer final paper.  A week before it was due, I still hadn’t written a single word for the final draft (on top of not having taken a crack at my other finals as well) and the time pressure was growing.  I did not want to disappoint this professor who seemed emotionally invested in my future success so I came up with a time management tactic on the fly: I’d set an alarm for a short but arbitrary amount of time (usually 15-35 minutes) and do nothing but write until the timer rang.  And I’d go back to the activities I was doing while procrastinating (i.e. video games, web surfing, etc) for another 15 or so minutes before winding up the timer again.  I eventually finished the essay thanks to this tactic and ended up with an “A” in the class.


Years later, I came to know of the Pomodoro Technique and the more general Time Boxing technique which coincidentally resembled the tactic I used to finish that memorable essay in college.  The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s and used the following workflow:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on the task(s) you planned for that time.  Denote each 25 minute unit of time a “Pomodoro”.
  • If you get distracted before the 25 minutes are up, cancel the alarm and restart the Pomodoro.
  • Once the timer rings after 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break.
  • Start another 25 minute Pomodoro after the break is over according to the rules above.
  • Every 4 Pomodoro cycles, take a 15-30 minute break instead of 5.

Cirillo recommends an analog, old school kitchen timer even though there are countless apps available for using the Pomodoro technique on Android and the iPhone.  I suggest getting a kitchen timer (like the one at the top) even if you’re tech-savvy and will be using a digital version to automatically track your Pomodoro stats over time (reasons will be explained later.)


Limitations of the Pomodoro Technique


I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique for many years and have attributed it to a material increase in my overall productivity.  While I recommend it to most people who are struggling with time management, I’d also like to caution everyone on its limitations.

First, it requires the cooperation of everyone around you if you work with other people, say, at a job.  Getting your manager and higher ups to respectfully resist interrupting you when you’re in the middle of a 25 minute session can be a challenge.

Second, the 25 minute interval suggeste by Cirillo is a bit arbitrary and should be more flexible depending on the situation.  Sometimes when you’re extremely low on motivation, you won’t even be able to sustain your attention for the entire 25 minutes.  You’ll need to shift down to a shorter interval.  On the other hand, some tasks are difficult to set up and being interrupted and restarting frequently will cause you to waste a ton of time (i.e. brainstorming.)  In the latter case, the Pomodoro Technique is likely counterproductive unless the interval is much longer than 25 minutes.

Third, although the Pomodoro Technique is a fairly robust method to stay focused while executing tasks, it’s of little use if you don’t have anything to do in the first place.  Cirillo recommends having a rudimentary to-do list and crossing off items as you finish them but there are better ways to organize such a list in the digital age today.  Combining it with a system for organizing to-do list like GTD brings additional synergies to the Pomodoro Technique.


How to Manage Interruptions


It’s best to educate your coworkers including subordinates and superiors about your use of the Pomodoro Technique.  In the ideal case, they’ll express curiosity and may even ask you how to implement it themselves.  In the worst case, your coworkers, especially your managers, will not offer reasonable accommodations to minimize unnecessary interruptions.  If you’re facing the latter, read on.


You need some way to demonstrate to your managers that not being interrupted at all random hours during the day will substantially improve your productivity.  Try to find some period when your managers are mostly away on vacation while you’re still at work, say around Christmas.  (Yes, it’s unfortunate that they’re at the beach while you’re stuck at the office but now’s your perfect opportunity to demonstrate the value of this tactic.)  Use the Pomodoro Technique as much as possible when there are relatively few people around to interrupt you.  Work weekends if you can to boost the amount of work you accomplish, further enhancing the image of the Pomodoro Technique.  Once your managers return, it’s likely they’ll go back to their interrupting ways, making your use of the technique less effective.  Your productivity will be back to normal and they’ll wonder why.  Ideally, they’ll pull you aside and interrogate what’s going on: that’s when you tell them about the Pomodoro Technique and how their lack of interruptions has enabled you to work at an accelerated pace.  Use it as incentive for them to interrupt you less.  If, on the other hand, they don’t confront you about your sudden temporary increase in productivity, then simply document all that you’ve accomplished when they were gone and make a proposal to them to allow you to work with less interruption, emphasizing the importance of the Pomodoro Technique.


In the meantime, especially if you don’t have the luxury of a nearly empty office in the near future, try to make it more difficult for others to interrupt you when you’re in the middle of a Pomodoro.  Wear headphones, put up a “Do not disturb” sign, etc.  It’s best if you also balance it out by being accessible to interruptions at fixed times everyday: set aside an hour or two every day and call them “office hours” or something similar when others are free to interrupt you at will.  Define your boundaries and defend them fiercely while showing others your improved contribution to the team – this will likely make them more receptive to the idea of interrupting you less.


How to Get Started if You’re REALLY Unmotivated


We’ve all been in situations where we’d like to be working but we’re so unmotivated we cannot think of any conceivable way to get started.  I know I’m in that situation when I’ve been watching TV, playing games, browsing the web mindlessly for many hours, etc. and feel “addicted” to the activity for much of the day.  It’s as if performing the aforementioned activity has created an addictive drug that has put your brain in a trance that’s extremely difficult to snap out of.  You keep telling yourself you’ll stop playing the video game (for example) constantly but hours later, you’re still at it when you should be, say,  finishing a report for work the next day.


In this case, you’ll need a different game plan because even if you could muster the temporary motivation to attempt the Pomodoro Technique, you’d falter quickly and fall right back into the addictive activity you were engaging in previously.  Instead of setting the timer for 25 minutes, set it for 5 minutes instead and take a 5 minute break following it then set the timer and work for another 5 minutes again (rinse and repeat.)  This is a special situation where having an analog kitchen timer rather than digital software for performing the Pomodoro Technique is more handy.  When you’re in a trance from engaging in the addictive activities of browsing the web or gaming all day, you have very little willpower left to fiddle with technical settings in your Pomodoro software or a stopwatch program to set a timer for 5 minutes.  Just wind your old school timer for 5 minutes instead and focus on working and breaking out of the trance!  Once you get going, it becomes easier for you to keep working, so increase the lengths of your Pomodoro sessions to 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, and finally 25.


The Optimal Length of a Pomodoro


Cirillo set the length of a Pomodoro to 25 minutes, but it’s a bit absurd to think everyone is the same and that’s the most optimal one-size-fits-all setting.  Instead, take the test at which calculates your body’s “natural pace”.  If you have a fast natural pace, then even 25 minute Pomodoros may be too long for you to sustain your attention; try testing a length of 15-25 minutes to see if there’s an improvement.  If your natural pace is slow, you may want to experiment with longer Pomodoros of 25 to 40 minutes.


In addition, you might want 3 different Pomodoro “modes”.  The “procrastination mode“, as discussed in the previous section, should be 5 minutes per cycle and used when you’re in an unmotivated trance to snap yourself out.  The “default mode” is the Pomodoro length reflected by your body’s natural pace and should be used for the majority of your activities that benefit from sustained concentration.  Let’s add one more: “marathon mode” which should be twice the length of your “default mode” Pomodoro and only reserved for tasks that take quite a bit of time to start and restart (i.e. cooking.)


How Do I Organize the Tasks I Need to Work on?


Evernote should be sufficient for this.  A simple table or spreadsheet might lack the sophistication for you to maintain ever-changing priorities and countless supporting documents, so stick with Evernote.  There’s a decent video tutorial to getting started with using Evernote according to the GTD philosophy called The Secret Weapon.  Until I publish my guide to Evernote, use that series of videos.


Further Thoughts


Beating procrastination, sustaining your attention, and getting the right things done are not supposed to be easy.  This article serves as an introduction to my methodology for optimizing my use of time.  Since no two people are exactly the same, feel free to modify it to fit your personality, industry, interests, logic, etc.  Let me know of any major deviations you have attempted that have resulted in further improvements as well as general comments in the comments below!

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