What I’ve learned using the Pomodoro Technique

I mentioned I’ve started using a Pomodoro timer to see if it helps me get more work done. When you don’t have a boss or clients or a set schedule, it’s easy to end your day and discover that you didn’t get that much done.

Using the timer keeps me focused on doing the work until it is done. Done might mean might mean finishing another group of tasks or another chapter, or it might mean completed a bunch of unrelated tasks.

While I’m working, if I have the urge to look at something online, I know it has to wait until the timer sounds and tells me it’s time for a break.

I ‘m also tracking my time reading and watching work-related videos. I give myself one Pomodoro (25 minutes) to do that each day. It’s how I keep my saw sharpened and my head (and Evernote) filled with ideas.

Anyway, so far, so good. I’m getting more work done and it feels good.

Doing this for the past few weeks has revealed some interesting things about how I use my time. Mostly, I’ve learned that some things take longer than I had thought. When I look at what I’ve done for the day or the week and compare that to how much time I spent doing it, I can see where I need to reconsider some of my priorities.

As I keep doing this, I will no doubt make some changes to my work flow. Some things will be allocated less time or eliminated, to make room for other things I’m not doing enough.

So here’s the thing.

If you’ve tried a Pomodoro timer in the past and stopped, as I did, try it again. There are a plethora of web apps and mobile apps you can use. Or find another way to track your time. If you bill hourly, start also tracking your non-billable time. If you don’t bill hourly, pretend you do.

You may gain some valuable insights into how you spend your day and identify some simple ways to improve your productivity and increase your income.

How I use Evernote to stay organized

How to overcome procrastination and train your brain to resist distractions

I was watching a video about how to overcome procrastination. The presenter talked about the Pomodoro technique which I sometimes use to help me focus, particularly on tasks I’m avoiding.

Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes (or whatever you choose) and work until the timer goes off. You then take a break for five minutes and go at it again. If you’re still not done after three or four sessions, you take a longer break and then get back to work.

The idea is to get ourselves to focus with the promise that we only have to do it for a short period of time. It gets you started, which is the hardest and most important part of getting anything done.

Anyway, if you ever find yourself procrastinating on certain tasks, get yourself a Pomodoro app or use your kitchen timer and give it a whirl.

But here’s the thing.

Even though you have promised yourself to keep working until the timer sounds, if you’re like most people, you will be tempted to stray. You’ll feel the urge to check your email or take a peak at social media. Or you’ll realize you need another cup of coffee. Or the phone will ring and you’ll feel compelled to at least see who is calling.

You know you must resist these urges but sometimes they get the better of you.

The video presented a simple technique for conquering these urges and resisting distractions. Have a sheet of paper handy, or open a text file, and whenever you feel tempted by the urge to do something else, write it down.

Writing it down allows you to acknowledge the urge and postpone it until your next break. It helps to dissipate the urge and release its hold over you.

It also allows you to identify things that typically distract you. You can then take steps to eliminate them before they can distract you by doing things like turning off your phone or closing browser tabs that don’t relate to your work.

Write down (and postpone) your urges and you will become their master instead of their servant.

Why taking breaks may be killing your productivity

Everyone takes breaks. You can’t work non-stop for hours on end, you need to clear your mind and renew your energy every so often, don’t you?

Maybe not.

If you’re doing something you don’t want to do, something you have to force yourself to do, taking a break is a viable way to get through the task. That’s the idea behind the “take a break every 20 to 45 minutes” concept. It’s why we use mechanisms like the Pomodoro Technique (setting a timer and working for 25 minutes, for example, followed by a five-minute break) before going back at it.

These techniques and recommendations came about after studies showed that most people lose their ability to focus on a task after 30 minutes. But these studies were based on assigned tasks where the subjects were asked to do something they didn’t particularly want to do.

It’s different when you’re doing something you love.

When you enjoy what you’re doing, you tend to get lost in it and time passes quickly. You get into a state of flow and are able to reach incredible levels of productivity and creativity.

When you’re in a state of flow, why destroy it by taking a break?

It can take as much as 20 minutes to regain focus after a five-minute break. If you take breaks at regular intervals, you may be killing your productivity.

You might think you need breaks to renew your energy but the flow state provides its own energy. When you’re in that state, you might work for several hours without stopping and not feel the least bit fatigued. Gamers often go all day in front of their computers and sometimes have to be pulled away from it by a concerned loved one.

So here’s the thing. If you’re doing something you really don’t want to do you probably won’t get into a flow state and taking scheduled breaks can help you get you through the work. But if you enjoy the work at hand, don’t stop doing it because you’ve been at it for a set period of time. Keep going until you are no longer in flow or the task (segment) is done.

Knowing this means you should probably build some flexibility into your work schedule and allow uninterrupted time for tasks and projects you look forward to doing. Work, not games, okay?

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How to stay focused when you need to get things done

You’ve got work to do, deadlines to meet, things that must get done, and you know you need to focus but it’s difficult because there are so many interruptions.

How do you cope?

“6 Ways to Minimize Interruptions When You Need to Focus,” offers some ideas:

  1. Close the door while you’re working
  2. Wear headphones to prevent colleagues chatting
  3. Say, “Could you come back in ten minutes?”
  4. Let your phone go to voice-mail
  5. Turn off Skype, Email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. . .
  6. Get into the office early

In short, these tips remind us to, “avoid outside stimuli”. That’s why we went to the library to study for exams, isn’t it?

Interruptions by others are easy to fix, if you want to. But do you really want to? I think we enjoy interruptions–we like the respite they provide from the tedium of our work.

I’ve found that when I really do need to shut off outside stimuli, because of a deadline, for example, I do it. The fear of loss of the looming deadline motivates me to do what we need to do–and I do it.

The greater challenge is not with outside stimuli or interruptions by others, it is with interruptions we impose on ourselves.

When we’re working, we’re also thinking about other things we have to do. Our neurons are firing, reminding us of promises unkept, other tasks that must get done, thinking about the game tonight, and imagining what will happen if we don’t meet our deadline. It is this internal chatter that is so hard to turn off.

So, how do you focus when your brain keeps interrupting you?

One way to do that is by removing all of those tasks and reminders from your brain and putting them into a “trusted system” to be processed and done at a later time. The term “trusted system” comes from the Getting Things Done™ (GTD) system which I’ve written about before.

Another technique for increasing focus is to give yourself short segments of time during which you are committed to working on the task at hand. Twenty-five minutes, fifteen, ten, or two, whatever you can handle. No matter how busy your brain may be, it can focus for two minutes. Once those two minutes are up, you are allowed to do something else or think about something else for, say, another two minutes. And then, you return to the work you were doing in the first segment, or onto something else.

It’s called, “The Pomodoro Technique.”

The most common implementation is a twenty-five minute block of time, followed by a five minute break. A timer is set, and when the bell sounds, you take your break. Kinda like prize-fighting. After the break, you return for the next round.

The technique was originally promoted via the use of a kitchen timer resembling a tomato (“pomodoro is Italian for tomato”) , like the one depicted above. I use something a bit more high tech.

On my PC’s desktop is an icon to launch an app that takes the place of a kitchen timer. There are many apps that do the same thing. The one I use is called, “Focus Booster,” and it’s available for free for Mac and PC.

Give it a try. Start with a twenty-five minute pomodoro. When you’re done and you’ve taken a break, go for another. If you can’t stay focused for twenty-five minutes, start with ten. Or one.

Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? How has it worked for you? Do you have a favorite app or do you use a kitchen timer?