The productivity dilemma

Pomodoro timer

I am a procrastinator. There I’ve said it. As if you didn’t all know it. With the best intentions of to-do lists and detailed schedules, despite looming deadlines, I still manage to distract myself from the task at hand. Even if it’s something I want to do – like this post, for example.

Part – okay, most -  of the issue is my personality. If you put any weight in Myers-Briggs, I am more dominantly an E-type personality. I am energised by external stimuli. I love to be part of what’s going on around me and draw energy and inspiration from others. This also means I am easily sucked into what is going on around me. If someone stops to have a conversation in the hallway near my workstation, my ears prick up and I implicate myself in the discussion. I’ll answer the question asked of the colleague sitting beside me; and I’ll  … ooh look a pretty shiny thing … Ahem. Now, what was I saying? Ah yes. Easily distracted. But as a writer I desperately need NOT to be distracted. Distraction is my biggest enemy. In fact, let’s be honest -  it’s me. I am an my own worst enemy. I love lots of stuff going on all at once and I end up creating this sense of activity and momentum by having lots of tasks on the go, so it feels like I’m really really busy … When in fact I’m not really achieving anything at all.

Sound familiar?

I know this is a destructive pattern for a number of reasons. Firstly, the most obvious:  Time is money. Whether its yours or your employer’s, productivity is a big issue. Secondly, it sets a precedent for others. My colleagues see that I’m happy to interrupt myself to participate in other people’s interactions, so don’t think twice about wandering over and just starting to talk to me, regardless of what I might be in the middle of. My actions set a pattern of behaviour for myself, which becomes more deeply ingrained every time it gets repeated.

I was beginning to despair of ever finding a solution, short of locking myself away in a room devoid of any external stimuli. Which of course would slowly send me insane.

Not that I’m categorically saying I have found a solution now, but I’ve discovered a really interesting technique, that so far is looking very promising for me. Some time ago, John Birmingham tweeted about a productivity technique he’d been using to help him stay on task with his writing: ‘The Pomodoro Technique‘. I was intrigued, and followed up at the time, scanned the basic principles, thought it seemed interesting, maybe even promising, and filed it away for future reference. If it’s good enough for JB, I thought, surely I should give it a crack.

The Pomodoro Technique was devised by Francesco Cirillo in the late ’80s during his first year at university. It’s based on working in blocks of 25 minutes. Each segment is considered a single unit of time, called a ‘pomodoro’. Francesco gave it this name, because he used an old-school tomato shaped manual kitchen timer when he was figuring out the technique (pomodoro is, of course, Spanish for tomato). After each pomodoro, you get five minutes break to stretch, get a drink of water – whatever – before embarking upon the next. After completing four pomodori, you get a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

So, back to my story – I hadn’t pursued it any further when John tweeted a couple of weeks later that he was coordinating a (virtual) group Pomodoro. For a social creature like me, this sounded ideal. It also didn’t give me much time to mull over it – less than an hour – before it was to kick off. Knowing that others were participating somehow made me feel more accountable. I don’t know how that works in my tiny mind – I’m sure there must be some psychology behind it, but I think it’s kind of like making a pact. Or when you say to someone ‘I’m going for a run in the morning’, you are then committed to that task for fear of having to tell them the next day that you woosed out.

ANYWAY … (you can see the pattern here, right?) …

I quickly re-read the basic principles of the technique. I didn’t have time to download or read the booklet, so I was winging it a bit, but I jumped in and gave it a red hot go. On the first day, anything after two pomodori was actually quite a strain. I discovered that actually committing to concentrating on nothing but a single task for a block of time is really quite intense – and productive. Who knew?

I’m pretty sure there’s a bunch of you out there shaking your heads at me for my lack of focus and commitment – perhaps with some justification. All I need is a prioritised to-do list and some self-discipline, right?

To be honest, I’ve previously put a lot of the prevaricating down to being ‘part of the writing process’. I’ve always done it, even in uni. I’d pfaff and fart around, procrastinating until I was too tired to work anymore, or it was time to get ready for work, until the deadline was so near, I had not choice but sit my bum at my desk and do nothing but drink coffee, eat chocolate and write that goddam paper for 12 hours straight. But I figured that’s just how I worked.

I think too, that in an office environment, it’s not really so unusual for someone like me to commence at least six different tasks in the time-frame of a pomodoro. Think about it: ‘oh while that file takes its sweet time to upload to the  intranet, I might just have a quick look at my inbox – ooh look, there’s an email from the CEO, it must be very important I’d better get onto that right away, what is it that he wants, oh right, I need to dig up that file, ok so while that directory’s loading, let me take a quick peek at Twitter – oh my goodness what a fantastic article, I must email this to the management team immediately because it’s relevant to all of them and it will demonstrate what a widely-read and learned communication advisor I am and I’d better re-tweet it as well, because surely my network will want to know about this point of view and oh look the HR Director wants to engage with me about this, and it’s really important for me to have HR on side, so I’ll send her a meeting request so that we can discuss it at length, and oh, hi Bill, what can I help you with? Oh I’m sure I don’t know where the envelopes are kept, I email everything now (yeah, really), but let’s go take a look in the stationary cupboard, now, what was I doing, oh wow, there’s that open email that I was sending to the CEO, I’d better get back onto that … you get the picture.

For me, the rules of the pomodoro technique circumvent all that distraction before I let it push me careening out of control into a whirlwind of unproductive chaos. It forces me to focus on one task, and nothing else, for 25 minutes – and if necessary, another 25 minutes after that, until the task is complete. It makes me short-circuit the distracting, destructive behaviour before I even engage in it. And the community of Twitter is helping me stay focussed too – some of my regular Tweeps, @AcclaimMedia, @BellaXThree, @Paul_Murton and others have taken it on board as well, and every so often, when one of us reports some good pomodoro action, the rest of us feel like we’re dropping the ball if we haven’t set that timer for a couple of days.

Maybe it’s just whimsy. Maybe I should just grow up and get some self-discipline, but you know what? If Pomodoro Power is a good enough tool for John Birmingham to use to write a novel, it’s ber-loody well good enough for me. Thanks John for the tip.

Respect the pomodoro!


3 Responses to “The productivity dilemma”

  • Melissa Dark Says:

    I’m going to give this a try! I’m not too bad at procrastination, but it mostly strikes when I’m faced with a job I don’t particularly want to do. Then I could win gold medals.

    I also read this post recently that made me feel a little better about that, because it kind of explains exactly what happens for me: http://www.kellydiels.com/2010/10/28/there-be-dragons-procrastination/

    And have you heard the quote for writers? “Good writing is 5% inspiration and 95% not being distracted by the internet.” SOOOO true!!

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  • Pita Says:

    What a great experiment! I’ve read about the Pomorodo and thought it sounded like an excellent idea. Keep us updated on your progress.

    Our ability to process and disseminate all those ‘bright shiny things’ into the universe is one of the things that makes communicators great – but distraction can be distracting!

    Some days I feel like the talking dog on ‘Up’ – Squirrel!

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    Susan Reply:

    Thanks Pita. So far I’m enjoying it and finding it quite helpful. The biggest issue for me is getting others in my workplace to ‘respect the pomodoro’ – and there are some people that I just can’t say no to, when they wander up to my desk, unfortunately. I think they interrupt me on purpose to see what I’ll do!

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