To be productive in any creative work is a simple process. But it’s not always easy. Over the years I’ve found the Pomodoro Technique to be a great tool to help me “get started” on the important stuff.
At its essence it is a remarkably simple technique for getting your head down and doing the necessary work. It doesn’t require elaborate plans or complex systems. In fact all you need is a stop watch, a pen, and a piece of paper.
I first learned about the Pomodoro Technique when my brother lent me the illustrated book by Steffan Noteberg. It sets out the theory behind Francesco Cirillo’s technique, with explanations of why it works and how to get started.
I first used it in when creating One World Less. I managed to balance the creation of a 16 track album alongside the novella (The Prisoner). There were days when I felt overwhelmed by all I wanted to get done. But the Pomodoro Technique stripped everything away and let me focus on one thing at a time for small chunks of time. It also helped me better recognise how much I could do on any given day.
We often overestimate how much we might be able to achieve in a day. This especially happens when we spend the day battling distractions and reacting to things as they land on our plate. But when you become intentional with how you approach your time you can be a lot more effective by focussing in shorter periods.
It might not sound like a long period of time, but when you’re doing just one thing for twenty five minutes you can make great strides forward. That’s the starting point for the Pomodoro Technique.
It works like this:
- Select Your Task
- Set Your Timer for 25 Minutes
- Work on the Task Until the Alarm Rings (make sure it is an alarm that sounds – and stop working even though you’re not finished)
- Mark a Tick on the Paper
- Have a Short Break (step away from the task for 3-5 minutes – walk, get a drink, meditate etc)
- Repeat Four “Pomodoros”
- Take a Long Break (20-30 minutes gives your brain the rest it needs to assimilate information and prepare for the next set)
More Than Getting Stuff Done
This technique is about more than simply getting stuff done. It is also very helpful for other reasons. For example, it helps you discover how long it takes to do things (remember that stuff that we tend to underestimate the time required?) This is especially helpful for recurring tasks, which you do regularly because you can set aside the right number of pomodoros each day, week, or month.
As you build your pomodoro activity sheets you get to see a visual representation of your productivty on paper.
It also trains you to deal with distractions. Whenever something pops into your head, or you get a phone call etc while doing a pomodoro, you just make a quick note and continue with the task at hand. Over time you learn to respond to these distractions on your own terms, rather than reactively as they arrive. A phone call can wait to be responded to, as can emails and social media notifications.
Energy and The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomordoro Technique is an essential way to maintain a sustained level of energy throughout your working day. It also gives you perspective to know how much you can get done, which is great for leaving you with a level of satisfaction at the end of a period of work.
The technique helps us confront a number of struggles that we may experience when trying to get stuff done:
The Pomodoro Technique forces you to simplify even the biggest and most complex tasks. It encourages you to just get started and to chip away over 25 minutes. That might be all you need to find the direction and focus that you need to gain clarity on the task at hand.
Procrastination and Boredom
Don’t think about the whole activity or how much you have left. Just do one pomodoro. It’s quite hard to get bored in 25 minutes of focus.
Planning is the Hard Part
You plan your day in the morning and commit to the small number of activities that you want to achieve that day. Then through the day your job is simple: do the most important thing. If you’ve planned well then you wont be using any brain power thinking through what you need to do next.
You can work on projects consistently over time and create a sustainable rhythm that keeps momentum rolling without putting undue pressure on deadlines.
Reflex and Routine
The mental transition between work and breaks is often slow. The Pomodoro Technique is based on habit formation where each part of the process is about triggers and cues (conditional reflexes). This removes all pressure on willpower, which takes effort and energy (that can be used for the actual tasks instead).
The process includes planning and reflection which ensures that mistakes don’t get repeated. Over time you adapt your personal process to suit your own working environment and habits.
As you start out you get quick feedback on the actual time required for activities compared with the time you estimate. This is quite helpful, even though it can be slightly disheartening to realise things take longer than expected. Over time it leaves you in a much better place.
You might not always estimate or foresee the true scope of a task. Secondary tasks might spin out from the main activity. This requires you to add them to a secondary list and then expand the amount of time required to complete it.
It’s normal to have unplanned thoughts invade your mind when working on tasks. These are not to be ignored, but can actually be very helpful. However, rather than allowing them to derail you, you can use this technique to jot down the “great ideas” and rest assured that you will come back to them later, once you’ve finished working on your current task (or set of pomodoros).
No Fancy or Complex Tools
We can easily get excited by novel tools and complicated systems. But the Pomodoro Technique requires very little, and is designed to be adaptable to your own strengths and ways of working.
The Pomodoro Technique encourages “Flow”, which takes your mind off seeing the whole. Instead you make vital in-roads, without feeling overawed. As you take your breaks you get the sense of how each small iteration is feeding into the big picture.
Turn “Have-to” into “Want-to”
If you’re working on other peoples’ projects, the Pomodoro Technique gives you autonomy over how you’re going to approach the work. It gives you the option to mix things up between stuff you have to do and stuff you want to do.
Perfectionism feeds procrastination. If you’re waiting for the perfect idea or the perfect solution, you may be waiting without acting for a long time. The Pomodoro Technique is about getting on with it regardless of whether or not it’s perfect. You’re awarded by the effort itself.
The process and effort is what brings a sense of accomplishment. Fear of failure or criticism can prevent action, but the Pomodoro Technique carries the motivation and momentum within it. Only you can use it to analyse your performance. It can’t be forced on you by anyone else.
Over to You
Have you ever tried the Pomodoro Technique? How did you get on? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments below. If you’re interested in learning more then I cannot recommend the illustrated book by Steffan Noteberg highly enough. It’s a pleasure to read and sets you up perfectly to crack on with trying the technique out.