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I did it for science: Pomodoro and other time management techniques

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For those of you who’ve never heard of it, the Pomodoro Technique is very simple.

How does it work?

You set the proprietary tomato-shaped timer (see above) for 25 minutes, spend that 25 minutes immersed in the task at hand and then take a short break after every 25-minute stint, taking longer breaks every four Pomodoro sessions.

Variations include...

  • The power hour, which requires finding one hour each day – this could mean waking up earlier – to focus entirely on a task that you’ve been neglecting. No phone calls, no emails, no distractions.
  • Old-school copywriter, Eugene Schwartz’s 33 minute rule, which Write to Done has covered. Schwartz suggested that the brain is like a horse: work it too hard and it’ll collapse. To keep the creative juices flowing he’d set a timer for 33 minutes and 33 seconds, dedicate that period to the task at hand and then take a break to clear his head before repeating it.

Why?

There are three major potential benefits to such time management techniques:

  • You'll eventually get into a habit of working in short but intense bursts and become better at ignoring distractions.
  • In the long term, these techniques can also help you plan your time more effectively. If, for instance, you wrote a presentation in three 25-minute Pomodoro sessions you’ll know how long it will take you when you’re set a similar task in future. This means you’ll be able to quote more accurately on projects and more effectively delineate work and life.

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How it went for me...

Not well.

Using the timer function on my iPhone – rather than the £5 tomato timer – I tried to work in 25-minute sessions with breaks in between. The clock ticking down certainly helped as a motivator but I quickly found it to be a distraction rather than an aid.

Admittedly, I’m not really one for time management techniques; I think they tend to over think the issue and I’ve always just relied – for better or worse – on my old friends, hard work and self-discipline. Even so, the technique, and others like it, have their shortcomings:

  • It takes about 15-20 minutes to get into a ‘flow state’, ie the point at which you’re almost unaware that you’re working. I found that, by the time I was really focused, the 25 minutes was almost through, breaking my concentration.
  • Over time you can become fixated on the time slots rather than the work. You might feel more productive if you’ve completed seven Pomodoro sessions but it doesn't actually mean you have been.
  • Also, some tasks just don't fit very well with it. If you’re boss pokes his head around your cubicle and tells you that he needs the job completed in 45 minutes you can’t easily break it down into Pomodoro sessions. Sometimes you just need to sit down and get it done. As the programmer Mario Fusco commented in his critique of the Pomodoro Technique, you just hope the pilot on your next flight isn’t using it.

Should you bother?

It's not for me but I can see the potential benefits.

The Pomodoro Technique and other similar time management methods are perfect if you're someone who works independently or works from home and really struggles with concentration. They can help you to focus, avoid those Wikipedia 'research' binges, take regular breaks and get you into a good work habit.

My own time-management tips

  • Identify what distracts you. Washing the dishes can suddenly seem a promising prospect when working from home, but if you recognise it you can more effectively check yourself.
  • Try to shift the most important or most creatively demanding tasks to your most productive hours. For a lot of people this is early in the morning but I find that I work best between around 10am and 12pm.
  • Whether you use these time management techniques or not, make a note of how long it takes you to complete certain tasks so you can organise your time better and quote on projects more precisely.

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(Hat tip to Andy Roberts for the photo)