Like you, my time is precious. I remember as a kid always delaying things, putting things off. Basically hoping they would magically get done by themselves. There were many times when my dad would tell me to stop procrastinating. The word “procrastinate” meant little to five-year old me. Nevertheless, my dad would advise me against it and it is a mantra I still try to live by.
We all do it, in fact, you might be doing it right this very moment. So why then is it so attractive to delay the inevitable and what can we do about it?
The Butterfly Effect
I believe the problem lies in our innate ability to be so easily distracted. I call it the butterfly effect. Have you ever seen a dog playing in a park, only for him to see a butterfly and instantly get distracted by it? The Butterfly Effect. For those that suffer the butterfly effect, or are surrounded by a lot of butterflies fighting for your attention, there is a solution. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time-chunking with a focus on your focus. The principle is that your mind is best put to work in small bursts of activity followed by brief periods of rest to recover. During the focus burst, the only goal of a Pomodoro is to keep your mind focused on just one activity, avoiding absolutely every distraction. The result is astonishing: significantly more progress, better quality, and more rest. On the surface it seems too good to be true, but it works.
Typically a Pomodoro session lasts for 25 minutes, with a 5 minute break thereafter. After the 5 minute break the cycle repeats.
Before starting a Pomodoro session you must fully understand what it is you will be focusing on. Pick the next task from your list of actions and make sure you have everything you need to get it done. Then just start. Activate the Pomodoro timer and do absolutely nothing else until the timer is complete. It’s easy to write this for you, but putting it into practice is another kettle of fish. While you begin your focus burst with nothing but the right intentions, you may soon notice distractions beckoning you, like a Siren on jagged rocks, their tempting song is nothing but bad news.
Dealing with Distractions
Distractions could be anything: messages or notifications, including email alerts, colleagues talk nearby or wanting to ask you a question, or, the most difficult of all, your own mind.
In this highly connected world we live in everything is fighting for your attention. Every time your phone beeps with an alert or notification, or whenever your desktop flashes that you’ve received a new email, and all those web sites that seem to scroll on forever, they all want you to stop whatever you are doing and devote your attention to them. They want your eyeballs and your focus. Don’t give it to them. Practically every one of those notifications are non-urgent in nature. Therefore, they should not be allowed to distract you from getting things done.
Next time something jumps up and demands your attention on your computer take steps to disable those alerts. As for your phone, it’s often easier to switch it to silent (or off) and tuck it somewhere out of sight for or a while. Or take a look through your settings and disable notifications on an app-by-app level.
As for those web sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+, there are plugins for your browser that can block those sites from being accessible for a period of time, removing the temptation to get lost in them.
There are a number of ways to deal with a noisy environment. One of the simplest things to try is putting on a pair of earphones. You don’t even need to actually play any sound through them to feel the immediate effect. However, if you do choose to use sound to help you focus consider any calm music that doesn’t have any vocals. That way your mind won’t feel the need to sing along. I’ve found that video game soundtracks are especially good at helping me focus. Apparently these soundtracks are designed to completely absorb the player in the gaming environment, letting the real world melt away. My personal favourites are the soundtracks to the Myst games. Not terribly exciting, but it works. Alternatively, try classical music. Not those big crashing ones. Something much more melodic.
Using headphones with a noise-cancelling feature will greatly limit the sounds you hear from the noisy world around you. It’s remarkable how effective this feature is.
Further reading: 6 Tips to Eliminate the Noise in your Life
Questions and Interruptions
When working in a professional environment you’ll likely be surrounded with people. Either right next to you, opposite you, or walking by you. An open office is great for sharing ideas and collaborating, but too much “openness” can become detrimental to your productivity. If you find yourself constantly being asked questions that interrupt whatever task you were working on, consider setting up “office hours”. Set aside 1 hour per week where you will be sitting in a meeting room and waiting for anyone to come and ask you questions. Make sure everyone is aware of your initiative and with a couple of reminders you may find that all your questions come when you’re ready for them, leaving a surplus of uninterrupted “doing” time.
Additionally, people will start to recognise when you’re in the middle of a Pomodoro session and learn to not interrupt you. This is especially effective if the Pomodoro timer you use is in plain sight.
Unfortunately, unless you are a Zen master, you cannot escape your own mind. Thoughts and ideas pop into your head when you least expect it, and when the task at hand has absolutely nothing to do with the thoughts you conjure. Rather than train your mind to not be creative, train yourself to capture and come back to these thoughts later.
When you next have a brainwave on something that is not related to what you’re trying to do, grab a post-it note, or a new Evernote note, and quickly jot down the idea. By doing this you are acknowledging the idea with yourself and reassuring yourself that when time permits you will revisit the idea and explore it further. Noting the thought down will stop it from growing in your mind and consuming your focus. Then refocus on net task at hand.
When the timer ends find a logical break in your current work and stop there. Now it’s time to rest. You may be tempted to work through the rest period. However, resting is a very important part of the Pomodoro cycle. These few minutes give your mind the opportunity to be distracted, to process thoughts that you boxed out during the focus burst. Use the time to literally get up from your desk, walk around and maybe refill your glass of water or make yourself a coffee. It is amazing how much better one feels after walking a small distance, to loosen limbs and move your blood around.
Why Pomodoro Works
The effectiveness of the Pomodoro technique lies in its ability to make big tasks accessible by only allowing you to work on them for a finite, and small, period of time. When thinking about most of the tasks on your list your subconscious is probably feeling anxious. You may be thinking that those tasks will be big, complex, and time-consuming. The Pomodoro technique doesn’t care how big the task is. All it cares about is that you work on it for that finite amount of time. When you get started you’ll quickly want to work faster and faster to see just how much you can achieve in a mere 25 minutes. The result will surprise you. Even 25 minutes of productive, focused work is better than none. It’s progress. Progress is good. Progress gets things done. Often, the smallest act of starting leads to hours and hours of producing.
How to Pomodoro
The Pomodoro technique is simple and powerful. There are many desktop and mobile apps available that act as a Pomodoro timer. Some have more features than others. Some are free and some are paid. Personally, on the desktop I prefer focusbooster. It’s lightweight and simple. When I’m travelling or working on my iPad I use the 30/30 app. This app runs in the background and will alert you when it’s time for a break. The 30/30 app can be used for many other things too.
Further reading: How To Get More Done With Focus Booster
Or, if you prefer the analog approach, you can grab an official Pomodoro tomato timer or app. They look great and act as a visual reminder that you need to get started.
The Pomodoro technique is a simple and highly effective method for escaping the filthy clutches of procrastination and distraction. There are no complex process or terminology to learn in order to get started. Just grab a timer, choose a task and start. Go!