I wrote last time about how I’d written a hell of a lot of essays over the Easter break and literally doing nothing else was kinda a novelty for me. I also predicted I wouldn’t get as much done with University life to distract me.
In a surprising turn of events, I was wrong.
I actually did more work, and a lot more work at that. I attribute this more or less exclusively to my usage of the Pomodoro technique. A number of my friends have adopted it and now also swear by it and it seems to more or less be the ultimate productivity technique.
The Pomodoro Technique, darling. That’s Italian. Essentially, you work in twenty five minute segments and then take a five minute break.
It’s very simple, really. You set a task for the twenty five minute session and then remain completely focussed on the task for the twenty five minutes. When the timer is up, you pack all of your procrastination into the five minute break, get a cup of coffee and start again. After four sessions, you take a longer break of fifteen to thirty minutes.
It works for a number of reasons:
- Students are very bad at procrastination. This is essentially a cure for procrastination.
- With a task set for the session, you’ll make sure you get the task done. The ticking timer adds the time pressure that makes you work faster and get the job done.
- You get to know how many sessions each task should take, so can quickly see whether you’re on, ahead of or behind schedule. If you’re having a slow day, you can recognise this early and fix it.
To get started all you need is a timer on your phone and a piece of paper to note down how much you’ve done. That simple.
A bunch of really awesome apps have sprung up based around making the Technique easier and more accessible. I started off just making a tally of what I’d done in my notebook and using TomatoTimer to track sessions, but this wasn’t too great a method.
If I forgot to tally after completing a session then I’d often only realise later and not be sure how many sessions I’d done in total. I also wanted extra analytics like what time I started work in the morning and afternoon, which I’d often neglect to note down.
My friend Charlie introduced me to the solution which solved all of these problems: Pomotodo. There are web and mobile versions, although I’ve only ever used the web version. It’s free with an optional “Pro” upgrade that adds a couple of extra features. It’s really neat.
Start the timer and you get your twenty five minutes. When the time is up you enter what you’ve been working on. You can use #hashtags here to categorise your different projects, which Pomotodo will sort your work by and produce cool charts (see above) which show you where you’re spending your time. Only after you’ve told Pomotodo what you were working on does the break timer start, meaning if you’ve not achieved everything you wanted in that session, you can take a couple of extra minutes to get the work done. I found myself doing that a lot in the couple of days before my exams.
Pomotodo, as the name suggests, has a to-do list built in, but I’ve virtually never used it. I’ve written about my fave to-do list apps before and I still prefer Remember The Milk for organising what I need to do. Pomotodo still has a way to go before it’s a really great to-do list manager as well, but that doesn’t detract from it being pretty awesome for managing Pomodoros.
Staying focussed for a handful of sessions is relatively easy, but after twelve or sixteen sessions it can be a struggle maintain focus for the twenty five minutes at a time. Working out a routine and making it as easy as possible for you to get the most done is one of the most important things for effectively using the Technique long term.
I’m happy writing and designing late into the night but I tend to be most productive in terms of straight-up getting things done early in the morning. I also need about eight hours’ sleep so I’m not tired and can actually concentrate, so something had to give. I’ve never really got up early at Uni asides from when I’ve had to, but that had to change. I read a bunch of blog posts about getting up early, including something Syed wrote nearly two years ago that was especially helpful.
“Getting up early” is a lot easier said than done, though, and to be honest I was struggling. I did two things that were especially helpful: starting to use Sleep Cycle so I could better track how I was sleeping and stopping using my phone right up until I went to sleep. Sleep Cycle showed me to get up before seven I needed to be in bed by half ten and asleep fifteen or twenty minutes later. I made those changes and I started getting up earlier. I also stopped having breakfast and then getting going with work in favour of taking breakfast to my desk and starting straight away.
I even incorporated Headspace into my morning routine and started doing that regularly, something I’d not done for a couple of months.
Sleep quality was probably the most important thing for me, but it’s closely followed by “staying sharp”. ie, making effective use of the five minute breaks. For me, that meant getting away from the computer and usually heading to the kitchen. Coffee after breakfast and lunch, tea or water in between. Also fruit. And also more chocolate biscuits and cookies than I should probably admit.
Creating the conditions for getting stuff done, though, was vital for me for getting the most out of the Technique.
So what’s next
This was really interesting to do. I finished my exams on Monday and I’ll be honest I have not been adhering to anything I’ve written here since. There are a couple of months before my final year at University starts, though, and plenty of time to do cool stuff in the meantime. I’m looking forward to putting this back into practice.