Sep 122012

It hap­pens every year — the slides are due for the XML Sum­mer School, and some people have them done early, and oth­ers don’t. Some­times it’s because Life Hap­pens — fam­ily mem­bers fall ill, bosses demand more hours, oth­er people on whom you’re depend­ing are late. Some­times it’s because you hit the log­jam or just can’t get star­ted. (By which I mean me, not just you). The same dead­line dilem­ma applies to oth­er pro­jects, of course; any task that takes more than 10 minutes, and some­times even those, just Don’t Get Done.

Get­ting oth­er stuff done first can be use­ful to clear the decks, as it were. Struc­tured pro­cras­tin­a­tion can be a good way to get oth­er neces­sary tasks com­pleted in an effort to hold off the really import­ant, urgent, fright­en­ingly loom­ing task. But even­tu­ally you (by which I mean me) actu­ally do have to start work­ing on the pro­ject, have to find the motiv­a­tion from some­where.

A couple of years ago I dis­covered the Pomodoro tech­nique. When I remem­ber to use it, it solves the prob­lem in a num­ber of ways.

The prin­ciple of work for 20 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, repeat until done is sim­ple. It means I can give myself a reward at the end of the 20 minutes (stand up, stretch, tidy up the desk, get a glass of water). I take notes on inter­est­ing ideas or items that might side-track me, that I can get back to after the 20 minutes are up (or even later), rather than fol­low­ing them dur­ing the work time. And after 20 minutes of doing some­thing on the pro­ject, the momentum has built up and I want to keep going, want to fin­ish what I’m work­ing on. 

Nice side-effects — my office is tidi­er (I often do that dur­ing the 5-minute break), and I think my work is bet­ter because I haven’t got side-tracked. Often which end of the ele­phant you start with is less import­ant than get­ting star­ted — you can always start at another end in the next work chunk. Mak­ing myself take a break for 5 minutes every 20 helps me pace myself. I stretch, stand up, breathe more deeply than when hunched over the com­puter screen, and feel less tired at the end of the day. I often also have ideas dur­ing the 5-minute break that help solve whatever issue I’m work­ing on, or make it bet­ter.

Unfuck Your Hab­it­at uses the same prin­ciple — either 20 minutes on, 10 off (the 20/10), or 45 minutes on and 15 off (45/15), for clean­ing, study, or whatever needs to be done. The tagline that speaks to me the most? IT’S 20 MINUTES, NOT A LIFETIME COMMITMENT. (Their caps).

Notes: I don’t use the full pomodoro sys­tem with review and I don’t track inter­rupts. May­be I’d get more bene­fit if I did, but I don’t feel the need.

Tools: you can get by with a kit­chen timer, but you need one that does both times (20/5, 20/10, or whatever com­bin­a­tion). I use Xor­Time on Win­dows, Pomodoro Desktop on the Mac (which appears to have been dis­con­tin­ued), and Pomo­droido (minus all the lead­er­board stuff) on Android. I turn off the tick­ing sound on all of them as I find it annoy­ing and dis­tract­ing.

Now I just have to remem­ber to use this tech­nique more often. I wish I could use it in hours-long phone calls and meet­ings!