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!

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