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My Adventure with the Pomodoro Technique

I am guilty of having what I call “Monkey Brain.” Picture a monkey. Now picture a monkey after a quadruple espresso with a Red Bull chaser. That is an accurate depiction of my brain most days – bouncing from meeting to call to email to Facebook to Twitter to the news to LinkedIn to email to phone call to email in a dizzying fashion. All of these things are like tourists constantly throwing grapes at my Monkey Brain – and can quickly find myself going down a rabbit hole reading about a murder in Poland, a new defense technology or cyber threat, or watching a TED talk about climate change.

The result is I can get to the end of the workday after what feels like a frenzy of activity and “busy” and really have not accomplished that much. I can find myself working longer hours to catch up on the stuff I have to get done that keeps getting pushed out by the stuff that does not.

Most professionals can probably relate. One study shows that on average, a quick check of email takes ten minutes to get back on task. We can average over a hundred a day, from a client’s proposal response to the latest IKEA catalog. It’s no secret that other distractions like social media platforms are designed to grab and hold onto your attention as long a possible. I have over a dozen different input sources – multiple email and social accounts, a phone line, text messages, my pesky Apple Watch telling me to stand up, etc.

To combat Monkey Brain, I recently spent a week trying the Pomodoro Technique – a time management methodology invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s. (Named after a kitchen timer he first used that was shaped like a tomato, or pomodoro, in Italian.) Through experimentation, he figured out that 25 minutes is the optimal block of time to get engaged in a task without getting too mentally tired.

There are six steps in the original technique:

  1. Decide on the task to be done.

  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally 25 minutes).

  3. Work on the task.

  4. End work when the timer rings and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.

  5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go back to step 2.

  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go back to step 1.

The immediate goal is to focus on the task at hand for the full pomodoro (25 minutes) and avoid the temptation to do anything else (like check email, answer a text message, or make a sandwich). The long-term goals are to become better at estimating the time required to complete a task and to learn to be more efficient with your time overall.

For my experiment, my goal was to keep Monkey Brain away and get more work done during the workday relative to normal.

The Setup:

A mechanical timer ticking away would drive me crazy, so I used the timer app on my PC and moved it to my second screen. I created three timers – one for 25 minutes (the pomodoro), one for 5 minutes (the short break) and one for 20 minutes (the longer break).

I also tried to set myself up for success by eliminating as many distractions as possible. I closed out tabs on my browser that I normally keep open, like LinkedIn and Gmail – this eliminated any notification pop-ups. I set my phone to “Do Not Disturb” (iPhone: Settings > Do Not Disturb) and turned off notifications for my phone and iPad.

I even set an out-of-office email:

“Good morning, I will be working on several time-sensitive projects this morning and will not be responding to emails to later today. If you require something urgently, please call my phone. If not, thank you for your patience.”

Not everything in my work can be done in 25-minute increments – but many of the projects and activities I need or want to do each day can. I planned out my first day doing pomodoros in the morning, leaving the afternoon for calls and meetings. I identified the urgent things that needed to get done as well as several tasks on important, but not urgent projects I’m working on.

The first day:

My first day I struggled to find a flow – the first few pomodoros my Monkey Brain fought back. Hard. I’d trained it to jump from one thing to the next every few seconds or minutes. The first 25-minute block felt three months long. I kept having thoughts pop into my head about stuff I needed to do or an email I needed to send out. During the small breaks, I’d get up and move around – get water, dust my office, file some papers. After the fourth pomodoro, or about two hours of work, I went madly towards my email box – expecting to find that the world was ending, and I was responsible. There was nothing that required my attention. The rest of the break I read a business book I’ve been struggling to get through (because “I’m always so busy”). The break timer went off and I went back to my desk and launched into the next project. Towards the end of the first morning session, I’d completed eight pomodoros, or two full cycles, and actually got a ton of work done. I’d sourced a good pool of candidates for a search I was working on and moved two key long-term projects forward (one required some research, the other some writing). I had read over 30 pages in the book that I’ve ignored forever. On top of that, my office and desk are clean. - I had a few people give me a hard time about my out of office email, but nobody felt the need to call me.

Maybe there was something to this. I was ready to do this for the rest of the week.

The Results

By the end of the week, I found myself getting fully engaged in the project when the timer told me to take a break. I was often disappointed when the timer went off, like the time had flown by. I take that a good indicator of being in a state of flow. Despite taking what amounted to about 10 minutes every hour off - Each day I was accomplishing my daily goals in shorter amounts of time and would find myself with more concrete progress on projects than my old way of doing things. Before my Pomodoro Experiment, I would often get to the end of the day with stuff left to do – which would cause me to work on it during family time, or get rolled into the next day’s list or sometimes not at all.

I also found that I could get through the unpleasant tasks I tend to procrastinate (like recording mileage or expenses) because 25 minutes is a bearable amount of time.

Overall, I found I really enjoyed the technique, and spent more of each day on task and with better focus. I plan on making it a part of my normal routine.

Will it work for you?

I admit that I have certain advantages that make this a viable technique for me – like total control of my calendar. I also work in a quiet environment. Many professionals I know have an abundance of unimportant stuff put on their calendar that eat tons of time and productive energy. Many work in a chaotic environment like an open office floor plan or one where customers can walk in. For those people, I’d recommend blocking off an hour or two in the calendar either first or last thing in the day to focus and get things done. Get buy-in from your boss and coworkers and train them to leave you alone during that time. If it’s loud, put on noise-cancelling headphones, hide somewhere in the building, or go to a coffee shop, someplace you can get work done. Your Monkey Brain might fight you for control, but in the end you might find that you are getting more done in less time and able to use the rest of the time for other goals like going to the gym or making it home in time for dinner.

If you do give it a try, we’d love to hear if it worked for you. If not, we’d love to hear from you as well.

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The Rivet Group is an executive search and consulting company dedicated to providing exceptional talent to companies in the US. If you are ready to hire for your team, are ready to look for a new job or have something else in mind, please contact us at www.rivetgroupllc.com.

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