Staying focused: The anti-Pomodoro technique
Kitchen timers are the latest time-management trend. Fans of the Pomodoro Technique say to set the timer for 25 minutes, work with total focus, then take a five-minute break.
I like the idea, and I’ve tried variations on the timer technique. But when I’m on deadline, a timer adds to the stress, plus I chafe at having to sit still for long chunks. And the timer doesn’t change the coping habit that I’ve been refining over decades: encounter obstacle, get out of chair, walk to kitchen and look for food. Distract! Numb the anxiety! The timer has no power over this drive.
I’ve tried setting the timer so that it counts up instead of down. This method creates less stress and helps me educate myself about how long things actually take, which is a pleasant surprise when something goes faster than expected, but just as often an unpleasant surprise when it takes so very much longer. Unpleasant but useful to know. The counting-up method has potential but isn’t there yet.
Here’s what does work, I discovered.
Yep. Five minutes. Because that appears to be my upper limit for sitting with uncertainty, anxiety and frustration.
I tried this last week, on deadline. I was so tired I was having trouble focusing, but the project still needed major edits and was due within the next 24 hours.
I sat down to face the edits. Felt the familiar reaction: “Gahhh! Don’t know how to fix this!” Observed myself starting to get up, in search of food and escape. OK, I said, I need to be kind to myself—I’m sleep-deprived and I’ve got to get this done. Let me spend five minutes focused on the edits. Then I can forage if I need to.
About three minutes later, the foraging urge hit hard. I can focus for two more minutes, I said to myself, and believed it. I stayed with the project. A bit further in, the urge to jump up from the desk hit again. I checked my watch; seven minutes had passed since I started. OK, I’d stuck with the deal. I stood, stretched out my neck and arms, ate a piece of fruit. Was I ready to go back to work? Nope, too exhausted from lack of sleep the night before. OK, I thought, I’ll lie down and take a nap. If I have to complete this project in five-minute work sessions with half-hour breaks in between, so be it.
After resting for just 15 minutes, I felt refreshed enough to go back to my desk and work for another five minutes. Then I took a 20-minute break. After about three of these cycles, I’d built up some decent momentum and was able to work steadily for six hours. I finished the project and met my deadline.
Inefficient, you may say? It’s actually pretty efficient, compared to the usual stalling and struggling and worrying and munching.
The six-hour session that followed the ramp-up would be considered by some (like Robert Boice) to be a binge—not ideal. Later, I’ll look at how to take breaks during extended sessions without losing momentum. But first: Let’s make the five-minute increments a habit and see how that goes.