When people complain about not getting things done, they almost always wish they had bigger blocks of time to do the work. A surprising solution to this problem is to plan your unstructured time using standard time blocks of 25 minutes. The method, called the Pomodoro Technique, helps you to resist interruptions, focus on finishing tasks, and ensure you make the best use of the time you have.
The technique was developed by an Italian, Francesco Cirillo. He calls it the “Pomodoro Technique” after the tomato timer with which he times the blocks. I recommend the complimentary ebook you can download here: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com
The method in brief: Look at your day to identify your available time. Determine how many 25-minute time blocks (“pomodoros”) will fit in the time. Then assign work to those blocks. No single task can take more than 3-5 pomodoros. (If it does, you need to break the task into subtasks.) Between most pomodoros plan a short 2-3 minute break. Every few hours plan a longer break. Then during the day, time every pomodoro with a timer. Record the work, including changes to your plan, plus any problems keeping focused on the task for the full 25 minutes.
It is a very simple method, which is easy to try (though it takes practice to stick with it). I will not say more about how to do it; I would like to discuss why it is so helpful. The effect of using the method is profound. It provides a physical support structure that helps you execute several crucial mental processes: making a commitment, resisting interruptions, focusing on finishing, and monitoring progress.
Setting the timer helps you make the commitment to the work. You write down what you’ll do during the pomodoro, and then you turn on the timer. That simple existential action embodies your choice to commit.
The running timer inoculates you against interruptions, because you are supposed to stop the timer if you stop work. That makes the choice to stop–to be interrupted–an active, conscious choice instead of a passive reaction. Plus, you know that you will have a short break soon, when you can deal with the interruption. All this motivates you to resist interruptions.
The running timer also helps you focus on achieving the goal. The mini-deadline every 25 minutes is a natural incentive to finish. You are more aware of how much time you are taking, and you are motivated to beat the clock, if you can.
Taking a short break to record what you did and clear your head helps you monitor the work and consider whether or not you are making the best use of your time. You become much more aware of how long a task is taking, and can stop yourself from going down the slippery slope, using up all your discretionary time for email or some other low-value task. The small breaks give you a chance to adjust your plan to meet the realities of the work.
What impresses me most about the Pomodoro Technique is how well it helps you maintain the delicate mental balance between discipline and flexibility that is essential to productive thinking. The timer adds just the right amount of urgency to keep you focused on the work, without making you feel pressured. It helps you be aware of the passage of time, without locking you into an arbitrary schedule. Over time, you become a better judge of how much time work takes. All this adds up to being more productive with the time you have. Highly recommended.
My recommendation for the ebook on the Pomodoro Technique (and all the book recommendations on my site) is a 5-star recommendation. I give public recommendations only to books that I find valuable, original, worth re-reading, and philosophically sound.
The Pomodoro Technique is one of three elements I recommend for a “Scheduling Infrastructure” in the mini-course on this topic on the Thinking Lab site. Membership in the lab is open to past attendees of Thinking Tactics or people who have purchased Tap Your Own Brilliance: http://www.thinkingdirections.com/ThinkingLab.htm