December 08, 2009

How I use a tomato to increase my productivity.

I like to read up on the latest time management techniques. Being productive with the least amount of effort is something that I aspire to. Alternatively getting as much as possible out of a given amount of effort is a similar aim.

Over the years I have looked at a number of different methods of trying to be productive. As with all these methods they have their own focus and their own areas of strength and weakness. My own personal favourite for task tracking is the Todoodlist which is paper based, completely portable and incredibly simple.

Dave Allen’s GTD is also a good structured framework for getting things organised and focusing attention. It does this by taking all the clutter that you carry around in our head and getting it into a system that will allow you to track and manage it.

But a recent technique I came across - and one which I think is starting to gain a lot of traction - is focused on the physical accomplishment of tasks rather than the tracking and management of them. It is known as The Pomodoro and - like all systems - it’s strength is its simplicity. Pomodoro (Italian for 'apple of love' or tomato) is simply a 25 minute allocation of time to attack a task followed by a 5 minute rest. This article, for example, is being written within a specific Pomodoro. When the 25 minutes are up I can decide not to continue any more work on it (and hereby come back to it later ) or I can start a further Pomodoro to finish it.

The Pomodoro works on the principle of 'time-boxing' work. This has two benefits.

1) It allows you to look at a large task and chunk it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. This in turn motivates you to perform the work. It is easier to finish a 25 minute block of report writing than it is to start a 15,000 report. The end result is the same but psychologically your mid perceives them as being different.
2) It removes other distractions from your working environment. By allowing you to focus on one activity at a time for a discreet length of time it forces you to remove multitasking and minimise distractions during that Pomodoro.

Here’s how it works.
  • Start with your task list and work out what can be chunked down into 25 minute blocks. For example I am currently working on putting together a new version of my book ‘The Perfect Process Project’. Having a task of ‘Update book’ is not a motivating task. It seems never ending and difficult to conceptualise. However if I was to split that down into Pomodoros such as ‘Re-read current version outline’, ‘Identify 3 update areas’, ‘Research change management concepts’, ‘Write change management chapter’, ‘Create a summary’ it then becomes a set of discreet chunks of work that are quantifiable and easy to comprehend. 
  • Then you need a timer. Strict adherents to the Pomodoro technique purchase a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato. You can do this if you want. I tend to use the timer function on my phone. Set a 25 minute timer. Close your email and instant messaging clients (this includes Twitter/ Friendfeed/ Facebook/ etc.). 
  • Start working on your Pomodoro.
  • When the 25 minute timer goes you can then cross this Pomodoro off your list and take a 5 minute break.  It may be that your current Pomodoro hasn’t achieved the task of completely finishing whatever piece of work you were starting to do (after all 25 minutes isn’t a lot of time to write a great deal of anything really). If this is the case you can continue with the same Pomodoro for another 25 minutes or you can assign a further Pomodoro to come back and continue the work at a later point.

At the end of 25 minutes I find I am a lot further along the workpath than if  I was trying - for example - to ‘Update the PPP book’. Your mind perceives the smaller chunks of work as being more manageable than a large cloud of ‘stuff’ and therefore is able to focus a lot more on the work at hand. In addition to that knowing you only have 25 minutes to do as much as possible generally allows the mind to be more efficient and focused in it’s priorities.

There are lots of articles and sites that look at The Pomodoro technique on the web. If you want to download the free ebook that gives far more detail on this than I can give then go to this site. This is also where you will learn about how to handle interruptions and classifying urgent and important items.

Just as an FYI in one day using the Pomodoro technique I completed 6 Pomodoro’s which roughly equated to about the same amount of completed work as I had achieved in the previous 4 days without the technique (oh, and this article was drafted in one Pomodoro!)

Try it and see whether it works for you. You may be surprised.

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