Friday, December 23, 2011

How to focus the Pomodoro way

I used to have 2 monitors on my desk, a phone, a smart phone, and several alerts set on my laptop for email (both my personal and company accounts), Skype, my company chat software, helpdesk software, monitoring software and, according to the needs of the moment, several other alerts.
Things got to a point where I was considering getting a third monitor when all of the sudden it struck me the insanity of all this: how could I get focused on anything and get anything done? Around this time I bumped into the Pomodoro Technique and it helped me focus on the tasks at hand. Have you ever heard about it? Here's a quick guide to help you focus on what you have to do.

The Pomodoro Technique is not a magic bullet and you don't have to follow it blindly. My advice to you is that you adapt it to your needs.
It also doesn't address your work environment as it may be expected of you an instant answer to any particular email - that may be the norm in your office. The way to deal with that kind of problems goes way beyond the Pomodoro Technique.
Neither it addresses your values and priorities. And without this direction you may be very active all right - but working in the wrong direction. And that's not being productive.

What is it good for?
Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro Technique as a way to improve personal productivity so you can apply this yourself as any member of your project team can but it's always personal. His objectives, as stated in his free ebook available for download on his website:
  • Alleviate anxiety linked to becoming
  • Enhance focus and concentration by cutting down on interruptions
  • Increase awareness of your decisions
  • Boost motivation and keep it constant
  • Bolster the determination to achieve your goals
  • Refine the estimation process, both in qualitative and quantitative terms
  • Improve your work or study process
  • Strengthen your determination to keep on applying yourself in the face of complex situations
But if you ask me, the objective of using the Pomodoro Technique is to focus on what you are doing at the moment.
After thinking about this, I found the reason why I had the 2 monitors and all the alerts on my desk. And the reason was: I can focus for very short periods of time. And so this was a way to jump from one activity to another without trying to focus on the same thing for a long time. And it works for me - and the first thing I did after this was to get rid of all the alerts and the second monitor. I now have no alerts except the ones I must have (such as my company's chat software).

The process
The process is very straight forward and it consists of:
  • Planning: at the start of the working day to select what will be done during that day
  • Tracking: all day long to record the necessary metrics to establish your performance 
  • Recording: at the end of the working day to compile and record any worth taking observations
  • Processing: at the end of the working day to analyse your records
  • Visualizing: at the end of the working day to put the analized information in graphs
For more details, please check the Pomodoro Technique website.
You should have an Activity Inventory that is updated all the time, as needed. This is where everything you have to do is recorded. At the beggining of the day, you select the activities you think you can do during all that day and record them on another list, the To Do Today. Having that list with you, the rules of the work are as follows:
  • Choose the first item in the To Do Today list
  • Set the timer to 25 minutes
  • Work on that activity until the timer rings
  • Mark an X on that activity on the To Do Today list and, if done, mark it also as done
  • Take a short break (3 to 5 minutes) that should be longer (15 to 30 minutes) every 4 iterations
  • Repeat this sequence (each sequence is called a Pomodoro)

It's very difficult for me to do a Pomodoro straight from start to finish without being interrupted: the phone rings or someone asks for this or that. Francesco Cirillo separates internal distractions from external ones. Internal distractions are the ones that you originate yourself. The best advice is, when you feel difficulty in concentrating and start to lose focus, interrupt your Pomodoro and do something else for a short time, even before you take a break at the end of the Pomodoro. Go check your personal mail, your news feed or whatever.
There's not much you can do about the external interruptions. What the Pomodoro Technique offers you is a way to make them visible. Actually 2 different ways:
  • If you have to do something that you didn't plan to do during that day, set it apart in your To Do Today under an "Unplanned" section
  • Record each interruption and the reason why (phone call, chat, answer an urgent email or whatever)
By the way, the best remedy I know of to stop your coworkers to interrupt you is listening to music using headphones. Unfortunately, this doesn't work 100% of the time but it does reduce a lot the number of interruptions.

How to adapt to your particular case
I actually did something like the Pomodoro Technique while I was in the university - the longest one single period I was ever able to study straight was 45 minutes. Then I would have to stand, get a coffee or talk to someone, anything to get my mind off studying. And afterwards I'd go back to it. Not all that different, is it?
But the Pomodoro Technique, as Francesco Cirillo defines, doesn't work for me as it is. For instance, how do you select what to do during the day? David Allen's Getting Things Done covers this bit good enough for me.
One other thing I do is adjust the lenght of each Pomodoro as I find 25 minutes to be too long. According to the task at hand, I can set a 10 minute Pomodoro or a 20 minute Pomodoro.
Variable lenght Pomodoros is also something that helps me: I prefer to work on a single task on each Pomodoro although frequently I have tasks that last several Pomodoros.
The point is, I had to adapt the process for me. And you should do the same - but probably not the same way I did.

At the end of the day, productivity is all about doing first the right things for you and the Pmodoro Technique doesn't help all that much in that sense. But productivity also requires focus, and in this sense the Pomodoro Technique is the best thing I know - that works for me. So why not give it a try? Check it out and tell me how the experience went, will you?

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