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Time Management: The Pomodoro Technique


Creating content (whether it’s for a powerpoint presentation, a speech, a lecture, a dissertation, or anything like that) is not an easy thing. These are creative, solitary tasks. Usually, your only constraint is the date of the talk, which is a firm deadline. Other than that, you’re on your own.

So you have to face several threats, that I’ll call villains in this article:

  • perfectionism,
  • distraction,
  • over-focus.

All these villains want to steal your precious time. They thrive on your procrastination and lack of efficiency. The longer it takes to produce your content, the stronger they are. And don’t underestimate them. They are very powerful.

Is all hope lost?

No. Because…

The Pomodoro Technique is here to save you!

I mentioned the Pomodoro Technique in a previous article about different ways to fight procrastination and manage your time, but I wanted to dedicate a whole post to it, because it really made me way more productive and I’m convinced it can help you, too.

But let’s start with our enemies, the so-called…

Efficiency-Killing Villains

Perfectionism

You won’t leave your work until it’s perfectly edited and complete. Of course you want to take care of grammar and spelling. Of course you want to be factually correct.

But then, once it’s done, maybe you could make it shorter? Oh, and what about adding a section about that? And then, maybe you should rearrange this or that part, right? Oh no, it’s too long now, you’re only alloted 20 minutes for this presentation, what should you remove? Maybe you should rewrite that part?

This is perfectionism, and it’s an incredible time sink.

This villain is especially powerful as he disguises as a friend. Everybody wants to be perfect!

But don’t trust him. He wants to suck your precious time. Don’t forget you only have a limited supply of time, and you need as much as possible to rehearse your presentation.

I believe in the Pareto rule, also known as the 8020 rule. Meaning, 80% of a task is performed in 20% of the time, and vice versa. Of course, 8020 is an example. It can be 6040, or even 9010.

Now, it does not mean that you should be sloppy and do as little as possible. Far from it. You still want to be excellent. But that means that, if you want to reach perfection, it will take 5 times as long as reaching excellence.

Distraction

Ah, distraction.

We all know how attention spans are getting shorter and shorter, right?

You’re working on your powerpoint slideshow, and you’re getting stuck. You should reformulate something, or maybe insert a relevant picture. Hmm.

That’s boring.

Maybe you should check your emails first, because that colleague is supposed to send you an important document in the next few hours.

Oh, look at that, that old friend of yours just sent you an email. Hey, you didn’t see him for… like… 2 years? Let’s add him to Facebook!

And now you connect to Facebook. Oh, look at all these notifications!

And all of a sudden, your productivity is killed.

Distraction is a well-known villain, but don’t underestimate him. Because, when you are producing content, you are more than likely to use the internet:

  • How else are you going to find that relevant picture you need for your powerpoint?

  • How are you supposed to find when that guy you’re supposed to congratulate in your speech joined your company without going to the company’s website?

  • etc.

Over-focus

Sometimes villains hate each other. And Over-focus is the archnemesis of Distraction.

While Distraction wants to get you out of work, Over-focus wants you to keep working, forever and ever.

Like, you won’t take a break until you powerpoint is done. If it takes 10 minutes, you’ll have a break in 10 minutes. If it takes 4 hours, you’ll only rest in 4 hours. What could go wrong?

Well, working hard is not the same as working efficiently. You see, hard work is highly valued in our society: the harder you work, the better you are as a person, right? The guy working for 10 hours is better than the guy working for 9 hours, isn’t he?

Not really. In fact, at the end of the day, nobody cares how hard you worked. If you give a shitty presentation in front of your boss or your clients, you failed. “But I worked so hard on that!” is not an excuse.

And the thing is, when your work for hours and hours on a given task without taking a break, your productivity starts to tank. You feel like you worked for 10 hours, but you would have been more efficient if you worked in a smart way for 8 or even only 6 hours.

Work smarter, not harder.

How A Tomato-Shaped Superhero Can Annihilate Your Enemies

The Pomodoro Technique was invented in the 1980s by an Italian called Francesco Cirillo. The underlying idea is to use a tomato-shaped timer. Yeah, in Italian, pomodoro means tomato. And this timer will rule the way you use your time.

A pomodoro timer
A pomodoro timer, courtesy of wikipedia.

The core idea is to work in intervals. You work for a short period of time, called a pomodoro (yeah, like the technique itself, like the timer, and like the tomato; I know, it gets confusing). Then you take a short break. After the break, you start again, for another short period of time, and so on. Once you did 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break.

That’s for the big picture. Now, let’s get into the gritty details.

Step 1: Choose A Task

The first step is, obviously, to choose a task you want to perform. It must be a clearly defined task, not something vague like “I want to make some progress in the text of my speech” or “I want to make some slides for next week’s presentation”. That’s not good, because how do you know whether the task is complete or not at the end of the day?

No, you better set some goals like:

  • I must make a complete, first draft for my speech.
  • I must create the template for my slideshow.
  • I must complete the handout I’ll give the audience for tomorrow’s seminar.
  • I must create the diagram I’ll include in my powerpoint.
  • I must finish my blog post on the Pomodoro Technique.
  • etc.

See? These goals have clearly defined boundaries. At any given moment, you can tell whether the task is complete or not. Also note these are reasonably simple tasks: don’t choose a big task, like “I want to do my PhD defense presentation from start to finish”, or you’ll feel overwhelmed (more on that in a later post).

OK, now you’ve got the task, let’s get to work!

Step 2: Work For 25 Minutes

Start a timer that will ring in 25 minutes and work on the task. Now, you might think 25 minutes is a rather short interval, buth the thing is, you must completely focus for that amount of time. That means you can’t do any of the following:

  • go to the bathroom,
  • talk with your colleagues (yes, even for work-related questions),
  • check your emails,
  • go on internet for anything that is not strictly related to completing the task,
  • answer the phone,
  • etc.

Yes, some of those can be complicated, even impossible in some cases, but do your best. Tell your colleagues you need to focus so, if they have a question, they should wait for 25 minutes if possible.

Now, 2 situations can occur.

If you completed the task, great! You can either have a break (more on that later), or start another task is the remaining time. Let’s say you completed the task 1 is 20 minutes. Now you have 5 minutes : let’s start task 2!

If you didn’t complete the task, it’s okay! You’ll complete it in the next pomodoro, or the one after that.

Anyway, once the 25 minutes are over, ti’s time for a break!

Step 3: Take A 5 Minutes Break

Yeah, 5 minutes of rest for 25 minutes of work! Isn’t that great? Beware though, because 5 minutes is a short periode of time. But now you’re allowed to do anything you couldn’t do in the previous 25 minutes:

  • call back the person who phoned you,
  • go to the bathroom,
  • take some tea or coffee,
  • go to Facebook or Twitter,
  • chat with your colleague,
  • etc.

Sure, you won’t be able to do all of that in 5 minutes. You’ll have to choose. But, the thing is…

During that break, you can do anything you want, as long as it’s not be related to the task you’re performing!

You see, you will be tempted to think about your task while you’re at the restroom: “maybe I should put this slide after that one, after all”, or that kind of thing. Don’t do that. The break is very short, by design, so you must respect it.

Step 4: Start Another Pomodoro, And Another!

Now the pause is over, let’s start another pomodoro, i.e work for another uninterrupted 25-minutes period! And after that, do another 5 minutes break.

Pretty simple, right?

Now, there’s one last thing: once you’ve done 4 pomodoros, meaning 4 25-minutes periods of work, you should make a longer, 15 minutes break. So, the overall schema is:

  • 25 minutes of work,
  • 5 minutes of pause,
  • 25 minutes of work,
  • 5 minutes of pause,
  • 25 minutes of work,
  • 5 minutes of pause,
  • 25 minutes of work,
  • 15 minutes of pause,
  • 25 minutes of work,
  • 5 minutes of pause,
  • etc.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Use A Timer That Doesn’t Look Like A Tomato?

Of course! You can you any mechanical timer, or an electronic one, or even an application on your smartphone. For instance, I use an app called Focus To-Do on Android, but there are many others.

Just note Cirillo, the inventor of the technique, advises the use of a mechanical timer, because the ticking sound helps the mind assess the fact you’re working on the task for a definite amount of time. But, if you work in an office with other people around you, this might not be an option.

What If The Timer Rings While I’m In The Zone?

Sometimes, you’re in the so-called zone, meaning the words are flowing from your mind and you feel more productive than ever.

And then the timer rings!

What should you do? Should you stop in the middle of your most productive minute of the day? In my opinion, you should not. Just keep working as long as you feel ├╝ber-productive, and just start your 5-minute break as soon as you feel your concentration starts to decrease.

But don’t skip the 5 minutes pause! Just delay it.

Messing With The Tomato

Of course, it’s easy to mess with your hero.

Maybe you think 25 minutes isn’t ideal. Why not 30 minutes? Heck, I could do 40 minutes, isn’t that better? And what about breaks? Why 5 minutes? Why not 2 minutes, or 10? Why not longer pomodoros, with longer breaks? Like, 45 minutes of work, followed by 10 minutes breaks?

Eugene Schwartz was a very famous copywriter (a writer in the advertisement industry) in the XXth century. He used a variation of the pomodoro technique, that he called (apparently) the 3333 method. He took a numeric timer, not a mechanical one, and hit on the number 3, 4 times.

33 minutes and 33 seconds.

Then, when the timer rang, he took a 5 minutes break, and started the timer again for 33 minutes and 33 seconds.

As far as I know, he was not aware of the pomodoro technique (he died in the early 90s, when the technique was quite new), but his method is obviously very close.

So, which interval is the best? Should you try to find your own favorite? In my opinion, you shouldn’t try to micro-optimize the technique. It’s been tried and tested for decades. Trying to adapt it to your situation, trying to create your own pomodoro variation, is another form of Perfectionism.

Yeah, that very ennemy you’re trying to fight. I told you they were strong.

Don’t fall for the trap, just use the intervals advised by Cirillo, and reap the benefits.

Now, you’re break is over, so get back to work for the next 25 minutes. With the Pomodoro Technique and The Crash Course On Public Speaking, you’ll have a complete presentation in no time!