Going Pomodoro Again

I have fallen into spending too much on a task, especially while working at a screen like this one. I get involved in a task and by the time I get up an hour or hours have passed.

Being a virtual worker has its obvious advantages, such as no commuting, variable work hours and days, and working in your pajamas from the couch. It also has its disadvantages, such as allowing you to do nothing and lose track of time. Because most of my work these days is measured in billable hours rather than a salary, it is important that I keep track of how long I work on a project. I need those stats both to invoice clients and to give estimates to new clients.

This was a skill I needed to develop when I shifted my working days to virtual ones. One technique that I started using on my own turns out to have a formal name. More on that in a bit. I stopped using it for a few months but I discovered that I was falling into bad habits – losing track of how long I spent on a task and also not keeping track of my work/billable hours.

This time management and productivity technique is very simple. When you start a task (not a project, but a piece of it), set a timer and work on that task for 25 minutes. Then, take a short break (3-5 minutes). Start working on the task again for 25 minutes and repeat until it’s completed. Not only is that short break good for your brain and concentration but physically it is important for me to get out of a chair and move. I will walk into the kitchen for a drink, take a loop around the backyard garden in the summer, check the mailbox, water the houseplants or whatever. The break can’t be something that will distract you for a longer period.

Il pomodoro.jpg Pomodoro tomato timer – CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I just started doing this on my own and it was only later that I discovered that I was using the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. His technique was to use a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks of about 5 minutes. Originally, he broke it down into six steps. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

The technique has been popularized more recently via a bunch of apps and websites that provide timers and instructions.  I just use a cheap digital timer that can count down. The timer counts down from 25 and beeps when 10, then 5, then no minutes remain. It is amazing how quickly those 25 minutes pass when I’m working. It also reminds me sometimes that “OMG, I’ve been at this task for 2 hours!”

This technique is related to several other productivity techniques, such as timeboxing, and iterative and incremental development.

Timeboxing allocates a fixed time period, called a time box, to each planned activity. It can be used for individuals to address personal tasks in a smaller time frame. It often involves having deliverables and deadlines, which will improve the productivity of the user. It’s a bit too formal for me.

Iterative and incremental development, which is often used in software design, uses the basic idea of developing a system through repeated cycles (iterative) and in smaller portions at a time (incremental). This allows software developers to take advantage of what was learned during the development of earlier parts or versions of the system.

This post originally appeared at Ronkowitz LLC

Singing and Snoring


A few years ago, I did a sleep study in the hospital to determine if I have sleep apnea. I do.  I woke up momentarily 80 times during the night.

Sleep deprivation is just one of the bad results of having it. Frequent waking, fitful sleep and waking up feeling like I have not slept are all results.  Maybe a compromised immune system, poor mental and emotional health, and irritability too. And then, because you stop breathing, oxygen deprivation – which can lead to you having heart disease, high blood pressure, sexual dysfunction, and learning/memory problems.

With all that, no surprise that 1 in 5 people who suffer from depression also suffer from sleep apnea, and people with sleep apnea are five times more likely to become depressed. Researchers are not sure if the apnea causes depression or vice-versa. Either way, it’s depressing.

Cures? I didn’t want to go the CPAP route (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure). This entails wearing a mask-like device while you sleep to provide pressurized air to prevent the airway from collapsing. Too SCUBA diver for me.

I tried the dental devices – a Mandibular Repositioning Device and the Tongue Retaining Device – but I felt like I was choking on them at night.

Minor sleep apnea is sometimes responsive to “behavioral treatments” which I have tried with limited success. Here are a bunch of suggestions:
Lose weight.
Stop using alcohol, tobacco, sedatives, or anything that relaxes the muscles of the throat and encourages snoring.
Sleep on your side, not your back. (Special pillows help.)
Elevate the head of your bed by 4 -6 inches. (which I had already done for acid reflux!)
Maintain regular sleep hours. (a tough one for me).
Use a nasal dilator, breathe right strips, or saline nasal spray to help open nasal passages. (all totally ineffective for me)

But here are two treatments I had not heard of before that come from a 2005 study in the British Medical Journal.

Learning and playing the didgeridoo helped reduce snoring and sleep apnea, as well as daytime sleepiness. This appears to work by strengthening muscles in the upper airway, thus reducing their tendency to collapse during sleep.

And there is also a program that uses specialized “singing” exercises to tone the throat, particularly the soft palate, tongue and nasopharynx. Dr. Elizabeth Scott, a medical doctor living in Scotland, had experimented with singing exercises and found considerable success, but had been unable to carry out a clinical trial. Alise Ojay, a choir director, began researching the possibility of using singing exercises to help a friend with snoring and came across Dr. Scott’s work. The results were promising and after two years of investigations, she designed the “Singing for Snorers” program.

If in the future you hear strange sounds coming from my house during the daytime, it might be my singing and didgeridoo practice. If you hear strange noises at night, I’m probably still snoring.

I Want A Do-Over

When I was a kid, we had “do-overs” as part of most games we played. The football hit a wire from the telephone poll – do-over.   The bike jump ramp falls over before you hit it – do-over.

On a Windows computer, you gotta love Ctrl-Z – undo.  Wouldn’t we love an UNDO button for life? The do-over is a part of many time travel stories. Go back and change things, fix mistakes, and change your fate.

I came across the book, Do-Over! by Robin Hemley, who seems pretty haunted by memories of failure and embarrassment from his childhood days.  So, he tries to go back for a second chance. He wants some do-overs.

He’s 48 and he revisits kindergarten, summer camp, sixth grade, and the high school prom in attempts to set right what had gone wrong.

He had a kindergarten teacher who (he recalls) stepped on his back during nap time. (According to him, she was “committed”  the year after he had her as a teacher.)  She told his parents he was going to grow up to be a “thug. “

I remember staying after school on the first day of kindergarten because I hadn’t finished my work. My mom had to come in to get me. The teacher, who I really liked, asked us to pick two colors of crayons and then color in the boxes on a sheet of graph paper. Right off, she didn’t like my color selection – purple and orange. Most of the kids just scribbled the sheets and were done with it. I was outlining boxes and then coloring them in.  This was an early sign of what my school personality would be, and a pretty good indicator of who I am to this day, for better and for worse.

Hemley actually gets permission to go into a kindergarten where he says “the kids immediately accepted me, not as a 5-year-old, but as a fellow kindergartner.”

I can’t identify with his summer camp experiences. We were way too poor for any camps. I actually have very fond memories of my Huck Finn summers for the first 10 years of my life.  Lots of freedom in the early 1960s.  There was very little  “organized play” other than some recreation programs at the local park where we played kickball and knock hockey, ate ice pops, and made lanyards.  (see bottom of post for more about that).

I know people who went off to summer camp and I taught for many years in a town where it seemed like every kid was gone for the summer. Many of them seemed to have stronger memories of camp life than of their home and family experiences. I always found it rather sad. They definitely did not find it sad.


Hemley seems to have had a bad summer camp experience mostly because he couldn’t do sports. When he returns to camp for his do-over, he learns about what he calls “regressive pull.” He says that means that when you are around a group of people who are appreciably younger than you, you actually start acting that age.  At the camp, he was around a bunch of 10-year-olds, so…

Hemley also went back to a high school prom.  He missed the real one because he was too shy to ask out the girl he had a crush on.

I missed mine for a number of reasons. First off, I had no real solid girlfriend and I didn’t want to just go with someone who was just a “date.” Second, I would never have had the money to pay for it. As a northeastern New Jersey kid, there were two post-prom traditions: into New York City to a nightclub and then down the Jersey shore for a beach weekend. Also, none of my closest friends were going. It was that just-past-hippie-but-still-Vietnam-War-time (1971) and a prom was not considered to be very cool. That’s what we told ourselves.

I did only the weekend at the shore. Seaside Heights, NJ.  Boardwalks, illegal alcohol, and the summer rent-a-cops busting kids.

Hemley contacted his high school to explain his idea for a do-over.  Fate stepped in and his former crush is now the school’s alumni liaison. Married with three kids, he was allowed to ask his high school crush to the prom.

Did he fix everything when he went back to try it again? What do you think? He definitely got to put things in perspective and through the distance of time, they don’t look like the failures they did at the time. We do sometimes get second chances and that is a good thing. Going back doesn’t work out in most of those time travel tales either. Still, I suspect that, like me, you wouldn’t mind a few life do-overs.

There is an excerpt from the book online – here’s the start:

Most likely, you don’t remember your nemesis in kindergarten, but I remember mine, probably because I had two. Virginia Adams was the teacher’s pet, and our teacher, Mrs. Collins, hated me. She told my mother I was going to grow up to be “a thug.” Those were her exact words. But she loved Virginia, and Virginia took every opportunity to flaunt her superiority. Often Virginia would sing to me: “I’m named after a state, and you’re only named after a bird.”

Mrs. Collins hated me because of an unfortunate encounter with a small rubber lobster. When we received our first report cards — full of Es and Ps and other letters hardly ever used beyond kindergarten — Mrs. Collins told us to bring them home to our parents, who had to sign them. In 1963, parents meant “Mom,” and maybe that’s even how Mrs. Collins phrased it: “Bring this report card home, and make sure your mother signs it before you come to class tomorrow.” Most fathers, mine included, left the signatures and just about everything else to moms.

Listen to Billy Collins read “The Lanyard”
about the thing he made for his mom at camp.


Some simple cairns on a recent vacation

On a recent vacation to the U.S. Virgin Islands, my friend Hugh built a few simple cairns to mark our space on the beach. I’m sure they were disassembled after a day or two. That is how it should be.

A cairn is a human-made pile of stones. It is impermanent. Sometimes a cairn is made to guide hikers by marking the trail or a turn in the trail or a mountain top. Many native peoples used stacks of rocks to mark water, food sources, land boundaries, hunting locations, or places of some importance. Stone mounds were sometimes made as monuments to mark a burial site or as memorials.

Looking at my vacation photos, I wondered about the word “cairn.” It comes from a Gaelic term meaning “heap of stones.” I have read that cairns date back to ancient times and are mentioned in the Bible. (Example Genesis 31:45-52)

Cairns can be built by one person but sometimes they grow by the contributions of people who add a rock as they pass the site.

Some people do cairns or more elaborate piles of stones as art. Michael Grab’s “balances” work because he uses what he calls “gravity glue” since the stones stay together without glue but use gravity. His rock piles are a meditative art.

That is not hard to understand since Buddhist writers describe the construction of a cairn as a form of worship. It can be seen as an effort to physically balance energies.

The ancients used them for pointing toward the setting sun for solstice celebrations. Cairns can also be a place and object of prayer and peace. I have made them when I walk a trail to mark a place I would stop or to mark a turn to a special place.

There is a simple beauty in a cairn. It connects us with people from the past. If you are looking for symbolic meaning in cairns, you can see it as representing balance, simplicity, spirituality, peace, prayer, patience, direction, priority, and sometimes just play.

A Neolithic burial cairn at Camster, Caithness, Scotland.


Walkabout refers to a rite of passage where male Australian Aborigines undergo a journey during adolescence and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months. It’s a vision quest taken to extremes.

My introduction to it was through a fill called  Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg. I saw it the year I started college and it really intrigued me.

It follows the journey of a sister and brother who are abandoned in the Australian outback and their meeting with an Aborigine boy who is on his walkabout. Together they journey innocence into experience in the wild.

The film has a cult status these days, but back in the early 1970s very few people I knew had ever heard of it. Of course, I was not alone in having a crush on the unnamed girl in the film played by Jenny Agutter.

The film was unconventional and had almost none of the “plot” that we expect in a film. Years later, I saw a “director’s cut” but by then I had forgotten the details from my original viewing. (A benefit of the aging brain and memory is that you can re-experience things you loved as if they were new again.) The scenes of frontal nudity and realistic, survival hunting scenes seemed perfect in context, but unusual at the time.

So, that film led me to read the original book and several other non-fiction books about the walkabout experience. I even tried once to teach the book to middle school students, but they just didn’t get it.

I loved the idea that the seeker followed “songlines” that their ancestors took. These songlines (or dreaming tracks) of the Indigenous Australians are an ancient cultural concept and motif perpetuated through oral lore and singing and other storytelling dances and paintings.

The songlines are an intricate series of song cycles that identify landmarks and mechanisms for navigation. They remind me of the songs of whales. I can’t explain how they work any more than I can explain the whale songs or how migrating birds find their way. Though I have read about all of these things, I don’t think I really want to know (at a scientific level) how it works.

Each song has a particular direction or line to follow and walking the wrong way may even be sacrilegious. You don’t go up one side of a sacred hill when that is the side to come down. That would send you in the wrong direction both literally (on a map) and figuratively (in your life).

What is it about being alone in the wilderness that tunes (or, more likely, re-tunes) our awareness of the natural elements and our connection to them, and even to some creational source? Though I and my ancestors are a long way from that natural life, something remains inside us.

Like the vision quest, the walkabout is an initiation into the teachings and mysteries of the self and the universe. The seeker both finds truths and has truth revealed.

While the walkabout may have Aboriginal roots in Australia, and the vision quest is associated with Native American traditions, the journey is not unique to only those locations. That is why that film eventually led me to read about the archetypical “hero’s journey” and the search for the Holy Grail.

I wish I had a true vision quest or walkabout tale to tell you. I still hope that someday I will.

I have taken two much smaller journeys.  On one full moon weekend journey, with some guidance from someone who knew more about it than I did,  I sought my “guardian animal” in a vision or dream.

I wish I could say it was a wolf that I found because I have always felt an affinity to them, but it was a rabbit. (Of course, I was in New Jersey at the time, so a coyote would have been about as close as I was to come to a wolf – and we know the coyote is the trickster.)

I have also felt some kind of connection to rabbits since childhood.  The rabbit in my vision was quite real and I felt led me. I say that because I followed it and it never ran away but would stop, look back at me, wait, and then continue. I followed it for what seemed like a long time, and then, while I was looking at it, it disappeared.

That’s how I would describe it. Disappeared.

We were at the top of a rocky outcrop. There was a small stream ahead of us and down the rocks. I did not see a life direction or message in where I had been taken that day.  But I felt that I was at a place where I had a good, clear view. I did not know exactly where I was, but I was not lost. I could find my way back to where I had been, but I didn’t see where I needed to go next.

In the traditional Lakota culture, the Hanblecheyapi (vision quest) means “crying for a vision.”  I am still looking.

Guerilla Gardening

There’s an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge (a program I recommend) on “Radical Gardening.” It’s hard to imagine any kind of gardening as being radical.

One of the segments was about Richard Reynolds and the “guerrilla gardening” movement which I wrote about here years ago.  He talks about his adventures as a guerrilla gardener – someone who tends and plants on someone else’s land. It’s illegal, and yet, I don’t think most people would object to it in the vast majority of cases. It’s the abandoned lot that gets cleaned up and filled with flowers. It’s the ugly roadside that gets covered with native wildflowers. Reynolds is the author of On Guerrilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening Without Boundaries.

May first is celebrated by guerilla gardeners as International Sunflower Guerrilla Gardening Day dedicated to sowing sunflowers in your neighborhood.

I like all the suggestions and plans people have posted on their website about creating “seed bombs.” Those are good bombs made of seeds, soil, fertilizer, water and such which you can hurl over that chain link fence into that ugly abandoned lot.

Another guest on that episode is James William Gibson who wrote A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature which examines the ways that people are looking to reconnect with the natural world. That includes the desire to protect rather than exploit it.

If you associate guerrilla and bombs with war and terrorism, then guerrilla gardening and seed bombs are excellent alternatives. If you associate enchantment with wizards and magic, then a re-enchantment with the natural world is also a friendly approach.