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

Do Nothing

I saw the perfect book for the weekend on a shelf at my local bookstore. It is titled How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. You would think that there would be no need for a book on how to do nothing. Just do it. Or I suppose, just don’t do it.

The book’s subtitle (seemingly required of all non-fiction titles these days) is “Resisting the Attention Economy” which gives you an idea of what her idea of doing nothing involves. I am a maker of to-do lists

Odell is an artist who teaches at Stanford University, but she is writing about the pull of digital technologies – notifications, targeted ads, social media, and all that. You might be able to guess some of her plans to do nothing – unplugging and retreating from tech. She advises slowing down and cultivating attention to the physical world.

You know that a full retreat from the digital realm is unrealistic, and she knows that too. Balance. If you use digital means to stay in touch with friends and relatives that’s okay, but balance that with real-world interactions. She gives her own best practices to resist digital influences on our lives.

Balance and attention. Clearly good and increasingly difficult-to-follow advice. Attention is a precious resource that is being stretched and it does have limits.

There are many methods to improve attention. I saw an article suggesting some ways to improve your attention span, which is something that seems to be getting shorter all the time as a result of too many things that draw our attention.

Have you heard of “whole body listening?” It is a technique that is even being taught to young students.

How about focusing on a conversation and listening without interrupting? I need to work on that.

You can try spending time just listening to something. It can be birds outside, water in a creek, a podcast, or a piano concerto. But do it without doing anything else. No drinking coffee, checking your phone, looking at people nearby, or eating some chips. Pure listening.

If you have ever taken a class on learning to meditate, you have discovered that emptying your mind and “doing nothing” is quite difficult. Practice.

Out of Office

An “online friend” sent me some info as a followup to my post on trying to separate work and play.  It’s not exactly about separating the two, but about being more efficient at the work part in order to have more of the play time.

It sounds quite scientific. He says I should think about using “stochastic resonance.” The theory is that a weak signal – something you’re distractedly working on – becomes easier to detect if you add white noise into the background. In other words, you can better focus and keep a train of thought on the tracks with a bit of random background activity. (There is actual research on stochastic resonance.)

It doesn’t seem to mean listening to music on headphones while you work, but more like that random background noise in a café. A background of silence doesn’t help focus.

My friend got this bit from the book Out of Office by Chris Ward which is about  being more productive and creative in your working life – and that includes working out of the office in places like coffee shops.

It was $1.99 for Kindle so I’ll  give it a try this weekend.

I suppose I should head to a café to read it.

Distraction

focus

I’m working on this post, but I am also watching Mad Men on TV and looking at Facebook and reading email and drinking a cup of tea and eating some grapes.

I am distracted.

You’re distracted. Less than half of the people who are reading this sentence will finish the entire post. And this isn’t a very long or complex article.

I wrote earlier about how I was told by the abbot at a Zen monastery where I studied for a short time that I have “monkey mind.” My thoughts jump about like a monkey in a tree.

My reading habits are also distracted. I start a lot of books and articles all at once. I finish about two-thirds of them. I skim. I skip.

I was reading The Distraction Addiction. (It’s full title, like too many books these days, has a long subtitle – “Getting the Information You Need and the Communication You Want, Without Enraging Your Family, Annoying Your Colleagues, and Destroying Your Soul”).

We have all read or heard news stories about how many of us spend too much time on out mobile devices and the Internet and also about people trying to have a “Digital Sabbath” away from the tech.

Scientists have been studying “switch-tasking” which is described as trying to do two similar but unconnected things at once.  There are lots of examples: me typing this and watching TV; texting and driving. That is not the same thing as multitasking.  In switch-tasking you are more likely to make mistakes. You are more likely to overlook things. Multitasking is doing several tasks that are related simultaneously – watching a video and  taking notes as you watch. Or doing two tasks that do not detract from each other – listening to music while running.

In The Distraction Addiction, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang is pushing less for putting the tech aside and more for us to convert switch-tasking to ­productive multitasking. He calls this “contemplative computing” – an effort to use information technologies in ways that help you focus and be more creative, not fractured and distracted.

Mindfulness is something I pursue despite all distractions that pull my attention. It’s not a riddle to be mindful to the lack of mindfulness in our lives.

 

 

 

Things Undone

It is really getting to me how many things I have undone. It doesn’t help that I am big on making To Do lists. I need those lists to keep track of things, but they also act as reminders of what I have not gotten done.

And lots of things never make it to the lists. The books waiting unread and the stack of books with bookmarkers in them that are partially read. Magazines unread. I even started to tear out articles that I wanted to read so that I could recycle the rest and have less confronting me. Now, I have a wire basket full of torn out articles.

monkeyMy mind is always wandering. The abbot at a Zen monastery that I used to attend told me that I have “monkey mind” – a mind that is like a monkey hopping about from limb to limb in the jungle.

Usually, we can blame a lack of concentration on being too busy, feeling stressed out or being overtired. But lately I have been less busy, not very stressed and better rested and it hasn’t helped the attention or the To Do lists.

I’ve tried things. Yeah, medication. That was a bust.  I tried meditation and mindfulness and ways to increase my awareness of the world around me. I really do try to pay attention whether I’m typing something for a blog post or on one of many rambles through the woods.

I was a kid in a time when there was no such diagnosis as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You were just a kid in school who was talked too much and didn’t pay attention. Later, the term “hyper(active)” come into use, but it was often diagnosed as a kid who ate too much sugar.

Symptoms? Impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.

Sounds like you? Go rate yourself on the World Health Organization’s Adult ADHD Self-Report Scale. If you get a high score, you go go to a doctor and get some meds. You can try cognitive behavioral therapy. You might find that focused attention meditation helps.

It’s easy for me to hide my deficit of attention. Actually, a lot of friends and co-workers have said “I don’t know how you get so much done.”  So, why do I feel so much is undone?

There are plenty of self-help pages to tell you why we can’t focus and how to boost your brainpower and ways to keep your mind sharp and even the right kind of breakfasts that jump-start your brain so that you can handle a brain-power workout.

I know that I’m supposed to shoot for at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity three to five times a week. My walking doesn’t cut it because I am so distracted by passing sights and sounds that my speed is inconsistent.

I see these phrases like how to “reboot” your brain, as if it was a laptop and all you needed to do was hit the power button. You need to “rewire” your brain. Focus, organization, time-management and follow-through. Life as business practice.

A diagnosis of ADHD is a nice thing to blame instead of blaming your own inadequacies that make it impossible to get organized, to stick to a job, to keep an appointment, to concentrate. But it doesn’t make things get better.

I actually have found blogging and setting myself deadlines to write here and on a few other blogs to be a great focusing exercise. But this post is done. Time to click “submit.” Then I can focus on my breath and jump from limb to limb like the good little monkey I have always been.