It’s easy to get into the infinite loop of procrastination when the project at hand is not too exciting (writing a paper with meh results, a grant, etc.). I’ve been happily experimenting with the Pomodoro technique and it’s been working great.
It’s free to implement* and incredibly simple. You get a 25 minute timer (I’m using Pomodroid on my smart phone). Once you start the timer, you can’t do anything else but do real work. No email, texting, Facebook, bathroom breaks, fetching water, talking to coworkers, blogging (eheh), etc. You do real work. Then once the 25-minute period (a Pomodoro) is done, you can take a 5 minute break and start another.
When you start a Pomodoro you may have the urge after, say, 10 minutes, to check your phone or something. Whenever that happens, you just monitor the thought and let it pass. Kind of like meditation. If the thought lingers, you can write it down on a piece of paper. It’s only 25 minutes, after all, so what’s the worst that could happen that can’t wait that long?
I also implemented a rule about multitasking during a Pomodoro**. Only one work thread per Pomodoro (unless a thread is finished). So if I start a Matlab script that takes, say, 2 minutes to complete, I might normally go into Google Reader and check my favorite blogs. But once you’re in a Pomodoro, you can’t. You just watch the script do its thing and wait.
You can think about anything related to the current work you’re doing. You can write down the next step of the analysis. You can start programming the next piece of analysis. But you can’t do anything not directly related to the stuff that you’re doing. That includes doing something nominally productive like reading papers or fixing the backup server, etc.
That accomplishes a few things:
- Unitasking is less stressful and more productive than multitasking
- It’s easier to get into the zone by focusing on one thing at a time – in my case, it usually takes only 1 or 2 Pomodoros at the start of the day to ramp up to fully productive
- You work faster on a deadline
- You work better without distractions
- The fact that a Pomodoro is only 25 minutes means it only takes a little effort to complete it
- Keeping track of your productive work hours can help you increase them – knowledge is power
- Having (admitedly arbitrary) rules means you don’t have to take decisions. Taking decisions sap willpower. You need willpower to persevere in boring projects. Willpower is a well-studied psychological phenomenon – take a look at this layman’s intro in the NY Times magazine. Should I reply to this email now or later? Ah, I can’t. Problem solved.
- The zone is good, but it can be a dangerous place. Ever spent an evening programming an analysis that was irrelevant but you just had to continue? The 25 minute limit will fix that.
Try it out for a few days and see if you like it.
* They sell books and seminars and stuff on the website, and the pro versions of timer apps might cost you a couple bucks. But it’s so simple you don’t need any of that stuff.
**There’s no specific thing in the Pomodoro technique, that I know of, that states you have to implement the unitasking rule. However, my suckitude at multitasking is legendary***. That’s one reason I will never have kids.
***That got me out of TAing Chris’ Computational Neuroscience class, so it’s a blessing and a curse