I showed up at a meeting one year ago and realized that I had four Internet-connected devices. Yes, two laptops, an iPad and an iPhone were at the ready, all beeping and buzzing in synchronization with meeting reminders and new email notifications. The craziest part was that this felt normal to me.
With all of these devices constantly beeping and vibrating, it’s no wonder I was unable to get anything done without constant interruptions. I needed a new way of working. Luckily, I found the Pomodoro Technique.
While having ubiquitous access to information can be powerful, but here’s the rub. According to research, it can take between 5 and 20 minutes to re-focus after an interruption. Now multiply that by the number of times you get interrupted each day (think: email notifications, text messages, twitter messages). You don’t need to have an MBA to understand that this will have an impact on your own bottom line, whether in dollars, happiness, or time.
According to a recent New York Times article, all of this multitasking has a physical effect on our brains. The type of constant interruptions we receive from our smart phones can actually re-wire the developing brain to be less able to sustain attention. Permanently.
But what about you? Maybe you don’t even have a smart phone. But you’re still getting distracted by email notifications, instant messages, or your web browser laying open and ready to take you anywhere on the vast Internet.
The Pomodoro Technique
Rather than focusing on getting something done, why not focus on focusing? That’s the aim of the Pomodoro technique, a very simple and effective time management system that keeps you working on the things that matter most and nothing else.
The 10-second summary: Humans are only able to focus on a task for about 25 minutes before they need a break. Rather than trying to change this, the Pomodoro technique works with your limitations. Here’s the basic recipe:
- Pick a task you need to accomplish.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and start working
- When the time rings, take a 5 minute break
- Repeat steps 1-3
- Ever four cycles, take a 25 minute break.
It seems too simple to be effective, but I decided to give it a try for just one morning at work. That was eight months ago and I haven’t turned back. Upon discovering that its simplicity is its strength, I’ve even adopted the Pomodoro technique at home for practicing guitar and writing songs..
Notice that the Pomodoro technique is easy to remember, and doesn’t require any special charts, lists, or iPhone apps. It can be practiced wherever you’re getting work done.
Once you’re up and running with the Pomodoro technique, you’ll begin to wage war with your new enemy: distractions. Negotiating these distractions becomes an important way to complete more Pomodoro cycles per day.
Distraction 1: For technology interruptions, turn off new email alerts. Turn off new tweet alerts. Mute the ringer on your phone unless you are required to respond immediately when someone calls.
For me, this wasn’t enough. I actually had to turn off my iPhone because simply muting it and putting it in my pocket wasn’t a strong enough deterrent against taking a quick glance at my email inbox.
Distraction 2: Now on to the more difficult, walking and talking interruptions: your coworkers. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, but there are some things you can do to minimize the inevitable distractions of the office.
In order to successfully implement the Pomodoro technique, I started listening to music (usually classical) on headphones so that I didn’t get distracted by the near constant stream of cross-cube conversations in my work area.
Another big one is negotiating your privacy. At a team meeting, I politely explained that the office was distracting for me, and would appreciate it if people would knock on my cubicle before they walked in and started talking to me. I was really nervous about doing this, but it went really well. My coworkers have respected my request and have even begun extending the same courtesy to others in the office.
When all else fails and you’re faced with a live interruption, politely explain that you’re in the middle of something. Keep a polite “Can I call you back in 25 minutes?” handy.
Beyond the Pomodoro Technique
This basic formula gets much more refined in the (free) Pomodoro Technique book, which the author generously gives away. You can get great results by applying it in its simplest form, but I’d highly recommend reading further. The record keeping system is equally elegant. You’ll find yourself interested in geeking out on stats because you’ll be showing a noticeable improvement in how much you can accomplish and how quickly.
At its core, the Pomodoro Technique forces you to tune out distractions and start focusing on focusing. Pick one project or task your working on and decide to only work on it for a set amount of time. Maybe even turn off your phone while you’re doing it and see how that feels.
Whatever you do, living and working in a constant state of distraction will not get you the results you’re looking for. The Pomodoro Technique can help get you out of that rut, 25 minutes at a time.
What ways have you found to cut down on distractions at work? How have you applied the Pomodoro Techniqe? Share them in the comments.
Photo by Karrah Kobus (use with permission from artist)
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