Friday, December 16, 2016

Time Management for the Worst Procrastinators

Photo by Emilie Ogez on Flickr
Time management is not something I am good at.  I'm good at staring out the window, doodling plans and lists, and doing every other project except the one I need to finish by May 2018. I get a lot done (a doctoral student and a mother has to), but it isn't easy.  And it doesn't often happen through careful planning, but through sheer will!

So as I worked through grad school, my early teaching career, and now the beginning of the dissertation... I realized I need to get my act together. Just like writing a paper without an outline stopped working, so did living a day without an outline. But no loose planning in a bullet journal or motivational mantra on a bulletin board could help this daydreaming procrastinator. Any wiggle room would ruin me. So, desperate for a method, I focused on the smallest unit of time that could be put to excellent work, coupled with a proven system for fighting the distraction of other projects -- the Pomodoro.

What is it?

What the heck is a Pomodoro? It's a tomato. But more on that later.

The Pomodoro work method is based upon research that shows we can most successfully work in something like 25 minute bursts.  This is enough time to get into a groove without wearing out our eyes or our carpal tunnels, and it's enough time to produce a substantial work chunk, say, to grade three long papers or to write a page. It's also a short enough time that we can completely ignore everyone else in the universe and they'll be just fine until we get back from our little Pomodoro planet. Close tabs, log out, hide phone -- blast off!

Photo by Luca Mascaro on Flickr
So why not make it half an hour? Because that 5 minutes at the end gives you a chance to look up from the screen (recommended by doctors, brain doctors, and opticians alike), and move around a bit.  Then you dive back into another 25 minutes or work. Four of these productivity bursts makes for almost two hours of work, only slightly (and restoratively) interrupted.  Four timer sessions = a "Pomodoro."  Say it out loud: "I just did a Pomodoro!"  Get up and take a long break.  Exercise, pet the cat, feed your starving kids, whatever. You earned it!  Then, you can choose to do more Pomodoros or call it.

The method is named as such because the original timer, designed by Francesco Cirillo, is shaped like a tomato. Imagine one of those egg timers that looks like an egg. Now it's a tomato. Tada!

Pomodoro praxis

I began the method with a stack of grading last spring, and it worked like a charm. It is absolutely flawless for clerical tasks like grading, organizing notes and sources, making tables, etc.  Although, I had to practice and get comfortable with it before I could really write in a flow state a la Pomodoro. You may have to work with it awhile until you can do real "knowledge work" on a timer.  But now that is an easy habit for me.

As important as the timer is the minimization of distraction. CLOSE THE TABS!  Nothing bad will happen.  Some online timers can even do it for you.  Half the point of this thing is work-life balance. This is the part where you have to let life slide -- it's only 25 minutes.

I do not use the actual physical tomato, but I may start.  Instead I use one of many online timers specifically geared towards the technique.  You can of course use any timer that goes to at least 25 minutes (but for obvious reasons, don't use your phone!).

I have used some great Pomodoros online. There are dozens if you search:

Tomato Timer
A super simple platform with start and stop key commands (or mouse buttons) and no frills. My favorite.

A tricked out timer that lets you create an account and track projects and time spent.

The Real Pomodoro Tomato Timer
The "real deal" tomato is available from many sellers, but some are mightily over-priced. I think I will get mine from The Animal Rescue Site, so my $12.95 feeds a dog or some other fuzzy guy

One more thing about TIME

Ok, I am a mother, a grad student, a teacher, a "life-partner" if you will, and a gigging musician. I know a thing or two about not having enough time (one of those things will require another blog post). So let me tell you something that we hear all the time in this office, and that I have had to turn into a Pomodoro-complementary mantra:

You do not find time.  You MAKE time.

There is no extra time anywhere waiting to be found. And if you happen to stumble upon some, you will not even realize you have found it because you will be caught up in it, looking at the TV or just resting with your loved ones.

Extra time has to be made. The only way to do this is to shorten the length of time spent doing other tasks (i.e. non-dissertation tasks and clerical dissertation tasks) so that you grow the time you have to think and write and be healthy and whole. Get efficient. Make extra time for yourself and your family, and for your knowledge work.

So, some parting questions for you:

What work can you let slide in the name of making time?  Instead of thinking of it as letting something slide, can you think of it as producing something precious -- the time you need?  

What work could you do more efficiently or delegate to a partner or child?

What unproductive time-suckers can you give up completely? We all need some. But maybe you could make time by reducing them?

What could you work on being less perfectionist about? Good tasks are done tasks! (And a good dissertation is a done dissertation.)

More on all this in a later post.  Happy tomato-timing and time-making!


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