If you're like me, you've been struggling with motivation, productivity and procrastination your whole life. There's no easy cure for these problems and I don't have one either. Though, what I came across recently, gave me so much hope, that I had to spread the word and share my experience after only one week of applying it into my work life.
This story deals with what is known as the Pomodoro Technique, a simple time boxing technique with planning, tracking and recording features, very easy to put in practice even for people like me, who have almost lost the hope of ever beating the habit of procrastination.
To give you a quick peek into what I'd been fighting for the most of my working life, my last end of the year one-on-one review with my boss and the owner of the company in one person didn't quite work out to my expectations. Not that my expectation were big or anything, like every year, but this time, the review went something along these lines: "You're a good programmer, but a bit lazy. What you get done is always of a good quality, but you never do what you are not specifically asked to do. You only do what you really have to do and your value for this company has not increased as it should have."
And that, I believe, is a problem of many of us. We, the programmers, the geeks, generally consider ourselves above the average when it comes to intelligence, the problem solving skills and logical challenges. On the other hand, most of us are deep below the average when motivation comes into play. We think we are the lucky ones who got to do only what we enjoy doing and even get paid well for it.
But what if you're asked to do something you don't particularly like doing? Loss of motivation, procrastination, and the productivity drops.
It is a pure coincidence that I stumbled upon the Pomodoro Technique during the Christmas and the New Year break, but the symbolics of the new beginning comes in handy and even drives me further as I can retrospectively declare my new year's resolution in increasing my productivity. And, so far, I've been keeping it.
The start of the new year at work was unlike anything my daily routine used to look like before. From day one I have put the Pomodoro Technique into action and straight away I started to realize how much it has changed. Within the first week back at work I managed to finish two projects which were long time overdue, and I took the ownership of my other project. Most importantly, after a very long time I received a thumbs-up from my boss. Twice! And with all of that, the almighty cycle of motivation and productivity started spinning.
Probably the best thing about the Pomorodo Technique is how easy it is to start with. What you need, really, is just a timer, a pencil and three sheets of paper. The technique does not interfere with whatever working habits you may have. You can still listen to the music, drink coffee, work the hours of day you like, either at the office or at home.
There is one big change in your habits, actually. You must work! You must focus on the single current task and nothing else at all, for the entire designated time period. And you must fight any interruptions.
The first of the three sheets of paper you're going to be using is the Activity Inventory. It is basically a list of all tasks that you need to attend today or in future. Not only it serves as a resource when you're planning your day, it is also a very important tool in diverting any interruptions.
A single Activity Inventory sheet may be used over a period of time, and is usually only updated a few times during the day, either to add new tasks, along with the deadline and the estimated effort, or to strike-through the tasks you are done with.
You can add new records to the Activity Inventory at any time, even when working on a task. That is actually encouraged as it helps you to focus on the current activity and allows you to forget about the interrupting task by writing it down to deal with later.
When done with a task on the Activity Inventory sheet, you simply strike it through. Over the time, the sheet can become a mess, at which point you just take a blank one and copy over the tasks not yet finished, thus getting the old and struck-through records out of the way when planning for the next day.
The To Do Today sheet is the one you only use for one day at a time. You create it in the morning by copying the Activity Inventory tasks that need to be attended today, ordered by priority, along with their effort estimates. Then, during the day, as you work on the tasks, one small time slice after another, you keep updating the To Do Today sheet.
Every time you complete a time slice assigned for the current task, you record in the To Do Today sheet with an X. That records the time slice complete and you have a break. The general rule is three short breaks and one long, no more than 5 and 30 minutes respectively. I personally set my timer to 3 and 25 minutes to make sure I don't run over the limit.
In the To Do Today sheet, you also record any interruptions that may occur during that period of time. Now there are two types of interruptions to keep track of. There's the internal interruption, coming from you, e.g. when a new task comes across your mind and you have to add it either to the Activity Inventory, or, if it's urgent, to the To Do Today sheet. You record the internal interruptions with an apostrophe.
The other type is the external interruption, which is most often a colleague popping in for a chat, or a phone ringing. These are a bit more difficult to deal with since they involve communicating the interruption and negotiating the better time for the interrupting activity to take place. The external interruptions are recorded in the To Do Today sheet with a dash.
Pomodoro is a unit of time in the Pomodoro Technique. Usually it is 25 minutes, but it can also be anything you decide it to be, as long as you keep it the same for the whole day. Pomodoro is the period of time for the entirety of which you are supposed to be focusing on the current task, and nothing else whatsoever.
No more there is a humongous task to be done with by the end of next week. Instead, there is only a tiny bit of it which you are going to smash today, but not even that matters, since you only need to focus for the following 25 minutes and then you have a break.
It is a rule of the Pomodoro Technique that Pomodoro is atomic and cannot be divided into smaller units. You either focus on your task for the whole entirety of a Pomodoro, or you don't record your Pomodoro at all. While harsh, this rule is an effective way to motivate yourself to focus on the task for its whole duration and to protect your Pomodoro from any interruptions.
Sometimes, though, it is impossible to either avoid the interruption altogether, or to keep it short and get back to work again. Such an interruption results in voiding the Pomodoro. When voiding a Pomodoro you stop working, you record the interruption without recording the Pomodoro with an X, have a break and then start a new Pomodoro. Voiding a Pomodoro is usually a bad thing, of course, but it's nothing to cry about. Try to think positively about it, once it happens. You don't lose the work done before the interruption and it even gives you an extra break and extra time to spend on your task. It also motivates you to protect your Pomodoro even more. While the Pomodoro Technique does not record the voided Pomodoros, I usually record them with a +, the combination of an apostrophe and a dash.
The time boxing feature of the technique, around which all the others revolve, is the ultimate productivity booster. If you're used to work on task until it is finished, pushing hard to overcome all the problems you come across along the way, yet still manage to be reading news and writing emails at the same time, the Pomodoro is a life changing concept. One task, one time box, no interruptions, just pure focus.
Keeping track of the tasks completed, your past estimations and the actual effort is another important feature of the Pomodoro Technique. The Record sheet, like the Activity Inventory is to be used until you fill it up. Then you take another and continue recording your achievements.
The Record sheet is usually used only at the end of the day, to copy the finished tasks from the To Do Today sheet. All the tasks you actually worked on today, you move to the Record sheet, along with the number of Pomodoros actually spent working on it, the original estimation and the difference.
This way, apart from a fulfilling ritual at the end of the day, the Pomodoro Technique gives you space to reflect on your past achievements and estimations, and also to improve.
Unlike the Activity Inventory, which you discard once it's full of struck-through items and only copy the unfinished tasks to the new one, the Record sheet is to be kept and archived. You can, and you should, use it to visualize your efforts on individual projects, or to overview improvements in your estimation making.
This blog post is the first out of three I've written about my first steps with the Pomodoro Technique. It attempts to summarize my knowledge of the fundamental building stones of the technique. The second one has a bit more practical side to it, as it is a walk through my average day at work, applying the Pomodoro Technique, and even contains a section about how I wrote this very series of articles. Slightly recursive, I know.
To learn more, consider getting The Pomodoro Technique book, which is by far the most complete source of information about the technique.