Getting Shit Done: The Pomodoro Technique

Overwhelmed
If you asked me to pick one surprise side effect of Bipolar II disorder it would be a continual sense of feeling overwhelmed. When I’m depressed my brain is foggy and my muscles lethargic. It can seem overwhelming to cook, bathe, or pay my bills. In contrast, my hypomania manifests as anxiety, hyperactivity, and irritability. Noises can overwhelm my senses, I jump topics in conversation and speak rapidly, and I start a crap ton of projects and rarely complete them; I want to do everything NOW, which means I do none of it really well or spend my time bouncing around.

Of course the pervasiveness of being overwhelmed is not limited to those with mental illness. I think every parent I know is overwhelmed and from working at a university I can tell you that childless faculty and students alike are overwhelmed as well. It seems that in the course of focusing on one thing everything else falls apart and this holds true in my professional career and my home life.

I’m talking about true balance here. I simply cannot bounce from work to chores at home and then back to work. I need exercise, time with friends, and a solid chunk of solitude to be my best and healthiest self.

I came across the Pomodoro Technique when I was searching for ways to help me focus at work. I have days when it is easy to get my work done, but if I am hypomanic or depressed I find completing my work a challenge. When I don’t produce at the top of my game at work it leads to more stress and that simply feeds into my mental health issues. I also have a significant amount of trouble deciding what to do at home. I know, it is weird. My mommy guilt side says I should be 100% of the time doing things for the kids, cleaning, and working on household projects. My feminist introvert side really wants to sit down with a cup of coffee and say screw responsibility. The Pomodoro Technique has helped me find balance professionally and at home. My work tasks are getting ticked off my to-do list, my home is running a little more smoothly and I’ve found time for writing, reading, and exercise.

So what is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo and is named after the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used. Essentially you decide on a task, set the timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer rings. If you think of something or you have a distraction simply write it down quickly on a piece of scrap paper and get back to work. After the timer rings make a checkmark on your sheet of paper. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, then take a short break (5 minutes) and then start the process again. After you make the fourth checkmark take a longer break (15 to 25 minutes). Here is how it would work:
– 25 minutes of work
– 5 minute break
– 25 minutes of work
– 5 minute break
– 25 minutes of work
– 5 minutes break
– 25 minutes of work
– 15 to 25 minute break

– start over

Using the Pomodoro Technique at Work

The biggest tip I can give you for this to be successful is to get up from your desk during the breaks. When the timer dings don’t say, “oh yay, 5 minutes to check Facebook.” For one, you will end up down a rabbit hole and take longer. Secondly, you truly are not giving your brain and eyes a break. If you really need to do something on your break that requires a screen, then stand up and do it from your phone. The refreshing brain break is from a scenery change and movement.

The work part is pretty self-explanatory. Obviously I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique in meetings, that would be pretty awkward, but the rest of the time I am using the technique. I kept a little list of the types of things I do on my mini-breaks so you can get a general idea of how I’m still working (most of the time) when I have my “breaks.”

On mini-breaks I use the bathroom, refill my coffee, grab a snack, chat with coworkers, walk a loop through the library, shelve books, check on my work-study students, distribute mail and office items as needed, tidy my office, open packages at the work-room counter, adjust displays, shred paper, scan or photocopy, ask questions or schedule meetings, make personal phone calls (like scheduling doctor appointments), etc….

My bigger breaks consist of taking my lunch break or working on projects in a different area of library while I stand (displays and work-study related, mostly). When I return to my desk I find I am much more focused. At the end of the day I don’t have an issue with stiff legs, sore eyes, and headaches. And I get so much done!

Using the Pomodoro Technique at Home

Flip the script! I’ve been using this on Fridays when I’m home without the kids (after my morning of grocery shopping and errands). I use my Pomodoros for the things I want to do and the breaks for chores. Here’s a sample of how it works out:

1st Pomodoro (25 minutes) – brew coffee, respond to blog comments, outline/research a new post
1st break (5 minutes) – make up my bed and gather/sort dirty clothes in the bedrooms/bathrooms
2nd Pomodoro (25 minutes) – write up a blog post
2nd break (5 minutes) – start some laundry in the washing machine, spot check the bills for the week in my bullet journal, pay credit card bill with phone app
3rd Pomodoro (25 minutes) – finish/edit blog post, publish, handle social media posts, read blogs
3rd break (5 minutes) – put clothes in the dryer / wipe dining room table and sweep under it
4th Pomodoro (25 minutes) – read

4th break (25 minutes) – fold load of laundry, load up dirty dishes, wipe counters, sweep kitchen

Then it starts all over.

While I’m writing my blog posts or reading I don’t worry about forms for the kid’s school, bills, or dishes and when I’m working on stuff at work I don’t worry about social media or shopping for ModCloth dresses or that Margaret Atwood book in my bag.

I’m starting to integrate this technique on the weekends with the kids so that I’m not guilty of being completely slothful and I’m not buzzing around the house cleaning like a mad woman. I really am getting quite a bit done and it creates a nice division of work stuff vs. life stuff. It may feel a bit Pavlovian at times, but hey, IT WORKS.
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5 comments

  1. A couple years ago, Jason ran across this technique and introduced it to the boys. He would make a list of all the chores that needed to get done over the weekend, set the timer, and then they would choose one each and get going. Usually by the time they’d had one big break and a few more pomodoros, they were done for the weekend with all the chores. Jason still uses it at work (taking five minutes to write or read or in some way get away from whatever he’s programming), and Laurence found it very helpful during NaNoWriMo to remember to take breaks while he wrote. I haven’t used it directly, but if I’m doing a lot of sit-down work, I’ll often do something similar, walking around my living room for five minutes in every 30-min period of sit-work. I love the name of this system, too. The boys got a kick finding out it literally meant “tomato” too. 😀

  2. I love your idea of doing the Pomodoro technique in reverse at home. Chores can be a struggle for me, and when I’ve tried using Pomodoro the regular way at home, it’s basically backfired. I’ll have to try this way instead.

  3. I, too, am in love with the Pomodoro flip for home/chore balance — such a brilliant idea! My wife and I are the worst at keeping up with chores, and I think this might be the way we can get stuff done.

    I appreciate your blogging about this — I’m always awestruck and a little envious of bloggers who seem to get it all done easily! and seeing how folks really deal with their time is immensely helpful and reassuring.

  4. I like the idea of this technique. I’ve done something similar before but with different time frames. I like the shorter segments, they might be more appropriate for my attention span!

  5. I’m definitely going to have to give this a shot. In both chores and by-choice activities, I tend to sit for too long and also think of all of the other things I should be doing. Thanks for sharing!

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