Sunday, 20 February 2011

Sunday Surgery: But at my back, I always hear…

… Time's winged chariot hurrying near.*

Following up Thursday's post about saving time, I wanted to share the following time management technique, brought to my attention by the sickeningly talented PJ Holden (follow him on Twitter: @pauljholden).

I know every third person thinks they have some magic solution to time management, but I've only been working like this for a few days, and have found my productivity noticeably increased, so I thought it was worth a blog post.

I've started using the Pomodoro technique which, put simply, involves working out your tasks for the day, ordering them and working through them. You work absolutely flat out, with no interruptions and no distractions for 25 minutes, and then you take a 5 minute break before resuming. Each of these is called a pomodoro and, every time you complete four of them, you take a longer break.

You don't need anything more sophisticated than a kitchen timer for this, but you'll be unsurprised to hear that there's an app for that, and a variety of Android apps, too. There are actually several iPhone apps, too, but I'm using the free LE version of the app linked above and it seems more than sufficient.

To be honest, I don't have a problem with my work ethic, which is pretty strong. My problem is with my ability to become distracted, and for those distractions to quickly start eating into what should be working time…

Up - TM & © Disney/Pixar
So, whilst the enforced 25 minute working period introduces a useful sense of purpose and urgency, it's the five minute breaks that really work for me, bringing my time-wasting activities into very sharp focus!

(In fact, there's been an unexpected peripheral benefit, in so far as five minutes is almost exactly enough time for me to boil a kettle, make a cup of tea, and get back to my desk. This has largely eliminated my habit of snacking and forced me to schedule a proper lunch break into my day.)

Obviously, you still require a certain amount of willpower, without which the exercise is ultimately futile. It's still an effort of will, for example, dealing with e-mails. When one announces its arrival, I permit myself to quickly switch to my mail application and check the sender and subject line. If it's not work-related, it can wait for a break. 

If the e-mail is work-related, I permit myself to read it but unless the message is saying: "OMG! My regular letterer on Captain Stupendo just fell into cement mixer! Can you letter all 24 pages of #47 by this time tomorrow?" Then, frankly, it can wait!

An additional benefit, for me at least, has been a more acute appreciation of how my regular working tasks break up into these 25 minute chunks; just a better understanding of how long things take which, as a freelancer, is pretty important when making a judgement on how much to charge for a job!

So… all in all, a deceptively simple time management technique that I've found to be of surprising value. Give it a try -- it might be of benefit.



* From Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"


  1. This sounds like a very good time management technique. Thank you for the informative post!

  2. Well, that saves me blogging about it :) (Which I've been meaning too, but found I couldn't justify spending the hour it'd take me to write a short piece compared to spending the same time to do 2 pomodoros and bang out a quarter of a page)

    The full version of the Pomodoro app (I think it's the full version of the lite one your using) doesn't offer much better, it allows you to keep a (basic) task list, and counts the number of pomodoros you do against each one - and will also track how much time you've spent doing the pomodoros in the week - right now, I'm averaging a solid 3-5 hours per day, and banging out a page a day because of it.

    It's been startlingly effective in a very short space of time for me, I wait to see when I, inevitably, slack off from doing it - but at least I know it's simple (unlike a whole bunch of other task management things I've tried) and always works.


  3. This seems worth a try. I get very easily distracted, so this could be very good for me. Cheers.

  4. Day 3 of using it and it's frighteningly effective - I find myself hurrying in the five minute break to the kettle!

  5. Ha! Yeah, I find myself doing the exact same thing, Conor. I find myself pushing to complete whatever part of the task I'm doing in the last five minutes of each work period as well -- for something so simple, I'm very impressed. PJ says he's been two pages a day recently!

  6. As an aside, I hate when I have to take over a project for a now rock-solid letterer, stuck in cement.

  7. Erm.... No more blogging?

  8. Just a quick follow-up to say that I'm still using this three months later and the impact on my productivity has been quite substantial. I can't say for certain, because I've made a couple of other changes to my working practices, but my top working speed is now up by nearly 50% on a good day. Seriously, folks -- there's no magic solution here, but the simply technique of not pissing about yields remarkable results.