How a tomato helps me get stuff done

Every writer and self-employed person understands the challenge of focus. How to get things done – to be productive – and avoid the myriad distractions which ceaselessly badger us for our attention. Last year I discovered a simple technique which has made a huge difference to the way I manage my time. It's so effective that I've actually stuck with it for a few months now. That makes it worth sharing.

Managing time is a challenge for everyone. If you're in an office, the biggest challenge is probably interruptions: the phone, the head over the partition, the urgent meeting. For the sole operator, the person locked away in an office on their own, the interruptions are still there, but most of them come from within. They are sudden thoughts of things that need to be done, ideas, a long lost buddy coming to mind, an interesting tweet floating past on your stream, an urge for coffee, the mailman coming past ... you get the idea.

{C}For a long time now I've been an advocate of David Allen's 'Getting Things Done' (aka GTD) approach to managing time. It's a holistic approach – almost a whole-of-life approach – to sorting through all the stuff you want to do and making sure the more important stuff finds its way to the top, eventually.

GTD is great, as are numerous other time management methods, for sorting and prioritising. But I've always found it still left me suffering from drifting focus.

Enter the 'Pomodoro Technique'. I can't remember how I discovered this gem of an idea but I'm glad I did. At its heart is a very simple premise: that we work best in 25 minute chunks. The approach is to break your day into 25 minute chunks called 'pomodoros' – pomodoro is Italian for tomato – and then to work each chunk uninterrupted and focused on a single task. You work one focused, 25 minute pomodoro then have five minutes off. Then another pomodoro, etc. After four pomodoros you have a 15 minute break. Along the way, you postpone interruptions or, if they can't be postponed, you cut off the pomodoro midstream and restart a new one as soon as you can.

This may not be making sense. It's almost too simple. But I would highly recommend you have a look at the short book by Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the idea, which explains things properly.  You can download the book for free, and also a one-page downloadable cheat sheet. Francesco explains his thinking and suggests a few rules for getting the most out of the idea.

The magic of the 'Pomodoro Technique' seems to be the choice of a 25 minute period. It seems just long enough to accomplish something but not so long that avoiding interruptions is impossible. Further, by breaking large tasks down into these half-hour pieces they are made much more manageable. And the technique works really well for those of us prone to over-planning the day, thinking somehow that we're going to get 12 hours work done in an eight hour period. (It also works, I've found, with kids and their homework: 25 minutes work and then check your Facebook.)

But I've gone on long enough. Take 25 minutes now – no more – and check it out for yourself.

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