I did my first pomodoro today. So far, I’ve managed three in a row. Just me and 25 minutes on the timer. What’s a pomodoro? It’s 25 minutes of total focus on one thing. In my case, writing this blog post. More about that later.
When it came to a month writing about getting unstuck, I needed to look only as far as this blog project to see Procrastination, Self-doubt, and lack of Discipline in action.
Once the excitement of my shiny new idea wore off (and after I invited all of you to follow along), I fell into a familiar pattern. Going round and round instead of moving forward. I quickly got stuck in this place of reading, researching, brainstorming, note taking, and list making.
What was wrong with me? Sure, a huge reason for inaction is fear, but underneath that, what was the breakdown? 20% low motivation, 70% poor discipline (i.e. bad habits), or 10% lack of focus?
At the same time, I happened to start reading Life Reimagined, The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. I am deeply grateful for this book, by the way, and I hope to write more about it later.
I always assumed lack of discipline was my biggie, but then I started to wonder if maybe focus was an issue. According to Chapter 3, it’s not completely my fault.
Why your lack of focus may not be entirely your fault
Older brains process information more slowly than younger brains. You’re carrying more cognitive load now than you did at 20. Think of all the experiences, lessons learned, knowledge, and training you’ve amassed in the last 30 years. That’s a lot of balls to juggle.
Maybe that’s common sense, but there’s research to back it up. Bradley relates an experiment by scientist Dr. Cheryl Grady at the University of Toronto who tries to get to the bottom of inattention in her lab. Why does middle age brain find it harder to stay focussed?
Knock, knock cranium…what’s going on in there?
Basically it’s a turf war between the frontal lobe, champion of mental focus, and the default network, heartland of mind-wandering and pondering the big picture.
In Grady’s study, she demonstrated on a brain scanner that young people can switch quickly and decidedly between the frontal lobe and default network; when the frontal lobe is on, the default network is off, and vice versa. In elderly people, the default network never shuts off fully; it’s in always-on mode. And folks in the middle? Yes, you guessed it. We are halfway between, “not overwhelmed with self reflection but not as focused either.” says Hagerty.
And apparently we’re easily distracted too. In middle age, your attention span is wide, like a fan, because you’re looking at the big picture more of the time, rather than the details.
Okay, I’m open to a fight night default network versus frontal lobe smackdown, but what can you do in the meantime?
You could minimize the number of things you have to worry about. In other words, take a few balls out of the air. On a big scale this could mean life overhaul and simplification. On a small scale, you could focus your complete attention on one thing at a time.
That’s where the Pomodoro Technique comes in.
One pomodoro, two pomodoro
The Pomodoro Technique, invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 80s, helps you beat the wandering brain by giving yourself 25-minute chunks to focus on one task. Once your 25 minutes are up, you can take five and give yourself a big ole happy check mark. Repeat until you have four check marks then give yourself a half hour, or longer, break.
I’ve more or less tried this technique in smaller 10-minute chunks to help me get started on something. In my experience, once I had some momentum I was fine. But starting AND finishing a small task in 25 minutes is a new twist.
The Pomodoro Basics
On the website, the Pomodoro Technique promises to be easy for anyone to use, produce results immediately, and fun.
Heck, I’m in!
Here are the basics:
- Choose a task to complete.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes. I used my iPhone timer but purists use the pomodoro tomato kitchen timer. I didn’t think I could stand the sound of a timer ticking away but apparently the timer is essential to the whole process, so I guess try it both ways. And yes, there are loads of pomodoro apps available, I checked.
- Work on the task until the timer goes off. If a distraction comes up, write it down, then get back to work on your pomodoro task. The idea is that most of your interruptions can wait. And 25 minutes isn’t that long to put something off.
- When the timer goes, stop. No, really. You have to stop doing whatever it is, even if you’re on a roll. I found this really hard. Then, give yourself a checkmark on a sheet of paper.
- Take a short break and do something not related to your task.
- Repeat 1 to 5 again and after 4 more pomodoros take a longer break.
The benefits of this technique are:
- You’ll start to learn how long stuff actually takes to finish. For example, I have some ballpark figures in my head for writing a blog post, but how much of that time was actually spent unloading the dishwasher, making tea, staring into space, or checking email.
- Manage your interruptions better. I know better than to think I can put my family on pause, but I think I have a better appreciation for what my time is worth.
- Plan your day better. If you had to break everything down into 25-minute chunks what can you accomplish?
What actually happened
One of the keys to Pomodoro Technique is to manage distractions. For example, as I’m writing this, Peter (husband) is about to run off to the dentist so he’s firing questions at me. I’m answering with grunts and nods. At the same time #son2 is texting about haircut after school and the logistics of getting there.
In my first pomodoro, I gave everyone the brushoff and doubled-down. Just me and my laptop.
I staved off the texts and questions, and then couldn’t help but look to see how much time I had left (probably not supposed to do that). To my amazement, I had 12 minutes to go. Incredible! I felt I’d won the time lottery.
…One pomodoro to write the basics of a post.
…One to fill in the blanks with a little more research
…One pomodoro to edit. Okay, maybe two (three?). Editing takes me a while.
…Another one to find an image, and queue up to post.
If focus is your downfall, if daydreaming comes more easily than it used to, try a pomodoro or two. And tell your default network and frontal lobe to play nice–everyone gets a turn.
Do you use the Pomodoro Technique to get things done? Or some other strategy? Share your secret to finding focus below.