Break through procrastination – with tomatoes

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Are you having problems getting your butt onto your desk chair?

Or, do you sit down but find that once you have checked email, your RSS feeds and a few essential websites it’s time to have lunch/feed the baby/mop the floors?

Procrastination is evil. It can be a vicious cycle that debilitates us all, sometime for months or even years on end. It leaves us humiliated and fearful that we will never, ever hit that PhD finish line.

There a loads of articles and how-to’s about GTD or GSD and many of these are excellent, but one technique in particular can be useful if you are having serious progress issues and/or feel overwhelmed at the thought of sitting down to work on your dissertation – the pomodoro technique.

The pomodoro technique is spectactularly simple and effective. It can be implemented immediately and can be used for a variety of tasks, but is especially useful for writers.

How it works

The pomodoro technique was created by Fransesco Cirillo during the 1980’s as a time management tool and it couldn’t be simpler. The idea is that no matter how anxious you are feeling about your work, you can manage 1 small slice of time – a tomato (pomodoro is Italian for tomato). Usually, a tomato is 25 minutes and at the end of a tomato, you give yourself a 5 minute rest. Breaking your time up in this way helps alleviate the stress and ambiguity of having to “work on the dissertation today” or “do some writing today” which sound like large, overwhelming tasks. Instead, you can tell yourself “I am going to do 2 tomatoes today” – much simpler right? Obviously you are going to need to do more than 2 tomatoes a day to get through the dissertation but, if you are currently not doing anything at all then, 2 tomatoes is a massive improvement! Facing just 1 or 2 tomatoes is much less threatening and your mind is less likely to panic and resist. If you are particularly anxious, commit to just one tomato  – you can face 25 minutes right?

Tricking yourself

Most people find that once they have done 1 tomato they are usually up for a couple more and this is great, it is a way to ‘trick’ your mind into working by not overwhelming it before you start. If you commit to 1 tomato and do 2 or 3 that is great – but, don’t overdo it and be sure to use the 5 minute breaks or you will find the technique less effective. When you are comfortable with 2 or 3 tomatoes and are working comfortably, parking on an uphill slope (stopping work when you are still motivated and leaving a note for yourself to help get started next session), you can increase your tomatoes. I know many people who work through 50-60 tomatoes a week regularly and most of those started at just 1 tomato a day.

What if I can’t face 25 minutes?

Sometimes we have gotten so far behind or are so overwhelmed by the task/s we need to complete that even 35 minutes is too much. That is fine, just adjust your tomato – it’s not a real time measurement, it can be anything you like – 1 minute, 2 minutes – I KNOW you can face 1 minute. Start small, it all helps to break free of the cycle of days/weeks/months of doing nothing.

A record keeping device

The pomodoro technique and tomatoes are an excellent way to keep a daily record of your research and writing time. You can create a digital chart on your computer, print one for your wall or use specific tools made to measure time slices:

1:  – the main site for all things pomodoro, products, free books and info – there is a wealth of information here if you want to learn more.

2: – a free online timer to help you keep track of your tomatoes

2 : VitaminR – Mac software that allows you to measure your time slices (it even generates reports for you based upon how much you do or your most productive times), has an inbuilt white/pink/brown noise generator to help with concentration and it even has a built in ‘jot pad’ for those times when you have a brilliant but non-relevant idea in the middle of a slice and need to jot it down somewhere. A favourite part of this software for me is that it blocks out access to computer programs that you find distracting during your slice so explorer or email for example are rendered invisible so that you aren’t tempted. You can set your tomatoes and breaks for any amount of time that you like (I usually work in stretches of 50 with a ten minute break) and VitaminR will tell you when your slice is up, allow you to input what you achieved if you want to and also remind you when your times break is up – pretty cool! VitaminR is paying software ($19,95) but it does have a free trial (Note: I have no affiliation, this is just a great program).

Do you use the pomodoro technique already? Do you have a similar system that works? Share the wealth and lets others know what helped you break the procrastination trap.


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