As a freelancer, you set your own work hours, subject only to client deadlines. Hopefully, most of your projects are fun and interesting and you can’t wait to get to work on them. After all, freelance writing and editing are the perfect jobs for the chronically intellectually curious because we’re always learning something new.
Inevitably, however, some projects are either tedious or anxiety producing. Both conditions can result in procrastination or a slow, distracted work style. For many people, this is abetted by social media and the Internet in general. Get started on the not-so-fun project or check out all the witty things your friends have posted on Facebook? Pick up the project again or check the sports scores, or the weather, or the latest political news, or . . . ? There are so many things to check on the Internet!
The Pomodoro Technique has gotten quite a bit of attention lately as an effective life hack, and for good reason: it works. I first heard about it from a fellow test prep teacher who taught it to her students as a study strategy. I’ll admit I thought it was gimmicky. However, her students reported that it was the best thing ever. So I started telling my students about it: “Here’s this study strategy. Try it once and if you don’t like it, just don’t do it again. But try it once.” My students’ feedback was glowing: “This is awesome! It makes such a difference!”
People have come up with a lot of variations on the technique, but here’s the gist of it. You can vary it to meet your needs.
- Decide on a task you want to work on.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes. This can be a kitchen timer or the timer on your smartphone or an app.
- Work until the bell rings.
- Take a 5-minute break. Do something else. Reboot your brain. Load the dishwasher. Answer email. Check out all the witty things your friends have said on Facebook.
- When the bell rings to end your break, set the timer for 25 minutes and repeat.
After three or four 25-minute work “chunks,” take a half-hour break to really shake out your brain.
The Pomodoro Technique works for a few reasons. One has to do with how long the human brain can maintain focus on a task. We run into limits governed by our brain’s quest for novelty. After all, show a baby a red toy, and the baby is delighted . . . for a few minutes. Then show the baby a blue toy, and the baby is excited again. We grow up, but this never really changes.
Another reason the technique works is that no matter how unmotivated you are to work on a project, you can get yourself to do it for 25 minutes. Just 25 minutes. Then you can do something else. As we’ve all experienced, once we start on something we think will be unpleasant, it’s almost never as bad as we thought it would be and might even be pretty engaging. If it is in fact awful, well, you’re only going to do it for 25 minutes and then you get a break.
I’ve found that when the clock is ticking, I start feeling a little competitive. I get motivated to complete as much as possible before that bell rings! The race to finish is exciting even if the underlying task is not. Plus, the sense of accomplishment after putting in several “chunks” of time feels great. I look at the work I’ve gotten done and feel proud of it, and a task that seemed overwhelming for whatever reason now seems eminently doable.
What it boils down to is the old adage “Eat an elephant one bite at a time.” Eating a whole elephant is just easier if we set a timer and take breaks between chewing.
(Pomodoro Technique® is a registered trademark of Francesco Cirillo. This blog post is not affiliated with, associated with, or endorsed by the Pomodoro Technique® or Francesco Cirillo.)