Here at LDV we cover various business communication technologies from unified communications, to team chat, to video. In all cases, the end goal of improved communications is usually to improve team productivity. The better your teams communicate, the faster they can move team projects towards completion. With this in mind, we like to research and learn about related team productivity methodologies, such as Agile and Kanban. However, every team meeting must come to an end, at which time individuals will head to their workstations to perform their individual tasks. If you really want your team to be productive, you need to address productivity for the individual as well as the team.
One very popular, and very effective, productivity technique is the Pomodoro Technique. As with many productivity strategies, its beauty lies in its simplicity. The basis of pomodoro is to use a simple kitchen timer to motivate yourself to knock out a quick burst of work. The inventor of the technique used a tomato shaped kitchen timer. As pomodoro means tomato in Italian, the name was adopted for this technique.
According to Wikipedia, there are six steps to the Pomodoro Technique.
1. Decide on the task to be done.
2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes).
3. Work on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down, but immediately get back on task.
4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
5. If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go to step 1.
6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes), reset your checkmark count to zero, then go to step 1.
There are a few things I love about pomodoro. First of all, it addresses the hardest part of productivity; getting started. There are countless project management tools and techniques, but most of them simply help with tracking and organizing your tasks, not with getting started on them. For example, I use David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) method to track and prioritize my tasks. It helps me to stay at inbox zero, eliminating the stressful feeling of having unattended tasks getting lost in my workflow. Successful use of GTD helps me to understand what I should be working on next, but does not help me to dig in and get started on that next task. That is where pomodoro comes in.
Whether you call it procrastination, laziness, analysis paralysis, or simply being overwhelmed; sometimes it feels impossible to get started on a task. Particularly a large task that will require several hours of focused work. I call it the “painting the room” anxiety. I’ve always found painting to be stressful, because once you dip that first brush, you are committed for a few hours. You can’t walk away and finish it later. The paint will dry in the open can and the brushes will get ruined. You must finish the entire thing you wanted to paint, clean all the brushes and put everything away. If halfway through the project you remember you had something more important to do, you are stuck. As a result, we find ourselves stuck endlessly prepping the room, but afraid to pop open the can of paint. We almost feel like we need to have everything else in our to-do list taken care of so we are clear to start painting.
This isn’t logical behavior. The truth is that it’s fine to start painting now. Anything that pops up mid project, can probably wait until the painting is done. Similarly, the thoughts and feelings preventing us from getting started with work projects are not always logical. We tend to think along the lines of “I only have an hour available, and this project will take several hours, so it doesn’t make sense to get started now”. This is nonsense. An hour of work on the project would bring us an hour closer to our goal.
This is where pomodoro comes into play. A 25 minute working session is not intimidating. It doesn’t trigger those self-destructive, procrastinating thoughts. For example, if you have 4 hours of spreadsheet work on a project, its very easy to say “Well, I don’t have 4 hours today so I will put it off until tomorrow.” Unfortunately, this same thought can repeat itself tomorrow. However, it is hard to argue with the idea of just knocking out a quick 25 minutes of work on it just to get things moving. I may not always be able to force myself to sit down for a 4 hour working session, but I can handle 25 minutes of anything. The resulting thought process is something along the lines of “Well, this project is too big to get done today, but I can do one or two pomodoros on it.
I really like the fact that the 25 minutes are fully dedicated and distraction free. In fact, if you think of something important in mid-pomodoro, you are supposed to just write it down and deal with it later. So when you sit down for a pomodoro, you are guaranteed to get the full 25 minutes of productivity on the project at hand. I also like the fact that it includes mandatory breaks. If your 25 minute pomodoro sessions start turning into super long sessions, the technique would fall apart and the procrastination would return. By actually using the timer, and forcing a 5 minute break after 25 minutes of working, you keep the sessions short and stress-free.
While there is no shortage of pomodoro apps, I have been using the very simple TomatoTimer. More advanced apps offer features like white noise to help eliminate distractions during pomodoro sessions, but for me a simple timer is all I need.
Although this is a technique for individual productivity, it should still encouraged by team leaders. After all, most team projects break down into individual tasks. If you can help your team stay motivated to push through their individual tasks, the team project will move faster as a result. Some team leaders even buy physical tomato timers for each member of their team. I think this could be taken to the next level with gamification. A smart leader could have each team member track their pomodoro sessions, and reward the worker with the most completed pomodoros at the end of the month.
Do you use pomodoro, or a similar technique, to get yourself and your team jumpstarted on intimidating tasks? If so, please share your story in the comments below!