A Tomato Saved My Life Tonight: A Time Management Technique for the Chronically Unfocused

May 14, 2017

If you were born before 1970, there's a fair chance an Elton John song is playing in your head right about now. I sincerely apologise. And also, just to clarify before getting to the point of this post, obviously a tomato did not actually save my life. As far as I know, my life has never been under threat and, even if it had, I suspect CPR, a life raft or the Heimlich manoeuvre would have been infinitely more helpful. No, a tomato saved my life in the metaphorical sense only.*  I refer, of course, to that well-known time management tool, the Pomodoro technique, scourge of the procrastinator and mortal enemy of the easily distracted (not that I know anyone like that). 


Let's face it, focusing can be ... SQUIRREL ... difficult, even if we like what we're doing. Maybe your brain likes to interrupt you with a thousand pressing questions that HAVE to be answered straight away. Important things, like, you know, just how tall is David Schwimmer, what country used to be known as the Belgian Congo and is that Donald Trump's ACTUAL hair (I've heard). And then there's the lure of email, Facebook and assorted other dopamine dispensing distractions. Or you can be working on one thing, then all of sudden remember something else important that needs to be done. It can be so tempting to immediately switch, and work back and forth between two or even three things. But all that happens is you get to the end of the day feeling exhausted. The evidence is clear that multi-tasking just does not work; focusing on one thing at a time is much more efficient.


That's where the Pomodoro Technique can help; assisting with productivity, focus and vegetable intake (actually, that last one is a lie). At it's most basic, the technique involves using a timer (the creator of the Pomodoro technique, Francesco Cirillo, an Italian fellow, used a tomato - or 'pomodoro' - shaped timer, hence the name) to time 25 minute periods of intense activity, interspersed with short breaks. You pick your task, set the timer and work on that and only that task, until the timer rings. At that point, you have a short 5 minute break then start again, making sure to have a longer break after every 3 or 4 'pomodoros'. 


It's pretty easy to start experimenting with the Pomodoro technique. Behold the extensive equipment list! You will need:


1. A timer

You can use anything you like to time 25 minutes; even, wait for it, an actual tomato shaped kitchen timer. The downside of the tomato timer is that it is loud (and can, frankly, scare the crap out of you if you're fully focused) although there is something powerful about the physical sensation of winding the timer as a signal to get to work. There are plenty of great apps available though, in case you're working somewhere like a library, a cafe or a cemetery, where a loud mechanical ring won't be appreciated.


2. Two lists 

One list is the Activity Inventory, where you list EVERYTHING that needs to be done at some point; e.g., dentist appointment, redo course outline, reverse decline of the middle-class, etc, etc. The other is the Daily To-Do list which you start fresh every day and which lists what you are going to realistically aim to get done in your daily work period.


Remember that a 'pomodoro' is usually 25 minutes and the activity that’s on your list should be broken down into steps that can be counted in 25 minute increments. 'Reversing the decline of the middle-class', for example is going to take a bit more than one 'pomodoro'. So you would need to break it down into activities – google-search 'middle-class', order books on Amazon that explain how to incite revolution, email world leaders, etc, etc. And then pick one of those activities for each 'pomodoro'. 


Even though a 'pomodoro' only lasts 25 minutes you will still get distracted by both internal and external forces. So you will also need an interruption strategy. The first strategy is to keep a notebook nearby. If a thought pops up, get it out of your head, write it down on the notebook and decide when you're going to deal with it AT THE END OF THE 'POMODORO'. Information about the Belgian Congo will still be there in 25 minutes, trust me. External distractions, such as email, phone, Facebook notifications are easy – turn them off, close them down, make them quiet; it's easy to do that if you tell yourself it's only for 25 minutes.  Some distractions won't be so easily dealt with, of course.  If something REALLY can't wait, accept the end of the 'pomodoro' and then start again once the distraction has been dealt with. 


The Pomodoro Technique is simple, effective and can help you get more done, as well as helping to train the brain in the art of concentration. It cannot arrest the decline of the middle class, of course, but no-one's perfect. 


*This did make me wonder whether tomatoes could, in fact, save lives. After googling 'Has a tomato ever saved someone's life?", it's apparent that a tomato is more likely to kill you than prevent death. Takeaway point from this extensive research: always chew cherry tomatoes thoroughly before swallowing. 

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