Pushing the pencil around?

by Christine Unterthiner

Today I received an email from my friend Baila Lazarus – extraordinary writer, editor and media coach – that was full of juicy topics. One of them prompted me to write today's post about productivity and the method that's worked for me.

I can only write from what I know, and I think often the best way to illustrate something is through a story. My story starts a few years ago when brilliant pianist and composer Craig Addy shared his discovery of the Pomodoro Technique with me. We decided to try it together and the results were remarkable.

Very basic overview of the Technique.

While in university, Francesco Cirillo wondered why he wasn't getting the most out of his studies - why was he more productive at certain times than others? Using his trusty Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) kitchen timer, he set to work finding an answer.

The result is the Pomodoro Technique®: work on one task at a time for 25 minutes with a 5 minute break in between. The break gives you time to do something else: walk around, get some water, dance, breathe, etc. It's important to do something that's not related to your task. After four of these, take a longer break. Repeat.

Putting it into practice

Sounds easy right?

It seemed so at first. Craig and I just did the simple version I mentioned above and it kind of worked; we got more done, we were more focused and, we enjoyed "virtually" working together. However, we also knew there was more to the program and agreed to read a section of the instruction manual each time we got together, implementing what we learned during our session that day.

That's when it became more difficult for me. Not because the method is hard to learn or understand, but because I had to deal with my patterns of behaviour. You see, one of the things we're asked to do is list any interruptions that happen during the Pomodoro (pom). If we act on the interruption, say for example taking a phone call, we are to start the 25-minute period over again.

The first thing I noticed was how easy it was for my thoughts to entice me into doing anything other than my current task – and they got louder and more insistent the more I tried to resist.

One morning I was preparing a branding workshop. Most of the presentation was done and my plan was to spend one pom working on the conclusion, and another one reviewing and editing. I was about five minutes in when I suddenly saw it! I literally blurted out, "Christine! Stop it! Look at what you're doing!".

And then I laughed. I was stuck in a loop of reviewing, re-reading, checking my notes, looking things up, and thinking about what the next sentence should be. All of that was coming from my own pressure to finish and wanting things to be perfect. It was also an unconscious method of procrastination; it kept my mind occupied so I felt like I was doing something. Very unproductive. I like to call this, "Pushing the pencil around". The Pomodorians call it an internal interruption.

Once I saw it, I easily moved past it. I told myself, "Just write what you need to say because you've got the second pom to edit anyway." And, that's exactly what I did. I finished the presentation with plenty of time to get the editing done and print handouts for the attendees.

External interruptions

I found the external interruptions easier to manage. Things like phone calls, email, people dropping by, posting or reading social media, etc. Having a plan in place to handle each of these made a difference for me.

One of my favourites is scheduling a specific time in my calendar for phone calls - whether I'm generating an outgoing call or returning a call that's come in during one of my poms. Until I did this, I would answer every single call that came in, no matter what I was doing. It may seem counter intuitive for those of us who pride ourselves in customer service not to answer the phone. However, I find, when I follow this method, I actually give the person I'm speaking to my full attention and focus because I'm not thinking about that task I just interrupted and need to get back to.

The other unexpected bonus: tracking how much time each task takes has helped me to quote on projects much more accurately now. I no longer get frustrated at thinking something will only take an hour when in reality it takes two.

There are many great programs out there to assist with productivity. I believe the key is finding the one that works and using it until it becomes a habit.

I would love to hear about the method that's worked for you.

Note: Here's a link to the article that prompted today's post: http://www.kevinkruse.com/15-secrets-successful-people-know-productivity/

I am not being sponsored by any of the people mentioned in this article.