I’ve been wanting to re-start this blog with more regular posts on helpful and constructive topics, but life was always intervening. That seems like an entire lifetime ago. One of the topics I wanted to cover was the benefit of using a timer to help get started on projects, to focus on ongoing work, and just generally to tune out the rest of the world and get things done.
And now . . . Well, golly. I think using a timer during the current pandemic might be more important than ever.
There are two main points here: 1) the basics of how a timed session works, and 2) why I need them especially badly right now.
You’ve probably already heard about using a timer to improve your focus and get things done. You might have also heard the term “Pomodoro Technique” floating around. Pomodoro is the Italian word for “tomato” and came to be synonymous with timed sessions because Francesco Cirillo, who popularized the practice, was using a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.
The basics are pretty simple. You get yourself a timer. You decide what you want to work on—whether that’s a novel in progress, cleaning the bathroom, catching up on email, or whatever else you might be having trouble getting started or maintaining focus on. You decide what length of time you’d like to devote to this task without interruption, then you set your timer and you get to it.
You can use the timer on your phone. You can use an hourglass. You can ask Siri or Alexa or the AI of your choice to run a timer for you. You can even get yourself a little kitchen timer, it you want. I do happen to have a tomato timer—I think we also have strawberry and pig timers in the house somewhere. More often, I’ll rely on my phone or have my browser run the countdown.
Its simplicity is both elegant and powerful. I continue to be amazed by how much work I can get done in 20 minutes—20 minutes seems to be my sweet spot, particularly for writing. (The “pomodoro standard” is 25 minutes.) I’ve also had success with 40 minutes, 30 minutes, and 10 minutes. And a quick session of just 5 minutes can be a great tool for warming up to something I’ve been putting off doing, or for getting started at the beginning of the day.
- Francesco Cirillo: The Pomodoro Technique, explainer with video
- Lifehacker: Productivity 101: An Introduction to The Pomodoro Technique
- book: The Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo
Timed sessions are almost a miracle, too, when you have long days of unstructured time stretching out before you. Like when you’ve been laid off from your day job due to the coronavirus crisis and your anxiety is spiking because you’re legitimately afraid of even opening your front door, but everything on social media is heaping on massive amounts of pressure to use this time to pick up a new hobby and produce ground-breaking art while also churning out vats of homemade pickles and crocheting dozens of afghans at the same time that you’re learning to play the banjo with your toes. That shit is paralyzing, and it’s the enemy. Don’t give in.
But you don’t have to surrender to inertia, either. Even a single timed session of 20 minutes provides a hard framework for productivity. No distractions. No excuses. No checking current infection and death rates. No tuning into the daily circus that masquerades as the White House press briefing. No posting to NextDoor about the asshole teenagers down the street who are refusing to practice physical distancing like this whole thing is some kind of joke. It’s just you and the thing you want to do, and it’s just for a few minutes. Everything else will still be there when the timer goes off, and it’s possible the anxiety might have lessened, too. Just do the thing for 20 minutes, and then you can take a break, maybe even for the rest of the day. You did the thing for 20 minutes, and that’s a big win.
For the record, I don’t post to NextDoor; I do have an account, established months ago for the purpose of helping a neighborhood cat get back home. I have made some homemade pickles, but that was something I’d done before. I do not have a banjo, but I keep telling myself I’m going to pick up that ukulele and do something with it. Maybe I’ll set a timer and start tuning it up.