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January 20, 2010

Dissertation writing is  difficult, lonely work.  On a daily basis, I get pretty much zero guidance or oversight.  Benchmarks are few and far between — there are few opportunities to get a sense of how I’m doing.  Working from home, procrastination (which I’m convinced comes from anxiety about the project itself) is a constant enemy, creating death-spirals which can wreck entire work days — I don’t feel like I’m moving fast enough, which makes me anxious about the project, which gives rise to procrastination (generally manifested in the impulse to check my email and read Gawker every 5 minutes), which means I don’t feel like I’m moving fast enough…and so it goes.

In November, I came across this Wall Street Journal piece about time-management techniques, which introduced me to the Pomodoro Technique.  It stuck out for me from the other methods described because it was simple and flexible.  Also, it’s fun to say.  A pomodoro is a unit of time – 25 minutes, plus a 3-5 minute break (it’s also a tomato, if you’re Italian).  The idea is you work in these units, and that they are indivisible: each one is designated for some task, and you only do that thing during the pomodoro(s) assigned to it, shutting out all other possible work or (importantly) interruptions.  You use a timer — the original one was shaped like a tomato, hence the name; mine is an iPhone app with a picture of a tomato-shaped timer (that’s right – it’s a picture of a fake tomato).  And once the timer starts, you have to focus for the next 25 minutes on the task at hand; if you break off and do something else or are interrupted, you have to scrap the pomodoro; there is no pause.  It forces you to push checking email and reading Gawker and refilling your coffee cup and playing with the cats and brushing your teeth (again) to the 3-5 minute breaks between pomodoros (there’s also a longer break after every four).  It also forces you to break a project down into discrete tasks and estimate how many pomodoros each should take.  This part is a challenge in writing, when chapters and parts of chapters want to sprawl, but the attempt is useful and I’m working on it.

Frankly, this Pomodoro thing has been a revelation.  I can freely admit it’s a gimmick – it’s like going on a diet.  To lose weight, what you need to do is consume fewer calories, and burn more calories, but there are a gazillion gimmicky ways of getting you to do that by focusing on some completely arbitrary thing or another (the Cabbage Soup Diet requires one to consume only bananas, skim milk, and the eponymous soup on day 4).  To be more productive, what you need to do is focus more and procrastinate less – to do that, apparently I have needed a virtual tomato-timer.

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