“Remember, time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round!”from Baudelaire’s “The Clock”
No matter how capable or confident, we all get overwhelmed and can fall victim to procrastination. You likely know the associated feelings well: the beating pressure for perfection, the need to deliver top-notch work, the fear you may not be doing something correctly, or the frustration that you just have to do something that you didn’t choose and don’t want to do.
We keep returning to our faithful companion, procrastination, because it rewards us for doing so. It grants us a deceptive and temporary reprieve from the taunting voices of expectations, duties, and fears. But you don’t have to be its victim. This is how to overcome procrastination for good.
Overcoming Procrastination with The Pomodoro Technique
So, accepting that this is something that we all must cope with, how can you counteract this seemingly endless cycle of procrastination?
As with most things that are important, there’s no single, simple solution. For instance, I found that it was important that I restructure and reframe my routines, and do an honest assessment of where I am focusing my attentions. Still, I found that while those groundings served as my solid foundation, there was another trick that really helped me sustain my procrastination resistance: the brilliant Pomodoro Technique.
This simple, accessible practice is a gift from Francesco Crillio. He developed it in the 1980s while struggling with his university studies. Inspired by the tomato-shaped (pomodoro in Italian) timer in his kitchen, he decided to use it to focus his attention for short periods of time.
The idea is that you start with three (or so) major tasks each day. These are the things that you believe you can realistically complete or that you must accomplish that day. Then, you simply begin focusing on one of them for 25 minutes, setting a timer (tomato-shaped or otherwise!) to remind you when your first session is over. Then, take a break, and after the break, work another 25 minutes, continuing in this cycle of 25-minute sessions, or Pomodoros, followed by a break, and so on, until the task is done.
This practice is a very straightforward way to assess what you’re accomplishing during the day. It forces you to decide on which tasks you’ll focus, and keeps you honest about how you’re spending those 25-minute sessions. Over time, it will allow you to adjust your goals to realistically fit your capabilities because you’ll be able to make more accurate estimates of how long things actually take!
Putting Pomodoro to Work to Overcome Procrastination
If you’re ready to try putting this into practice, here’s how to start. Begin by jotting down your essential tasks for the day — all the stuff that must get done. For each task, make a guestimate of how many Pomodori (those 25-minute work sessions) it will take. Write it down.
With a clear desk, (because as I explained in this article, it can really help) get out your personal tomato timer, start it, and begin working on your most essential task of the day.
When the Pomodoro rings, take a 5-minute break. Make sure to step away from your desk and work (mental or otherwise). You can take a walk around the house or office, do a small cleaning task, get some water, go outside and breathe for a few minutes — just make sure you take a real break from work. After the five minutes, sit back down and start the Pomodoro timer, setting it for another 25 minutes.
Just to make this painfully clear — because, frankly, this is the hardest part of this process — your break is not the time to take phone calls or write work-related emails. Also, if you’re not quite done with your task when the timer rings, stop anyway. Put your task away and revisit it after your break. This process is what allows your brain to really soak up what you’ve been working on, and it allows you to compartmentalize things.
Keep working using this Pomodoro-break cycle until the task is completed. If you finish a task before your session’s 25 minutes is up, which is likely as it doesn’t matter how many sessions have come before, don’t immediately go on to the next task. Instead, reassess the work that you have just done.
This process, which may feel a bit unnatural, reaffirms your single-task focus and will help inhibit your temptation to switch-task. In fact, overcoming our constant desire to multitask is a huge part of what this technique teaches our brains to do!
Once you’ve completed four Pomodoro cycles, take a 20-30 minute break. The same break rules apply here, but with a bit more time, you have more options. You can take a walk, try an NSDR (non-sleep deep rest) practice, get some movement in, take lunch, spend some time breathing out in nature, and so on. The options are endless — just make sure it’s something that’s not work-related!
This time away from work will allow your brain to integrate the new information it just processed and is an essential element of neuroplasticity, which helps us learn new things!
Moreover, starting a Pomodoro session will give your brain a clear signal to start working. As a result, you’ll help keep it focused and avoid succumbing to distractions.
Still, let’s be honest, distractions happen. Sometimes you will be unable to control their overpowering force. In those cases, make a mental or written note of each distraction, and then keep working until the Pomodoro rings.
The Aim? Monotasking
As I alluded to a few paragraphs back, one of the most powerful benefits of this technique is its ability to help you stop multitasking and, instead, transform yourself into a monotasker!
When we multitask, we are jumping from one task, feeling, or conversation to another. When we are in this mode, even when our multitasking is absentminded (like during a boring meeting), we reduce our brain’s ability to focus on each respective task.
So, less is more. Even as counterintuitive as that may seem. Or as Mozart says, “The shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.” Coming from a guy whose oeuvre includes over 600 pieces, which he created in his short 35-year existence — I’m inclined to trust him.
If the words of Amadeus aren’t doing it for you, how about this: it was found that those who multitasked more frequently (or what researchers referred to as having a higher Media Multitasking Index) had smaller gray matter density in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This area is the part of our brain associated with empathy and emotional control, and there was a correlation between the observed multitasking participants and decreased cognitive control performance and socio-emotional regulation.
So take your pick. Both science and the experience of prolific creators point to the same truth: if you want to do more, do one thing at a time.
As you begin to adopt the Pomodoro Technique, here are some helpful mindfulness-inducing questions and ideas to consider:
- How many tasks are you attempting to accomplish daily? Was it realistic?
- How many Pomodoro sessions (focused work) are you doing each day?
- How many Pomodori did you think the task would take, versus how many did it actually take?
- Are you tempted to multitask even during a Pomodoro? If so, are you catching yourself?
- How many times were you distracted during each Pomodoro?
- Over time, are you able to get more accomplished?
I hope this simple little practice will prove to be as powerful for you as it has for me. I’ve not only found that I’m able to get more done, but I’ve also been able to get outside more, enjoyed more time with my family, and been able to cook some delicious meals during my break time!
By adopting this practice, I believe you’ll not only see similar benefits, but you’ll also be keeping your gray matter at its happiest, healthiest, and functional best!
Image credit: Katie Moum.