How to be more productive

Sophia Khan (Goodricke 1995) discovers a novel way to conquer procrastination

I am an awesome procrastinator. I’m so brilliant at procrastinating that I bought a book called How to Stop Procrastinating about 10 years ago and still haven’t finished it.

Suffice to say I am the sort of person who spends many more hours making colour-coded Excel spreadsheets of all the work I am going to do than actually working.

So that is why one week ago, instead of getting things done, I drew myself up a system of points, including little tiny tomato drawings to colour in, based on the Pomodoro Technique for time management.

Invented by Francesco Cirillo, it’s based on the idea that you work in a more focused and effective way if you time yourself and do it in 25-minute bursts (‘pomodoros’), followed by a five-minute break.

The 25-minute burst is called a pomodoro because when Francesco developed this technique as a student he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (pomodoro being Italian for tomato, of course).

What follows may sound overly complex, so let me first explain myself. I am a stay-at-home/work-at-home mum, so before I can think about my work, or other things that I might want to do for myself,

I have to factor in drop-offs, pick-ups, extra-curricular activities, grocery shopping, several hours of chores, and possibly some medicinal wine. (It’s calming!)

First of all, I tried to estimated how many hours I really had ‘free’, which is something I had never done before. I estimated that I had 20 hours a week, which translates into 40 pomodoros.

Then I tried to break down the different things I both need and want to do – I can’t just look after kids and work!

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I came up with seven categories. The four activities I thought I would spend my minutes doing, in the order of estimated time, were:

1. Social media.

I don’t think I’m different to most people these days in this respect – I’m just being honest by putting social media at the top. Some of this can be called ‘work’ since I’m involved in professional communities online. But yes, a lot of this is just faffing. That said, online faffing can be an important way to switch off and unwind.

2. Regular work & professional development.

I make time for regular work that actually pays me. I also try to make regular ‘PD time’, even if this is just reading work-related articles. It keeps me up to date, helps me do my job better, and keeps my brain alive.

3. Freelance work.

The time I need for freelancing can vary. Sometimes there’s very much, sometimes there’s none at all. Work like this is hard to predict, but I’m working on it.

4. Admin.

It’s no surprise that bills, taxes, emails, forms, etc. are my last priority. I all too often assume that people will just remind me when ‘something needs to happen’. I may receive regular cross emails about ‘something that needed to happen and didn’t’, but, generally, I scrape by.

In addition to these four, I had three further categories I wanted to include but knew I probably wouldn’t do. I tend to think of them as ‘extras that would be nice’:

5. House and home.

There is a ton of things that I never quite get around to: de-cluttering, meal planning, organising cupboards, fixing chairs, vacuum-packing baby clothes that have been out for the past 6 years…

6. Writing.

Just something I specifically want to do more.

7. Self-development.

With so little time, I find what’s often missed from the equation is what benefits me, which makes me happy, which keeps me learning in a fulfilling way. This includes exercise, language learning, and other such enrichment.

Not enough tomatoes to go around...
Never enough tomatoes to go around.

The Experiment

So I began my Pomodoro Technique experiment. What I really wanted to do, in the first instance, was see if I was estimating my time correctly. I also wanted to strike a balance in my life, to feel more in control of my days.

So with seven categories and 40 pomodoros, everything was assigned five pomodoros, except ‘social media’ which got 10, as I reckoned that’s where I spent more of my time.

One week later, the results were in. It turns out that, while colouring in tiny tomato drawings wasn’t a particularly productive pastime, it did spotlight where the problems were.

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As predicted, I had spent almost half my imagined tomatoes (17, to be exact) on the categories of ‘social media’ and ‘regular work and professional development’. But I was none the wiser because, frankly, these categories were rubbish.

I couldn’t prioritise my time or focus my attention as I hadn’t separated my goals. Moreover, it’s stupid to lump together ‘regular work’ and ‘professional development’. They may complement each other but sadly, learning and earning are not necessarily the same thing.

Meanwhile, I had done the absolute bare minimum of admin (4 pomodoros) and household maintenance (2 pomodoros) along with a little freelance work (2 pomodoros) and also some writing (4 pomodoros – but only because I wrote this). Could do better.

However, the biggest realisation, for me, was that I had spent a grand total of ZERO tomatoes – not even half an hour – on anything that was just for me. This is not good. Everyone deserves at least one hour a week for something fun, that they are passionate about, that’s just for them. Right?

Oh, and if you are doing your tomato maths you may have already realised that I had overestimated my actionable time by at least 10 pomodoros (5 hours).

So while this initial experiment was a sorry mess, it did give me some things to think about. Where am I spending my time? Could I earn more if I focused my work time more effectively? What difference would it make if I chose to focus as much on my own health and happiness as on work? And what do we need to focus on to lead a balanced life?

I don’t yet have the answers, and the experiment continues. How about you? Do you feel like you struggle with time management? What do you do to carve out some ‘work-life balance’ from that time spent procrastinating?

The original version of this article originally appeared on Sophia’s Stuffnbooks blog in September 2014.