One pom at a time

The graph shows how much time I spent working on my masters between February 2016 and August 2017. I have this information because a) I had a bit of a procrastination problem which led to me discovering the Pomodoro Technique and b) I flipping love excel spreadsheets.

How did it start?

I struggled with the first essay I had to write for my masters (3000 words on language processing in the brain). As the deadline approached, I would come home from work in the evenings (I studied and worked part-time) planning to work on the essay. I would often put off starting work until gone 8pm and then when I did start working I would soon lose focus and find myself watching the blooper reel from Bridesmaids or making a cup of tea. Guilt would periodically pull my attention back to the essay but I wasn’t getting much done because of the constant switching. The time spent procrastinating wasn’t even enjoyable because I was in the ‘dark playground‘ of undeserved relaxation. Bed time would come around without me having achieved very much apart from making tomorrow’s job more difficult.

One day I decided to take action by googling motivation and time management techniques. I was secretly hoping to find a website where I could hire a scary person to stand by my desk to shout things at me or else tut and stare disapprovingly if I didn’t work but instead I found The Pomodoro Technique. This is where you work in 25-minute blocks with five-minute breaks in between. The blocks are called pomodoros but I call them poms for short (and added cuteness). The 25 minutes of work should be distraction-free (no emails, texts, cups of tea) and focused on a single task. Every four poms you get a 20-minute break.

I started my first pom almost immediately. Committing to 25 minutes of work at a time was much less daunting than the prospect of spending a whole evening at my desk. Also, I found that starting the timer muted the part of my mind which usually quibbled over whether I should carry on working or find something else to do, increasing my ability to focus. (The book ‘Deep Work’ discusses the importance of working without distractions and is worth reading for anyone wanting to scare themselves out of wasting time.)

The developer of the technique recommends you keep a tally of your poms to make it easy to schedule the breaks and measure yourself against targets. I started an excel spreadsheet to record my poms for every module and assignment of my masters. I found it motivating to see the work I had already put in and to add to it 25 minutes at a time.

poms by subject

What the graph shows

The graph shows the number of poms I completed every day from February 2016 until August 2017.

  • Each module of my masters is shown in a different colour. You can see each line spike as the deadline came and went (I had several programming deadlines so there are multiple grey peaks.)
  • My working pattern was quite spikey in general because I typically did very little studying on the days I worked.
  • There are two suspiciously flat areas of the graph. One is over the summer in 2016 when I had no essays to write and was doing an internship. Then in May/June 2017, I went on holiday to the US for two weeks and it took me a while to get back into work mode on my return (This pomodoro technique is clearly not a cure all for procrastination).
  • The total number of poms I recorded throughout my masters is 1,338 (557.5 hours of focused work). If I worked 12 poms a day on my masters days over the two years (reasonable target) I should have completed 1,248, so I am happy that I topped that figure, especially given that it doesn’t include the first term’s worth of work.
  • The largest number of poms I’ve ever completed in a day is 20. This equates to 8.3 hours of focused work and really is quite a stretch.

My pom habit

I rarely stuck to the strict schedule of four poms followed by a twenty-minute break. Sometimes I have breaks longer than five minutes and sometimes I would complete two poms back-to-back (usually on deadline days). The most valuable thing about the technique to me is working distraction-free and easily recording progress.

After six months of using the timer on my phone, I downloaded the Be Focused app which sets up the pomodoro intervals for you and keeps a count of how many you’ve completed.

My pom vocabulary

Pom (noun): Example – “I have completed so many poms today!”

Pom (verb): Example – “I have so much to do today but I’m just going to pom it.”

Leaky pom:  When the pom timer goes off and instead of immediately taking a break you continue to work a little bit. This delays the break and is time spent working which won’t be recorded.

Pom with aplomb: When I was struggling with a particularly tricky assignment I came up with this motivational motto. I wrote it on a post-it note to stick above my desk

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