SPN Recommends: the Pomodoro Technique

Want to get more done in a day? You could try the Uberman Schedule—a polyphasic sleep strategy developed in 1998 by IT professional and amateur scientist Marie Staver.  For years, Staver struggled with insomnia. Then she hit upon a strictly organized method of 30-minute naps every four hours that energized her and ramped up her…

A Pomodoro timer
A Pomodoro timer

Want to get more done in a day? You could try the Uberman Schedule—a polyphasic sleep strategy developed in 1998 by IT professional and amateur scientist Marie Staver. 

For years, Staver struggled with insomnia. Then she hit upon a strictly organized method of 30-minute naps every four hours that energized her and ramped up her productivity. With three total hours of sleep scattered throughout the day like dandelion seeds, the Uberman Schedule provides more energy and the ability to enter REM sleep more quickly, proponents believe. (Actually, experts say getting to REM sleep quicker indicates a possible sleep disorder, not sleep efficiency.)

Leonardo da Vinci allegedly followed an even more grueling schedule than Staver’s. The artist-inventor took 20-minute naps every four hours, for a combined total of two hours’ sleep per day. (My girlfriend once knew a kid who tried to follow in da Vinci’s footsteps during summer camp one year, hoping to be more productive. He quickly became miserable, even nonfunctional.) 

Chronic lack of sleep impairs work performance, memory and critical thinking skills. On the other hand, studies show the occasional bout of insomnia can boost creativity. By lowering the mental floodgates that normally block insights, a tired mind allows more random bits of information to rush in, which can facilitate the discovery of novel connections between disparate phenomena. In other words, a wonky sleep schedule can make you stupider, but more creative.

You could try coffee. But the jury’s still out on whether caffeine actually improves productivity or if it just seems like it does thanks to the temporary reversal of performance-worsening withdrawal symptoms like fatigue, headache, irritability and lack of concentration.

The circadian rhythm is a beautiful, delicate thing. (“Circadian” even sounds like a type of butterfly.) And if you disrupt it, life can get very difficult.

Instead of screwing up your sleep cycle and risking your health just to be more productive, try the Pomodoro Technique, a timeboxing strategy named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

The Pomodoro Technique helps you focus quickly and enter a flow state. It’s a simple, straightforward method:

  • Map out what you want to accomplish.
  • Using a timer, alternate 25 minutes of work with a five minute break.
  • Repeat the process.
  • Repeat the process again.
  • Take a longer break of 30 minutes or so. 

Advocated by Professor Barbara Oakley of Michigan’s Oakland University, the Pomodoro Technique is a powerful weapon against procrastination, mind wandering, multitasking, internet surfing and task switching. It can be used effectively for work or study. Plus you can get a cool, retro timer with a red time indicator fairly cheaply online.

Some helpful tips:

Get yourself a cheap analog timer—preferably one with a visual component that you can see at a glance—or download one of the many Pomodoro technique apps. When the timer goes off, make sure to stop immediately, even if you’re in the middle of a sentence or a line of code. (A jarring stop builds the internal pressure necessary to more easily regain your momentum after the break.)

For a creativity boost, follow the advice of renowned creative writing theorist Dorothea Brande. During break periods, do a rhythmic, wordless activity that you enjoy. Practice your golf swing, shoot some hoops, play an instrument, whatever. The important thing is to push the work to the back of your mind temporarily (without forgetting about it entirely). Doing something rhythmic and wordless distracts your conscious mind enough to allow the subconscious to incubate insights into what you’ve been working on. 

If you’re particularly ambitious and self-punishing, try Elon Musk’s method of timeboxing. The guy works in strict increments of five minutes each, focusing 100% on a task before switching to one of the other things he does. If you’re not as exacting or ambitious as Musk, however, don’t worry about it. Life’s too rich to take it five minutes at a time. Better to take it 25 minutes at a time instead.

 

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