Tomatoes – not just great on pizza

It’s time to be brutally honest. Things have been pretty bad in PhDland for a while. (“Fddland” is how I say it in my head, which makes it sound a little bit Kiwi and a little bit Nordic.) When I started this post I hadn’t read more than a couple of journal articles or written anything for weeks. Weeks and weeks. Probably months and months if I could bring myself to look in my diary at the last time I’d crossed anything out.

This is something I have struggled with for a while. I wrote about it in November, and January and February, and from the comments, it’s something many of you struggle with too. When people tell me that I must be smart to be doing a PhD, I reply with, “no, you don’t have to be smart, you just need to be ok with spending a lot of time by yourself for at least three years”.

In my experience – being halfway through, and fucking hell, that’s a scary thought – doing a doctorate means you cook a lot, do loads and loads of washing, read things unrelated to your topic, and play a lot of solitaire and freecell on the computer. Sure, you do some work, but it’s never as much as you imagined you’d need to do. And there’s always the feeling that you’ll get it done in time, because you always do. Or maybe that’s just me? After all, three tertiary qualifications, years as a journalist and years as a freelancer have shown me that I can always pull decent-to-very-good work out of my arse when it’s needed.

When I started this doctorate, I expected to feel like I was a one-conversation pony who bored my friends, reasonably stressed, and overwhelmed by how much work I had to do. But what I wasn’t expecting to feel was guilt. Guilt at being able to spend whole days doing very little. Guilt at knowing that friends have done PhDs while looking after very small children. Guilt at knowing that friends have done PhDs while working full-time. Guilt at knowing that ManFriend is bringing home most of the bacon. Guilt at being in this incredibly privileged position and wasting it. And it seems that nothing I’ve tried so far has been able to get me to work for any meaningful length of time. For someone who loves reading and learning and thinking and has signed up for a doctorate, this is not a good place to be. People tell you that you’ll learn a lot about yourself doing a doctorate. What they don’t tell you is that you won’t like what you find.

A couple of weeks ago, I read two blog posts on the same topic: Jen Dziura’s Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans, and The Thesis Whisperer’s Another way to write 1000 words a day?, about the Pomodoro Technique. I took this to be a giant neon flashing sign that hit me in the face like a wet fish and caused me to mix my metaphors.

It sounds a bit fancy-pants, but the Pomodoro Technique is using a timer to work for 25 minutes and then take a five minute break. Then you do it again. It’s ridiculously simple. So I downloaded a timer. You can put it anywhere on your screen and it looks like this:

The pomodoro timer

The timer that is restoring my sanity

Before I clicked the start button for the first time, well, let’s just say apprehensive was an understatement. Like Virginia Valian (1113KB pdf) who felt overwhelmed by the thought of spending five minutes on her thesis, 25 minutes seemed like a really long time. I knew I’d keep looking at the timer in the vain hope that I could will my punishment to be over.

I took a deep breath, clicked start, and looked down at my journal article. Then I looked back up at the timer and was shocked to discover that I only had three minutes and 20 seconds to go.

Sure, not all of my breaks are just five minutes, but seeing the timer there, waiting for me to reset it, makes me focus back on my doctorate in a way that no amount of telling myself “today I am going to get lots done” ever could.

Sometimes I even go over the 25 minutes because I’m engrossed in what I’m reading or writing. I didn’t expect that. According to the book you can download (500KB pdf), you’re not supposed to do this, but frankly, being on a roll happens so rarely that I’m unwilling to stop it.

Strangely, that simple little timer is more compelling than leechblock and freedom. Perhaps because the doctorate seems so big and looming. Whereas leechblock and freedom say “ok, the internet is blocked, now do some work”, all the little timer says is “hey, you only have to do 25 minutes, you can manage that”.

Last week I pomodoro-ed. This week I’ve pomodoro-ed. Today I’ve done two so far. Wish me luck. Or come around and kick my arse because that might work as well.

73 responses to “Tomatoes – not just great on pizza

  1. Rhiannon Saxon

    I sort of hoped that the pomodoro technique involved inviting friends around to throw tomatoes at you and shout ‘Mush! Mush!” or something similar when you weren’t working hard enough.

  2. As you know, I too am a massive procrastinator.
    I have started making a list of 5 things i have to get done today. I find this helps me focus and not run off on tangents. Anything I get done over and above that is a bonus.
    Also stops me reading the paper, looking for flats, buying shoes and reading blogs all day long on the shiny internet! Except at lunch time, which it is now (honest).
    Not suggesting this for you, as I think it is much easier at work where all my taskes aren’t necessarily connected.

    • I’ve tried the list, but I don’t respect the work list. And I think your last point is right. Also at work, you know you have to do certain things by a certain time. Working to one deadline three years in the future that you can push out for another few years, isn’t the biggest motivator.

  3. I am inordinately happy that you’ve found something that works! Maybe because it gives me hope that there is indeed a trick out there that will work for me in the battle against procrastination too 🙂 (Will have to try this timer thing.)

    • It’s worked for two-ish weeks. Probably eight days. And it hasn’t stopped me wasting time – it’s just made me do some work in between periods of wasting.

      • Rhiannon Saxon

        Well, that’s the important thing! I feel so much less guilty about, say, sitting here reading this, when I can point to the empty laundry baskets that I have folded up and put away the former contents…er…therein. What a terrible sentence.

        However, no matter how much housework I do, I still feel like I am procrastinating in finding a ‘real job’!

  4. I’m finding it’s working too. Another approach is FREEDOM which locks you out of the internet for a period of time specified by you. I’m just about to try that out, but fear it may stop Zotero from working …

    • Hi Jennie Swann, welcome to the News with Nipples. I tried freedom, but found that once I’d blocked the whole internet, this massive doctorate loomed up and I didn’t know where to start. Also, I use mendeley so reedom blocked my synching with that. Leechblock (suggested by a reader a few months ago) is free and allows you to choose which sites to block, so you’ll still have access to zotero.

  5. This is my experience completely. Oh the guilt! How am I allowed to get away with this? When I first heard of the Pomodoro technique I thought it sounded far too self helpy, but I was desperate to finish my literature review, so I tried it and it worked. As you say, it doesn’t stop me wasting time, but at least I do an hour or two of solid work in the amongst the twittering and nonsense.

  6. Thank you, for saying everything I have been thinking. The whole ‘the internet is blocked now’ thing doesn’t work for me either. I think the internet has become the digital version of scrubbing out the bath. I’m gonna get me a timer.

  7. I want to try this too. I am about to plunge (back) into the world of academia, aka working from home 2-3 days a week, aka potentially very productive but just as much (well, more) potential for lots of cooking, waaaay too much snacking from the cupboard and knowing altogether too much about my Facebook friends’ old party and holiday pics. Thanks and good luck!

  8. sometimes… at other times my time-wasting skills are exemplary!

  9. I’m in the final throes of my PhD and the pomodoro technique is working wonders! Mainly because it alleviates the crushing guilt which I’ve battled most days for the last three years ( you describe it so well!). I think you need to be in the right frame of mind though – without getting too self-helpy, I dabbled with the tomatoes a year ago and really didn’t get on with it, but there was a deeper problem going on which needed to be addressed. Good luck!

  10. I had a wee giggle when I saw the Pomodoro technique, but because my wife was following it for a while. Just for her general day to day work.

    She’s sort of drifted away from it a little, but it is like most things, I guess. You really have to be committed to it.

    Great to see so many newbies over here!

  11. ok, I am reading the book. Are you doing all the recording stuff or just the 25 minutes before a break business??? The metrics seem pretty time consuming…

  12. Oh lordy, i could have written this myself. Apart from the finding a useful solution bit. Mainly the guilt bit, and the weird underlying knowledge that I could, in the end, pull it out of my arse when the need was greatest. If it’s any comfort, I did finish the PhD (four years). Now I just have to deal with going through the whole thing again with this pesky book.

    • Orlando! What was your PhD on and what’s your book about?

      • Doctorate was on how Shakespeare’s “shrew” characters (there are many) are represented in stage performances today. You see, the characteristics that got a woman labelled a shrew in the 16th/17th centuries now just sound like a woman making a perfectly reasonable observation or complaint, to people like you and me. In reality, though, is such a woman any less condemned now than she was then? Are we prepared to see them as admirable figures on stage, or will the director find ways to make them unsympathetic to a modern audience?

        The book is the traditional adaptation of the thesis, but I do need to pretty much rewrite the whole thing. Believe it or not, there is no book out there at present on the shrew figure in Shakespeare (unless there is, in which case I hope the reader will point it out to me, and I will thank you, and then kill myself), so I’m feeling overwhelmed by the responsibility of being the one to write THAT book.

  13. Also struggling with my doctorate, and this technique appeals to me! After I read this post I found the free iPhone app, which means I now have one app on my phone that is useful and not frivolous!

    • Do you have the spirit level app? Because that would be useful. You could check the levels of everything, whenever you wanted.

      What’s your doctorate topic?

      • I had no idea there was an app for that! (Even though I should’ve guessed, because there is one for everything). I would use it all the time.

        My doctorate is on the (dysfunctional) reinforcement systems that children with ADHD have- basically, the difference in response to reward and punishment between children with and without ADHD.

        • Ooh, I like the sound of that. Any preliminary findings you can share?

          • Haha, sort of. Still mucking about with my supervisor having a look at the data I’ve collected so far and deciding if we need to collect any more. But what we have so far looks promising in that there seems to be a pretty clear difference in the behaviour between children with and without ADHD- essentially, the children without ADHD tend to develop reward histories, whereas the behaviour of kids with ADHD is shaped by the most recent reward (so, is more ‘impulsive’) and so it is much more difficult to shape (manipulate is such an ugly word, haha…) their behaviour in the long-term.

            But I’m still such a long way from being done- procrastination is my downfall, for sure.

            • So does that mean that to shape the behaviour of a child with ADHD, you need to reward more often, or do something else entirely?

              • I was about to ask the same question. I am fascinated by this topic. Would love to hear more of what you have to say.

                • Going on what we have now, it’s hard to draw a conclusion about that- also, the study we are conducting isn’t going to test alternate reward techniques but rather we are trying to show with actual data what is anecdotally agreed upon. And sadly the ADHD clinic I have been working with is now in the middle of changing hands (due to changes in funding), so in terms of working with children with ADHD I’m limited to the data we’ve already collected, so I don’t know if I will be able to do an additional study about what kind of reinforcement methods work best for kids with ADHD. But based on what we are doing in this study, I would think that they need more frequent rewards, especially if you are making changes to the behaviour that is being rewarded ( it seems to take them much longer to “click” to the fact that you have introduced a new desirable behaviour and that it is now the behaviour that will get them a reward).

                  Also, I totally got the spirit level app, and spent most of last night checking if various things in my house are level.

                  • I was hoping to write an intelligent comment – until I got to your last sentence and cracked up!

                  • Sounds frustrating really. Maybe the changing over of hands at the clinic you’re working with won’t have to mean being restricted to the data you have? (or is that just wishful thinking?)

                    (One of my nearest and dearest has a step son with ADHD. So I am always interested in studies on it. I know several other kids with it, but none to the degree of step son. He’s a pretty full on case by all appearances.)

                    Are you focused on a particular age group? Sorry, curiosity gets the better of me sometimes…

                    • It is a bit frustrating, but at least we have managed to collect a decent amount of data before having to wrap things up (at least for the time being). If the new clinic was up and running soon I might be able to work with them, but from what I was told there is going to be an extended period of changover- the new one is being run by different people, with different funding, and it doesn’t sound like the transition is going to be smooth. But then again, my doctorate could go on for quite a bit longer, so maybe I will still be working on it when they’re up and running and I might be able to work with them!

                      The data we have is from children aged 5-12, but only a few of those children are over 10, and the majority of them are 7-10 year olds.

      • Fart piano app is also useful.

  14. I’ve been trialing this method over a couple of days, and it’s working fantastically (I’m on a 5 min break, I swear!). I work from home, and it’s waaaaay to easy to be distracted by cats, or interesting articles, or 8 bajillion forms of social media. Unfortunately net blocking doesn’t work for me, as I do a lot of online research and fact checking, so this is suiting me right down to the ground.

  15. This sounds like me when I was doing an Honours year. Except I didn’t finish it, and felt really guilty about it… until I saw my doctor three weeks later and discovered I was suffering pretty bad depression, plus dangerously low iron levels, PLUS an anxiety disorder. So that explained the whole ‘staring at my computer and crying’ thing… 😉

    Prior to that, though, I used to set my kitchen timer for 20 minute blocks and I’d usually get some work done… although only if I faced it away from me so I wasn’t mesmerised by watching the countdown. (Shut up… it was weirdly compelling!)

    • Yep, depression, low iron levels and anxiety would definitely make things difficult. I take it from the smiley that you’re ok now?

      • Oh yeah, much MUCH better, thanks. Iron levels are rockin’ (thank you, Ferrograd), depression hardly ever happens and anxiety is at a much more manageable level. I still have no desire to finish my Honours thesis, but I’m okay with that.

        Of course, the downside here is that when I can’t concentrate on my work (“oohh… shiny!”) I no longer have a decent medical excuse. Damn.

  16. This is the first I have heard of the pomodoro method but I have been doing a similar thing with 50 mins work then 10 min break for a while. I found it was really useful for studying for exams. Somehow I don’t think 25 mins would be long enough, as you said you just settle into the work then RING RING. I got 50 mins from some vague and distant memory of someone ( a high school teacher perhaps) saying once that 50 mins is the optimal concentration time then after that everything goes downhill. I think they were justifying why we had 50 min long classes, however the effectiveness of their special technique was somewhat destroyed when they decided to give us double periods 😛

    Good luck with the FDD!

  17. Sorry if I am sounding like a infomercial here – but I used this technique inspired by your post for a gig review that I was writing this morning. I normally have issues trying to get things down in a set period of time, and normally I get reviews done in an hour or so.
    I downloaded the timer and used the technique, and I got the review done in about 20 minutes! I then re-checked it, and submitted it just before the alarm went off. Might use this technique more often now.
    Thanks for the post!

  18. turns out.. you could be an incubator.. rather than a procrastinator!

    http://www.smh.com.au/executive-style/management/good-news-for-procrastinators-20110615-1g3gw.html

  19. I’m a terrible procrastinator, or maybe that should be I’m really good at procrastination.

    A few years ago I heard about a website that helped people like me get organised with their housework. One of the suggestions was setting a timer for 15 minutes, with the slogan “you can do anything for 15 minutes”. That slogan helps me motivate myself – no matter how much I want to put off a task, if it’s just 15 minutes it doesn’t seem so bad, and it’s surprising how often a chore that I think will take ages often takes less than that 15 minutes.

    I don’t get out much, due to my anxiety disorder, but I need to exercise. With the slogan in mind, I decided I could handle being out in public for “just 15 minutes” going for a walk. My timer clips to my jeans waistband, and at the 7 and a half minute mark I turn around and walk back home.

    Right now I’m using my timer to help me cut back on my smoking, in preparation for my quitting smoking on the 1st July. I’ve cut out 2/3rds of the cigarettes I was smoking, by using my timer to monitor how long I go between cigarettes. It’s getting rid of the automatic cigarettes (the ones I smoke without realising it), as well as helping to break the connection between cuppa & cigarette or phone & cigarette.

    I’m starting to sound like an infomercial … stopping now before I rant on for hours about the miracle that is my timer.

    • Don’t stop! I love that you’re sharing what has worked for you. It’s a really personal story, so thank you. I think what the timer does is make you think about time differently. Little pockets of time – 15 minutes, 25 minutes – are easy to deal with and give you confidence. And that’s something I lost because I started thinking about my doctorate as this huge thing.

    • I did something similar when I quit smoking. I didn’t time myself for how long I could go between smokes (which BTW I personally think is an awesome idea! I wish I had thought of it.)
      I picked up a cheap exercise bike at Vinnies for $20. Every time I felt like having a smoke I would hop on the bike and ride for 5km. (I certainly didn’t feel like a smoke after that.)

      In 6 months I was smoke free and 26kg smaller. (I live/d with a non-smoker and found myself eating in an effort to hide the smell/taste of smoking. So smoking actually made me gain a lot of weight.) Riding 5km every time you feel a need for a nicotine hit adds up. I used to keep a little log book and see how far I had ridden each day. Some days, I rode a lot.

      • That’s a great idea. When I quit, I was living with two other smokers which actually helped – when I got my sense of smell back, boy, did they stink! Being reminded daily of how bad smokers smell helped me stick to my plan. And now, I haven’t had a single cigarette in 11 years and never even think about them.

  20. I worked really hard on my masters and was working full time so technically I didn’t need to feel guilt, but I did…..everytime time I was not dedicating spare time to it I felt guilty. It’s a horrible feeling. I loved the feeling of a guilt free day off when I was on a semester break. Dont think I could go back and do it again.

  21. I discovered the Pomodoro Technique a few weeks ago, after miserably searching lifehacker.com for productivity tips. It’s made a huge difference to my peace of mind as well as my work!

  22. Excellent post.. of all the blogs I’ve got on google reader I left the reader to visit your blog just to read again. Have excitedly downloaded pomodoro and like any life-long procrastinator hope this is a miracle cure..

    • Cat, welcome to the News with Nipples. I am also a terrible procrastinator – actually, I’m an excellent one – and have found that it’s not too bad. I still have to make the first move and start the damn thing, but since I know it’s only for 25 minutes, it’s not such a scary thing.

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