Uncharted Waters

Nov 17 2014   9:19AM GMT

The Art of “Making Time”

Michael Larsen Michael Larsen Profile: Michael Larsen

Admittedly, the title is a bit misleading. Time is a constant. We cannot really “make time”. We can’t bank it, we can’t borrow it, we can’t really even “manage it”, contrary to popular belief. There is only one thing we can do with time, and that is use it. Each one of us gets the same twenty-four hours as everyone else, and each of us has to make choices as to how we will use that time.

Additionally, we have another limited resource, and that is attention. We like to think that we can effectively multi-task, or that we can accomplish many things at the same time. For myself, the more critically I look at the way I work and the goals that I can accomplish, I have given up on this idea. Sure, I can read email and listen to music at the same time, but that’s not the multi-tasking I am referring to. When I need to be working on something that requires focus and attention, I do much better when I can partition the work I need to do, and want to do, in discrete chunks of time. Even here, it can be difficult to give the proper attention to multiple areas that need it. Also, there is the very real problems of getting stuck on a problem, and having to deal with a challenge that, for lack of better words, is just tedious.

The time and attention problem can be approached from many angles, but my personal favorite is to use a method called the “Pomodoro Technique”. This method gets its name from the kitchen timers that look like tomatoes (Pomodoro is Italian for “Tomato”). The traditional approach to using a Pomodoro timing system is that a block of time is set up where deliberate, focused work is done. That work is timed (typically at intervals of twenty five minutes). At the end of that twenty-five minute block of time, you take a five minute break. These breaks are critical, make sure to take them! At the end of the five minute break, start the twenty-five minute timer again. Repeat the process four times. At the end of those four “Pomodoro” periods, you set up a longer break, between fifteen and thirty minutes. The net result is that, in a period of two hours, you have put an hour and forty minutes into intense, focused work and effort, with twenty minutes of “slack time”.

Along with this approach, for it to be truly effective, a way to keep track of the time you are spending is important. This can be done with a notebook and an actual kitchen timer, or it can be done with a dedicated application that takes care of these steps (I use a program called Pomodairo to do this for me).

Screen Shot 2014-11-17 at 4.47.09 AM

Procrastination: Image courtesy of Wiki Commons

In most cases, placing a boundary of twenty five minutes is ample time for a session, but some tasks are, frankly, too frustrating or painful to deal with in full twenty-five minute blocks.  These are the areas where procrastination is all too familiar. Still, I know that I need to do these tasks, but struggle with getting them done even in this environment. What to do? For this, I am grateful to Merlin Mann and what he calls the “Procrastination Dash”. This is a modified Pomodoro approach, in which you set up ten minute intervals for focused heads down time, followed by two minute breaks, and then repeat the process five times. In this manner, one hour yields fifty minutes of focused attention and ten minutes of break time. More important, it’s a great way to focus on genuinely problematic tasks, or areas that may not require a full Pomodoro cycle to accomplish.

For me, the biggest benefit in using these approaches is that it gives me a target for focused effort, and it also gives me permission to take a break and do anything I want to with that break time. It gives me a chance to work on the things that are most important (or should be), and can also be used to “schedule in” fun things I can do on a given day. The key to using the technique is to be mindful of the time that is being applied, and how much attention you are placing on a given area.

3  Comments on this Post

 
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  • Ben Rubenstein
    I've always found the idea of scheduling 'fun activities' a bit depressing, but as my life has gotten busier (kid, work) I do find that portioning my time more deliberately could be a great help in staying sane and relaxed, and worrying less about what I should be doing. 
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  • Michael Larsen
    Ben, I hear ya' :). One of the things I find helpful about doing this is that I can do things with complete comfort that other things are covered, and that it's OK to do this. the funny thing is that, when I schedule the time to do "fun things", it takes me a little while to get into doing it, more so than if I just naturally drift towards it. On the other hand, I do find that, once I have gotten into that flow, the time goes by *really* fast. I look at the scheduling less as a "my life needs to schedule fun stuff" than it is that "I want to make sure I have covered enough ground in enough areas that, when I am doing that "fun" activity, that I have zero guilt in doing it. It also helps limit my having hours of my day devoured because I'm in a "zone" spending way more time than I intended (don't ask me why, but a simple trip to the garage to put a few things away can morph into my spending six hours and well into the late night "tidying up" this one extra thing or two, and then another, and then another).
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  • Ben Rubenstein
    Hey, it's not just kids who need structure. Sounds like something I might just try out (if I can find the time). 
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