You can do anything 25 minutes at a time. You’ll do it better if you take a short break every 25 minutes.
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Dave is standing on the dock, covered in sawdust. He’s been remodeling the galley of his trawler for the last few days. Being a trawler – a boat designed with visibility in mind, – it’s quite easy to see his progress. Being Dave, I’m expecting an entertaining conversation. Dave is a tugboat captain in Alaska in the summer. . “Most days, I have a lot of time to think,” is how he describes his work life. During the winter, he lives aboard his trawler. Most days, I understand very little of what Dave says.
“I’m about 6 boat units in so far, probably take another 3 to finish this.”
“What’s a boat unit?”
“The minimum amount of money it takes to complete the smallest project on the boat. It’s also a way to estimate time. A 1-boat unit project takes 2 or 3 hours.”
I soon started seeing the usefulness of Dave’s boat unit idea. I noticed there was a meeting unit, and it didn’t vary much across groups or organizations.
A meeting unit is the time a group can stay focused a task without tangents.
I saw that groups can work like the wind for 25 minutes, then they need a small break from that relentless focus. They rest by cracking a joke, making a personal comment, staring out the window, or checking email.
When I designed with the meeting unit in mind, I had to do less facilitation. Much less, especially in long meetings.
About this time, I came across the Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo. Cirillo has developed a simple time-management technique based on the writings of memory expert Tony Buzan.
According to Buzan, if you work for too long without a break, your understanding may increase, but your ability to remember what you understand decreases. Subsequent work can’t benefit from what you understand unless you can remember it. The highest quality work comes from this equation:
Understanding + Remembering + Rest = Learning.
During a rest period, the brain converts understanding to learning and makes it available for use, just like fertile farmland makes use of a rainstorm. Too much rain for too long and the water runs off carrying valuable topsoil with it. Even a brief let-up in a rainstorm allows the soil to absorb and be enriched by water. Taking a break does for the brain what a break in a storm does for the field.
To grow the best crops, a farm needs the optimal mix of nutrient-rich soil and moisture. To do its best work, the brain needs the optimal mix of understanding and memory.
The Pomodoro Technique achieves this optimal mix by alternating work units with rest units. A work unit is the unit of time the brain can balance understanding and remembering to produce its best work.
The work unit alternates with a rest unit, the length of time the brain needs to consolidate what it’s understood from the work unit. A work unit and a rest unit produce a learning unit, which makes the next work unit better.
Using the Pomodoro Technique is simple:
1. Set a noisy kitchen timer for 25 minutes and work with complete focus on a single task.
2. When the timer goes off, no matter how you feel about it, set the timer for a 3-5 minute break. During the break, do something that gives your mind a break. This is not answering emails or talking to a colleague about the problem at hand. A quick walk is good, making some tea, a doodle, or just staring into the middle distance.
3. After 4 pomodoros, take a longer break, about 15-30 minutes.
I’m using the Pomodoro Technique right now. I find it remarkably helpful for all sorts of tasks. If I love the task, I don’t burn myself out with my enthusiasm for it; if it’s a task I hate, I know I can get through it 25 minutes at a time.