Friday, January 1, 2016

My new pomodoro workflow

Pomodoro is a timeboxing technique. You set a Pomodoro timer for 25 minutes to get a task done. Then you take a break for 5 minutes, after which you can do another Pomodoro. Since Pomodoro imposes a limit on your work time, this adds a gaming element to the task.

I have been using the Pomodoro technique for 3-4 years now and I had written about that before. Recently I changed my Pomodoro usage significantly. Now I use Pomodoro more deliberately to achieve intense mental workouts and to force myself to get more creative and obtain transformative results.

Deep work versus Shallow work

The problem I want to attack with this new deliberate Pomodoro practice is the shallow work problem. Human brain is programmed to save energy and go easy on itself, so it prefers shallow tasks (such as watching TV, web browsing, answering emails) and tries to avoid intense thinking sessions required for many creative tasks such as writing, thinking on a proof, and designing an algorithm. As a result, we accumulate a lot of bad studying habits: we seem to be working but we take it slow, we get distracted with other thoughts and break our concentration. In other words, unless we are deliberate about it, it is easy to switch to a superficial shallow work mode, rather than an effective deep work mode.

(If you like to learn more about deep work versus shallow work, and improve your study habits to achieve deep work, I recommend you my friend/colleague Cal Newport's new book: Deep Work.)

Using Pomodoro in a more deliberate/mindful way, I aim to prevent shallow work and achieve better focus and intense concentration. Why is intense concentration this important? I had made this observation before: Intense concentration sessions followed by a rest period (meal, walking, playing with the kids) is helpful to cultivate creative ideas. The more intense the study session, the better chance you will have an epiphany/insight in your resting time. (A Coursera course titled "Learning How To Learn" also mentions this finding.)

Intense concentration builds tension about the problem in your brain. So in your resting time, your brain spawns several background processes that try to resolve this tension, and, voila, you get epiphanies about solutions. In order to preserve this tension and keep your brain obsessed about the problem, it is also helpful to focus on one problem/paper at any given day. My postdoc advisor Nancy Lynch would work on only one paper for any given week. "The way she worked with students was that she would dedicate herself solely on a student/paper for the duration of an entire week. That week, she would avoid thinking or listening other works/students. This is because, she wanted to immerse and keep every parameter about the paper she is working on in her mind, and grok it."

My new Pomodoro cycle

I now have a three phase Pomodoro cycle: 4 minutes of prePomodoro, 22 minutes of Pomodoro, and 4 minutes of postPomodoro. In the prePomodoro, I plan about what I will do, how I can go best about it, and how I can take an alternative and more productive route. In other words, I go meta about the task. By raising several questions I warm up my brain to get into an active attention state. In the Pomodoro, I do my best to get as much done in 22 minutes with intense concentration. In the postPomodoro, I first do a celebration routine; I stretch and walk around. This helps for associating positive feelings of accomplishment with a hard focused studying session. I then review my performance, and critique myself. What did I accomplish? What could I have done better? I write a tweet about this at a protected Twitter account, @YazarKata, that only I follow. This way when reading my own twitter feed @muratdemirbas, I can see/review my Pomodoro tweets as well. This postPomodoro is extensible, with a key press, I can always add another 4 minutes to work on completing the task in case the Pomodoro needs a little bit more work.

I also changed my Pomodoro software. I used to have a timer at the menubar, but now I replaced it with an Emacs script. I figured it makes more sense to have my Pomodoro workflow incorporated to my Emacs setup, because I live most of my productive life in Emacs and use the org-mode to organize my tasks. I adopted the pomodoro.el script, and modified it to use the Mac OSX "say" command to announce out special motivational messages at the beginning and end of my pomodoros. I am not disabling wifi during a Pomodoro anymore. My pomodoros are already very intense, so I don't have any urges, distractions to browse the web.

Maybe in a couple years time, I will have another update to report on this.

Related links: 

How I read a research paper
How to go for 10X
Research is a capricious mistress

1 comment:

Sagar said...

The structured procrastination method is an interesting contrast with yours. Have you found timeboxing / promodoro to be more effective for some tasks than others?

http://www.aaronsw.com/weblog/productivity
http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/