Focusing on work isn’t always easy. With some of the things that have happened to me this year, I have certainly had difficulty in concentrating at various times. After the BP conference in Lisbon, I was talking about this with the Brazilian translator and copywriter Ana Carolina Ribeiro and between us we came up with the idea of working in joint pomodoro sessions.
If you’ve never heard of pomodoros, they are concentrated 25-minute working sessions, each followed by a five-minute break. The technique was invented by an Italian student called Francesco Cirillo, who timed his sessions with a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro being Italian for tomato). He eventually wrote a book about them which sets out full pomodoro theory:
- Get a to-do list and a timer.
- Set the timer for 25 minutes and focus on a single task until the timer rings.
- When the session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed.
- Enjoy a five-minute break.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer 15-30-minute break.
There are also three important rules:
- Break down complex projects. That means any project which can’t be completed in 25 minutes should be split into smaller tasks.
- Small tasks go together. Conversely, if you have tasks that don’t need such a long time, schedule two or more of them for one pomodoro.
- Once a pomodoro is set, it must ring. In other words, you must concentrate on the scheduled task and not be diverted on to anything else, particularly checking e-mails or messages or browsing the internet.
Ana and I don’t actually follow all these rules. For a start, we don’t use a timer, we just set a time when we’re going to stop and have our break. Nor do we record exactly what we’ve done. But we remain true to the basic principle: 25-minute concentrated working sessions. In the breaks between, we talk on WhatsApp about what we’ve just been doing and what we plan to do in the next session.
The results have been impressive. From a time in May when I was struggling to get a proper day’s work done, I’ve reached a point where I’m generally happy with what I’m managing to do. One of the reasons is motivation. If you know you are going to have to account to another person at the end of 25 minutes for what you’ve done, you generally make sure you do it. And when one of us is struggling with a particular task, we encourage one another not to procrastinate.
Ana says: “Having tried it before, I knew the pomodoro technique was a useful strategy for focused work, but can’t say I adopted it consistently until we started our joint sessions. I soon realised that the easiest, most painless way to ensure that the dull administrative tasks get done on time is to tell Simon I need to do them on a particular day. This helps me to avoid procrastination in two ways: I would feel terribly embarrassed if I said I’d do something and didn’t, and I find myself trying to squeeze them into as few pomodoro sessions as possible.”
The challenge we face in applying the technique together is the five-hour time difference between my home near Barcelona and hers, in Uruguay. The fact that we’re not working or eating at the same time has led us to pomodoroing all kinds of tasks: cooking, washing up, language-learning and even housework. This situation should improve, however, when Ana moves to Portugal before the end of the year.
So I would recommend joint pomodoro sessions for anyone whose focus wanders at times. Having another person keeping an eye on you offers real motivation for getting everything done and it also reduces the isolation translators often feel. It can even be fun!