Knowledge workers are way too precious. I mean, some of them actually call themselves "knowledge workers." But, to be fair, their jobs can be tricky. They "can't seem to get anything done at the office," and sometimes it's even more trouble at home. So they try going to coffee shops, take up meditation, subscribe to a couple hundred podcasts, clear out the self-help section at the bookstore, begin to develop arcane rituals, turn to Sour Patch Kids and drugs and productivity seminars, hire a staff of coaches and therapists, and eventually, most of them die.
These problems don't plague other kinds of work in quite the same way. You finish installing the switch before you run the conduit. You clean the patient's skin before you make the incision. You get the lunch out to the customer 10-15 minutes from when they've ordered. Most types of work in the world are done a) with clear time constraints and b) with other people around. Applying a) or b) alone is ineffective for most knowledge workers. Applying them together is the magical key to everything...
Applying clear time constraints1 alone to knowledge work can be helpful for a time, but here's how it usually goes:
See Parkinson's Law: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. This is particularly true for "creative" tasks. ↩︎
The Deeply Frustrated Knowledge Worker uses the Pomodoro Technique1 to "trick" herself into doing a thing she has resistance to doing, and she even talks about it in this way.
If you're reading this, you probably already know what the Pomodoro Technique is, but if you don't, this is the whole shebang:
- Pick a thing to work on.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on the thing for 25 minutes.
- Take a five minute break.
- Pick another thing to work on.
It's a very simple way to add a time constraint. Someone who is mowing a lawn, treating a patient, or manufacturing a widget doesn't need to artificially create constraints. But you do. ↩︎
I just say I'm going to work on this for 25 minutes, and before I know it, I've done the whole thing!— The Pomodoro Tourist, So Excited
The person who says this has generally used the Pomodoro Technique between 2 and 4 times, and her Resistance (BrainBorg) just hasn't adapted to the frequency yet—oops, there it is—that thing that worked a second ago? Now it doesn't work anymore. Like so many "productivity hacks," it was too good to be true.1
Let's be honest: My 3-year-old would call bullshit on this one within the first three attempts. ↩︎
Anyway, now you're fucked. The BrainBorg has adapted.
Like the person whistling in the dark above, most Pomodoro Honeymooners:
- Start skipping Pomodoro breaks.
- Stop setting clear intentions before each Pomodoro.
- Stop honoring the intentions set during the Pomodoro.
The Pomodoro loses all meaning, and they’re left right where they were, unmoored, scared, and alone. Worse, they now have guilt about another tool that “they just know works but for some reason they don’t have the discipline to use it.”
This might be where you are right now, particularly if you're someone that is new to remote work and (guiltily) had the thought that "I mean I know the pandemic is very bad but maybe now I'll FINALLY BE ABLE TO GET MY WORK DONE!"
How's that working out?1
Remote work can really suck.
- We’re social animals (yes, introverts too). It’s nice to interact with humans from time to time.
- You can do whatever task at any time. This is not helpful.
But it doesn't have to suck... ↩︎
Before you head down a dangerous road (the fact you're reading this is evidence that you may already be on the path to Productivitytown™️), beware. This path goes to a lot of very unproductive places that on the surface look like just the thing you need.
But I'm tired and weary... I need to do my work and I want to do my work but I just can't seem to get my work done. Also, I'm lonely and scared.— The Pomodoro Tourist, Less Excited
I get it, I really do, and so just before you—put down the Tim Ferriss book, put it down for just a second!—just hear me out. If you aren't at Inbox Zero for another 15 minutes, you're still a valid person, I promise.
I can personally assure you, the answer is not any form of Try Harder™.
Consider instead this one exceedingly simple thing that is really nothing more than emulating what most of the workers in the world already do.1
You know, the people who actually touch real things with their hands and who made everything that is around you holding your entire life together... Essential Workers is such an accidentally revealing term, isn’t it? ↩︎
Introducing the Communal Pomodoro
I learned this concept from the app/community at Complice, where they have these coworking videochat rooms with synced pomodoro timers and strangers. I think it works even better with coworkers and people you know, though.1
The Communal Pomodoro simply amends two of the steps in the traditional Pomodoro Technique:
- Pick a thing to work on and tell your pomodoro friends what you're going to work on.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes (or 44, or 50, whatever you all agree on).
- Work on the thing for the timer. No talking.
- Take a five minute break and talk to one another, celebrate successes, and goof off.
- Pick another thing to work on.
Not only does the Communal Pomodoro leverage the benefits of accountability and strength in numbers to defeat the BrainBorg's awesome power, it completely remove the problem of distraction while retaining all the benefits of social interaction. It is so simple, so elegant, and you never need to feel this way again.
One fun side benefit: Because so many of us are working remotely now, this is an opportunity to pick your own coworkers, not necessarily from your own company. I have been doing pomodoros with my good friend who works in the finance department of a marketing company. In fact, right now, as I'm writing these words, he's on the screen next to me, working on some spreadsheet financial report thing. There are 12 minutes left on our current pomodoro, and when it's done, we'll have a few minutes to hang out before the next one. My wife and I do pomodoros together. It's really quite nice spending quality time while helping one another get important work done. At the simplest level, you can cobble together Cuckoo and a FaceTime call. To be able to schedule a 50 minute pomodoro anytime you like with a stranger, FocusMate is an incredible tool.
If you ever want to do some pomodoros with me, consider signing up for my PEN (Personal Email Newsletter) and maybe we'll serendipitously connect in some way.
I leave you with this wish:
May all of your pomodoros be nourishing.