(A version of this post was first published here on March 13, 2016.)
Have you seen the Pixar film Up? You know, the one about the old man (Carl) who inflates thousands of balloons to fly his house to the jungle, and accidentally gives a ride to an eager young Wilderness Explorer (Russell) who is trying to get his badge for helping the elderly. My favorite character in the movie is Dug, the friendly, enthusiastic dog that Carl and Russell meet partway through the movie. Dug is my favorite character not just because I love dogs, but because he perfectly illustrates my problem with multitasking. Take a look at this clip to see what I mean:
I used to be quite the multitasker. It felt so efficient to respond to each “squirrel” that flashed by, be it email, text, phone call, pile of dirty dishes, washing machine dinging that the load was done, and so much more since working from home during the pandemic. I’m sure you understand the issue here. As some of you know, my husband has a serious, debilitating chronic illness, which has gotten worse over the years. When I first wrote this post he was healthy, and even then I struggled to keep up. It’s so much harder now. I sometimes can’t keep up with the demands on my time. When living systems anxiety is high, I can be very much like Dug, in a world full of squirrels, all eager for my attention, with me more than ready to chase after each one. Why? Because it feels good to get stuff done, even if it’s not the stuff I should be getting done. It gives me a false sense of control during a time where I have very little control. Sound familiar to any of you?
A friend of mine introduced me to the Pomodoro method of time management years ago, and I’m still a true believer. I share this with many others, including many of my coaching clients over the years. It’s quite simple:
- At the beginning of the day, write down things you need to get done. It’s okay if the list is unrealistic. Prioritization is a topic for another time.
- Pick one thing from your list. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work on that thing and that thing only until the timer goes off.
- When the timer dings, take a 5 minute break.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 a few times, then take a 15 minute break.
- Start at number 2 again if you want to keep going with Pomodoros.
Pretty easy, right? The trick to making this work is that you cannot let yourself be interrupted during your 25 minutes. Phone ringing? Let it go to voicemail. Close your email or slack (unless that’s what you’re working on). Dog whining to go out? Well, maybe take care of that one, but pause your timer until you get back in.
I am naturally easily distracted, and I have too much on my plate simply because of life. The Pomodoro method allows me to be so much more efficient than when I’m chasing every squirrel. I don’t try to get in non-stop Pomodoros all day. If I have no appointments on a work day (a rare thing in itself), I will usually aim for just 5 or 6 Pomodoros, and then let the rest of my time be a bit more free of structure, because that’s how I work best. If half of my day is coaching appointments, I aim for just 3 Pomodoros. Even this helps me be more focused and efficient.
Another benefit to the Pomodoro method is that it can help you tackle those tasks that you don’t want to deal with. I get overwhelmed by my email inbox a lot these days, and then I distance because I’m embarrassed at how behind I get. (Any of you do that too?) That’s not fun for anyone. I’ve found that if I start the day with a Pomodoro for my email, I’m usually energized and ready to keep working on it even after the timer goes off. I haven’t done that in a while, but I’m starting that practice again, and it feels good.
The Pomodoro method is not a cure-all, but it is a system that has made a difference in my productivity at work and at home. What about you? Do you believe in multitasking, or do you find that you become less efficient when you try to do more than one thing at a time? Are you overwhelmed trying to balance all the things on your plate since the pandemic? Have you become a human jungle gym for small children while working from home?
I hope this method might help you the way it’s helped me.
Image by ryantron. Used under CC by 2.0 license.