Tweaking Pomodoro

What is known as the pomodoro technique is a common time management method. Set your (kitchen) timer to 25 minutes, and work until time is up. Take a short break and repeat. There is no particular reason for setting the time to 25 minutes, though, except that the person popularizing this particular variant used 25 minutes. I have recently discussed this with a friend, mentioning that I often use this with much shorter periods, like 10 minutes. I do this, when I need to get started — the first 2 minutes of writing tend to be the hardest one. On the other hand, once I get into the flow, I find any solution with popups or audible sounds (i.e. almost all of those I know) quite distracting. Perhaps I’m calling for a timer that starts with 10 minutes and then automatically sets itself to 20 or 40 minutes to motivate me to keep going?

Image credit: CC-BY Lenore Edman.

Another use for pre-registration plans (PAP): help yourself

Pre-registration plans (PAP) rightly become more common (they are still not common enough yet, I think), but here’s a reason to write up a PAP that I have never seen mentioned before: Pre-registration plans can be immensely useful for yourself!

So, you have come up with a clever analysis, and writing the PAP has helped sharpen your mind what exactly you are looking for. You then collect your data, finish off another project, and … what was it exactly I was going to do with these data? Did I need to recode the predictor variable? etc.? Yes it happens, and a pre-analysis plan would be an ideal reminder to get back into the project: PAP can be like a good lab journal or good documentation of the data and analysis we do — a reminder to our future selves.

Tracking Revisions Step by Step

Sometimes my work involves revisions that take a considerable amount of time, and I split the work over a longer period. Revising a page every day makes the work much less daunting. Here is how I go about staying motivated: a graph to track the revisions.

When doing revisions, I first identify the changes I want to make (e.g. in response to reviewer comments), and then identify where exactly in the manuscript I’m going to make changes. In a word processor, I usually use “comments”. This is work that usually does not take me long, but the revisions can. So I count the number of pages, and the number of comments, and track them in a simple spreadsheet. Whenever I have “done” one of the comments, I remove the comment in the manuscript, and update the progress chart.

Here’s what this looks like. At the top, I track the progress, with a row for each day until the target date. At the beginning of a day, I copy over the values from the day before, and update them as I go along. At the bottom, there’s a simple graph, with a smoothed trend line. On top of the graph, I draw lines that link to the target date, and to roughly a week before that. This gives me a range where my lines should be if I’m making progress as planned.

I also include a shaded area for situations where I know I won’t be (able to) doing any revisions.

In this particular instance, a journal article, I was “on target” at the beginning; then follows a day (Thursday, week 1) where I made progress on the comments front, but not in terms of pages. It was a combination of many comments on a single page and removing text. Later, after the planned time off, I managed to address many comments in one go (Tuesday, week 2), and at the end we have the list of references, so a rapid progress in terms of pages.


Here’s another example, of a longer project. In this instance, I added two shaded areas after the fact (“no work on the train”, “computer died”), in addition to the planned time off (“visitors”). HT1 etc. is just a peculiar way to refer to week names.


In this case, I actually started a bit slow, not tackling many comments, and falling behind in terms of pages. Perhaps these were rather substantive comments, or I struggled to get back into the project. With the chart on the progress, I could see that I needed to put in more effort if I wanted to finish on time. We can also see a “classic” situation in the first shaded area; I planned to do revisions on the train, but after successfully getting into the range just before (at least for the red line), the pressure was off, and I did other things.

During the second week, I progressed well, perhaps in anticipation that I wouldn’t get any work done with visitors around (second shaded area). Then the computer died (as Murphy’s law dictates), but with a quick replacement and a range for the target, this would not throw me off. As in the example above, at the end we have the list of references, which means rapid progress.

One final note, the lines on top of the figure are deliberately not parallel, but narrow at the beginning and wide at the end. This way the figure is less forgiving at the beginning, but once I am into the revisions, remains flexible.

Why am I doing all this? To keep motivated when 275 pages and 376 comments seem too much to get started, or when these three weeks seem so far away. The figures help start early and keep going (at least one comment a day).

Pomodoro Breaks My Flow: Disable Notifications

What goes by the name of the Pomodoro technique these days can be useful to get work done when procrastination lures. It’s a simple technique: set a timer for 25 minutes, and work until the time is up. Then take a break, and repeat. To resist the urge to do something else, there is a simple solution: have a pen and paper ready (e.g. next to the computer mouse). When these e-mails “need urgent checking”, draw a little dot on that paper instead, and get back to work.

There is one problem with the Pomodoro technique, though: it can break flow. So it happens that I start writing, and at a moment when the world outside has temporarily ceased to exist, the timer goes off. That’s a nuisance. I could set the timer to a longer period of time, but then sometimes 25 minutes are quite long already. Here’s a simple solution: disable the notifications altogether. I use a simple timer that changes its icon from white to yellow when the time is up. If I’m in a flow, that (white) icon has temporarily ceased to exist, so I don’t care if it changes colour. If I struggle to keep going, the change of colour comes as a relief.

My Favourite Way to Procrastinate: Read about Productivity

I won’t keep you long… we can procrastinate in many different ways, so many ways to do something “easier” for our brains than what we wanted to do. My favourite? Spending hours reading how we can spend our time in more productive ways — rather than just doing what we wanted to do. Now get back to work.