How an Italian Tomato Fixed My Brain

on September 21, 2011

Tomato Vine

I’m a productivity nerd. I’ve tried more to-do applications and note-taking systems than I can remember, and have built up several ridiculous systems to help me stay organized over the years. I think geeks typically build systems for two reasons:

  1. Most geeks have some form of ADD. Seriously.
  2. Geeks typically have a lot of complex tasks and projects to manage, and our brains aren’t dependable enough on their own to remember everything.

So, we love systems. That’s why I was so excited to hear our CEO Nick Holland, in a recent meeting, explain his favorite productivity system to the room. He indicated that our large gathering would easily go off the rails and he suggested we run the meeting on Pomodoros to keep us on track. He explained that a Pomodoro was a time cycle: the group would work for twenty-five minutes without ceasing, and when time ran out, we’d take a five minute break. (And we’re talking a full “Class, drop your pencils” break – no focusing on the project during those breaks.)

Pomodoro TimerPomodoro is the Italian word for “tomato”, aptly named after the Italian kitchen timers the system was born from.

I was reminded of a system called (10+2)*5, which cycles ten minutes of work for a two minute break. Do this five times to compile sixty minutes, or one hour of productive work completed. I tried this and honestly found the (10+2)*5 system to be a little too spastic: I’d find myself just digging into a task when the break bell rang. Consequently the two minutes would fly by, leaving me knee deep in reading tweets or checking email but with a system that told me to get back to work.

Currently I use a Pomodoro app from the Mac App Store, which is extremely simple yet customizable. (And offers the essential ability to turn off the timer ticking sound!) There are also great apps for iOS and Android, which can be extremely helpful in managing a meeting like Nick did.

The Pomodoro system allows you a nice solid chunk of time to focus in on a task, dissect it into it’s basic moving parts, and take care of it in an organized manner. I choose one task or task group to work on and when the break bell rings, I’m often amazed at how much I accomplished just by refusing to devote attention to anything else.

A little science: our caffeine-riddled and overworked brains often misinterpret a new email or IM message as an urgent need and so we get caught up in things that really could wait in line behind the task at hand. Author Tim Ferriss refers to these as “manufactured emergencies”, and many have mentioned our brain’s amygdala (or “The Lizard Brain”) creating fear about scenarios that likely will not take place. By focusing in on what’s really important and ignoring those nagging feelings of dread when you don’t check your email every two minutes, you’re refusing your base instincts and pushing forward to creating your best work.