Does any of this sound like you?

  • “I’ll start writing as soon as I’m done browsing the Huffington Post.”
  • “I’ll just finish writing these e-mails, then I’ll start writing.”
  • “I love this Dr. Who episode!  I’ll just watch a few minutes …”
  •  “I can’t work with all this clutter in my office.  Let me just spend some time straightening up, and then I’ll write.”
Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And three hours later, the only thing that’s changed is that your stress and guilt of gone up, because you still haven’t started working.  If all this sounds too familiar, try using this simple technique to beat Procrastination one small step at a time.  Whether your own challenge is that of procrastination, or that of having too many demands placed on your time, the Pomodoro technique can help you successfully manage your time and keep you moving forward through the dissertation writing process.

Invented by Francesco Cirillo in 1992, this technique will help you turn the large undertaking that is your dissertation into lots of tiny, manageable pieces known as pomodoros—the Italian word for tomato.  And all you need is a kitchen timer, a pencil, and 3 pieces of paper.  Cirillo’s original timer was actually shaped like a tomato.  Your timer can be whatever you like; though for reasons you will see in a moment, I suggest that you not use your cell phone.

To begin, create a To Do Today list.  Here write down a separate list of those things that need your attention today, listing each activity in order of priority.  Depending on your work style, and where you are in your dissertation process, this task may include anything from reading an article, to writing a paragraph or page, to outlining your next chapter.  It should also include other activities, such as grading papers, grocery shopping childcare, and other personal activities.  Your objective, as you go through the day, is to work your way down this list in 25-minute increments.

image courtesy of theprocrastiwriter.com

image courtesy of theprocrastiwriter.com

Pick up your kitchen timer, set it for twenty-five minutes, the length of one pomodoro, and begin with the first task on this list.  When the timer dings, you’re done!  Take a three-to-five-minute break.  Get up, stretch, get a drink, and give your body and mind a break.  Don’t think about whether what you just wrote is good enough, whether your director will like it, or any future edits that may need to be made .  Clear your mind of everything till it’s time to start the next pomodoro.  Keep track of each completed pomodoro on your piece of paper, and repeat the process as many times as you can.

After every four pomodoros, take a longer break, fifteen to thirty minutes.  Take advantage of this break for slightly longer, though still not overly complex activities.  Listen to music.  Take a short walk.  Go down the hall and chat with a friend or colleague.  However you spend that time, make sure that you are truly giving your mind a rest from the activity you were completing during your last pomodoro.  You may be surprised at how many pomodoros you can complete.

There are three simple rules to keep in mind.  One, pomodoros are indivisible, two, the pomodoro must ring, and three, you must stop when the pomodoro rings, even if you feel like you’re just minutes away from finishing that chapter!  If you don’t complete apomodoro, it must be voided and started over.  Second, if the pomodoro is started, it must ring, or the pomodoro is voided.  So, if you finish an activity before the pomodoro rings, use the remaining time to review the activity you just completed until the timer rings.  If activities are not long enough to require a whole pomodoro, then group several related smaller activities together and combine them into one.  These could be activities such as sending email, or making phone calls.  Lastly, if you are just minutes away from finishing that chapter, you must still get up, take your break, and finish the chapter during the next pomodoro.

Another essential component of Cirillo’s technique is to effectively manage disruptions, as these are often one of the biggest stumbling blocks to productivity.  There are two types of disruptions: those that are internal, that come from within us, and those that are external, or created by others.  Internal disruptions are particularly problematic, as they are often insidious, and can consume a surprising amount of time.  As you work your way through each pomodoro, take note of those sudden internal distractions: the desire to get a glass of water, to email your friend about going for coffee, feed the cat, or order tickets for that concert you want to go to next weekend.  On a separate sheet of paper, keep a list for unplanned activities. Write down each internal interruption on that list, then leave it, and continue with your pomodoro.  You can then handle these new activities in one of three ways:  you can include them in the next pomodoro in place of, or in combination with, other activities, they can be re-scheduled for later during the day, or they can be moved from Pomodoro to Pomodoro if possible till the end of the day.  You will probably find that many of those items will not seem nearly as urgent as they did when you first thought of them.  In fact, you may find that some of them can be handled by simply scheduling them into another day’s pomodoros.

With the proliferation of the internet and mobile technology, external interruptions have only continued to increase.  So before you begin, remove as many of these disruptions as possible.  Close your email, and your Facebook page.  Turn off your cell phone, and all the connectivity that goes with it.  Make sure any family members or roommates—including pets–know that you are not to be disturbed.  But what about that student who stops by your office without an appointment?  Or the call from your colleague who wants to discuss your upcoming conference presentation?  You have a couple of choices.  You can either remove them before beginning your pomodoro, or work out a resolution with the parties involved.  The former is often easily accomplished.  Simply let phone calls go to voicemail.  Close your office door, and, again, your email program.  But for those interruptions that persist, despite all your precautions, you’ll have to learn to Protect the Pomodoro.  Cirillo suggests the acronym INC, Inform the individual that you cannot talk with them, Negotiate—i.e. reschedule the interruption, and then Call back, as agreed during the negotiation phase.  Implementing this strategy places control of external interruptions in your hands, by allowing you simply to reschedule them, perhaps including them in a future pomodoro.

The idea here is quite simple.  Though writing three-hundred pages is overwhelming to most of us, writing a paragraph is a much more palatable undertaking.  If you’ve made it this far in your graduate program, you’ve written many paragraphs and even pages already.  Similarly, while the prospect of writing for four hours may feel completely overwhelming, you can do anything for twenty-five minutes, even tackle those intimidating revisions, or continue working on that lit review.  So, though you may in fact write for four hours, your only commitment at any given time is to that one pomodoro.  And each pomodoro builds on the one before, leading you one step at a time to your final goal of a completed dissertation.

For many ABDs, it seems that the dissertation is all-consuming, leaving little time even for other responsibilities, much less for enjoyment or pleasure.  The pomodoro technique can help you not only in beating procrastination and making steady trackable progress toward a finished dissertation, but it also allows you to organize your time so that you can plan for some of those other things that you either need or want to include in your life.  Anything can be assigned a pomodoro.  Have to teach a class or pick up your kids?  Want to spend some time on Facebook?  Fine.  Just include it in your To Do Today list, and assign it to one of your pomodoros for that day.  Remember, each pomodoro is a complete unit, whether or not the entire activity is completed.  Once you’ve finished one, savor your accomplishment, take your allotted break, and move on to the next pomodoro.  You are then free to meet your next obligation, with no guilt over walking away from whatever is still unfinished.  Put it on your next day’s to-do list, and keep writing, one tomato at a time.

For more information about the Pomodoro technique, including Cirillo’s complete manual, see http://www.pomodorotechnique.com.