I'm Matthew Setter, Freelance developer & consultant. I'm passionate about ethical hacking, security software engineering, software documentation, documentation, and teaching people all that I know.
Using the Pomodoro Technique to Improve Your Work Life Balance
As you may, or may not, know, I briefly stopped freelancing a few months ago, when I took up a full-time software development contract. I felt that I wasn’t doing as well at freelancing as I should, and that something needed to change.
To provide a little more background, the original intent of the contract was to be an on-going one, which would see me leave my freelancing days behind.
I didn’t say much about it on the blog. And it may come as a surprise, as I’ve always presented myself as a very avid and committed freelancer.
But whilst my clients are regularly very positive in their feedback of my writing work — something for which I'm very grateful and respectful of — on the marketing side of the equation, I’ve not felt that I’ve been as successful.
I Was Beginning To Doubt Myself
Perhaps I was too hard on myself. Or perhaps I was just too damn impatient to see progress evolve. I’d suggest that the truth lies, as always, somewhere in the middle.
I’d been feeling for some time that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be a freelancer. The seeds of self-doubt were steadily growing larger. I was thinking that, perhaps, I’d spent too much time in full-time roles, and that I was too old to make the transition to being my own boss.
Doubts such as these, the pressure of being the sole provider for my young family, and associating with more full-time, salaried employees, than business owners or freelancers, all had me feeling as though perhaps it would be a pragmatic, even practical, choice to go back full-time employed.
Given all of this, I felt it would be best, at least in the short-term, to take some time out and re-evaluate how I’d approached freelancing, weighing up what I’d done well, what I’d not done well, and see whether it was something which I should continue with.
So I did and felt that, on the whole, I’d done ok. But I definitely needed to make changes, if I were to return to freelancing again.
It Was Only a Freelancing Hiatus
As luck would have it, the contract turned out to be short term. Changes in company direction were made quite soon after I came on board, which lead to the contract not being renewed. So I found myself with the choice of whether to pursue another contract, or whether to take what I’d learned, and plunge back into freelancing.
Me being me, I chose the latter.
I felt before — and now — that freelancing is the work style which best suits my personality and the one which gives me the opportunity to be more around my young family than my parents were able to be during my childhood. So I chose to jump back in and begin applying what I learned during the period of introspection.
Balancing Work and Play
The first area I chose to focus on was how I balanced work and play. You see, my mind wanders randomly from topic to topic, often when I least want it to.
But then at other times, I’ll work for such long stints, that I feel burned out quite quickly, sapped of enthusiasm to push on, for the remainder of my working day.
So I went in search of a new technique, a new approach, one which would help me achieve better balance. After asking around, a technique I’d not heard of kept coming up. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique in a Nutshell
It’s based around the concept of time-boxing an activity. That is, you give a fixed amount of time to a given task, and don’t let yourself work “as long as it takes until it’s complete.”
During this time window, you focus solely on the task, to the exclusion of virtually everything else. If you think of something else you’d like to do, need to do, or forgot to do, you have two choices.
You can either write it down, and do it later on, or you can pause your Pomodoro, do the other task, and come back and resume the Pomodoro later.
When a Pomodoro’s complete, you then take a break, a break in which you can do anything you want — so long as it’s not work.
Typically, these time boxes last for 25 minutes. The breaks however vary. As you complete each Pomodoro, you keep track of how many you’ve done, typically a mark on a piece of paper.
If you’ve done less than four, you take a 5-minute break, then start another session. If you’ve done 4, then you take a longer break, typically between 10 and 15 minutes.
It’s Different - But It Works
Now this might seem strange to you, if it’s your first time hearing about it, and it’s still a little strange to me. But surprisingly, rewardingly, I’m finding that it works.
From experience, and research would tend to support this, the human brain can’t concentrate on a given task for too long, not effectively that is, without a break.
It especially cannot concentrate for 10 - 12 hour shifts (not without a dramatic drop-off in concentration and productivity).
So the technique focuses on having batches of work, with breaks so that the mind has both the opportunity to work uninhibited without distraction. But it also gives the mind the opportunity to take a break, to unwind, and to take in the work which was just completed.
I’m finding that it works really well, that I’m enjoying it, and that I’m being more productive each day. It’s only been two weeks, but it’s working.
You Can Get Started Today
If it’s something which interests you, if you feel you need a greater sense of balance between work and rest, then you can get started today, whether for free, or for a rather modest investment.
Whether you use a Mac, Linux, or Windows desktop, prefer to use a smartphone, or prefer pen and paper, there’s a way to get started.
Pen & Paper
If you prefer pen and paper, all you need to do is to have some kind of timer, whether that’s a countdown on your smartphone, kitchen timer, or the official Pomodoro timer.
On Android, there’s a range of apps which I’ve had a look at. These include ClearFocus, Pomicro, and Pomidoro Timer Focus, with my current favourite being Pomicro. In the free version, they provide everything you need, except the ability to pause a Pomodoro. For that, you unfortunately need the paid version.
I’ve not tried any on the iPhone yet, as I’m currently using an Android phone day to day. However, http://blog.equanimity.nl/blog/2014/12/08/3-best-pomodoro-timers-for-iphone/, three stand out from the pack. These are: Pomodoro Timer, Pomodoro Keeper, and Focus Time.
If you’re on the Mac, you’re overwhelmed with choice. Two apps, in particular, which I’ve tried are Pomodoro Time and Pomodoro Time Manager. Of the two, my favourite is Pomodoro Time Manager. I feel that it has a professional look and feel, integrates nicely with the Mac, and does a good mix of features and options.
If you’re on Windows, from research, three good options are: Pomodoro for Windows, Keep Focused, and MaToMaTo. I’m not a Windows user, so can’t personally vouch for any of them. But I’d love to hear your feedback if you are.
Finally, for Linux, Linux Magazine recommends Flowkeeper, Tomato Sauce, and Pomodorium. As with Windows, I’ve not used Linux on the desktop for some time, so I can’t recommend these apps myself. But I’d love to know which app you use, and what it’s like.
And that’s it!
I admit, it’s early days, so I can’t provide a concrete recommendation for the Pomodoro technique. But at least so far, it’s helped me begin to be more consistent in my approach and has given me the feeling of a greater balance and enjoyment, both of my work and play time.
I hope that you’ll consider applying the technique in your day-to-day life (and let me know if it positively impacted you).
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