17th December, 2020
New Zealand went into several different stages of lockdown during the recent COVID-19 pandemic. However, for a student like me, not much seemed to change. Being sent home to … er … keep doing research … was not really much of a change or a burden.
Please do not misunderstand me: I realise how hard it was for so many people with changes to their routines and income. This pandemic was a disaster in every sense. However, in the midst of it and in the intervening months following our release from lockdown here in New Zealand, I have seen examples of how people around me thrived. I saw all sorts of creative approaches for how to figure out what the “new normal” was supposed to look like.
One approach that has worked for me for a long time is called Pomodoro. It is a technique that helps me focus on a task for a set period of time, take a controlled break, and then resume without losing the flow. My pomodoro time during a typical day looks like the program below:
If you are not a coder, just try reading it as plain English. The first stage is about getting organised. Retreat away, turn off all interruptions (Facebook, Instagram, my smartphone, email, WhatsApp, … you get it …). Coffee is essential. OK, so tea works but not as well …
I find a pomodoro length of sixty minutes works for me. Some people find twenty or thirty minutes works best for them. Experiment until you find out your optimal work-chunk size. Then, the loop starts:
drink coffee … read … think … code … write … rewrite … refactor the code ….
Keep doing that until the interval is complete. No sneak checks of social media or email. That’s cheating. Believe me, unless something out there is on fire or one of your children managed to flush a sibling down the toilet, it can wait. Your creativity is allowed to take precedence.
Sometimes, my daughter Michaela and son-in-law Luke lend me their dog Axl Rose for company during the day. He loves these cycles since almost every pomodoro cycle involves a quick walk around the block for us if he is here. He quickly settles into the rhythm; dogs just get this stuff instinctively.
It’s not complex. The secret is to figure out how not to break your concentration and stay in the flow. I only take a short break each cycle. It is often in those breaks, walking, making fresh coffee or letting Axl chase the neigbour’s cats out of our garden, that I see solutions to problems that I could not see sitting at my desk.
Over the last few years, I have taught this technique to a lot of my students. Give it a try! This YouTube video is a great introduction to Pomodoro.
The video mentions that background music without lyrics can be helpful. YouTube has this great collection of the Best of Chopin you can try.