Likely, we have all had experiences of procrastination. Procrastination, simply defined, is to delay or put off tasks. Yet colloquially, the way we define this term there is a negative connotation. We typically procrastinate when we want to avoid doing something less desirable. In fact we have a whole different term for putting off a reward for later: delayed gratification. While procrastination does have this negative association, there are times when procrastination actually can help, such as when needing to pause and give your brain a break during a creative “block.”
Understanding why humans have a tendency towards procrastination, and learning how to harness this impulse and put it to work for you is valuable. When we procrastinate, we often run up against a time pressure. However, you likely have heard people say, “I work best under pressure,” reframing the procrastination into a positive. Sure, the work gets done – but imagine what that would have been like without the stress and worry of an impending deadline to “pressure” you into the work. Our brains, however, favor immediate rewards. It is quite hard to convince our brains that we will feel better in the long run, if we buckle down and do the work, especially if there is a more tempting task more immediately rewarding. These days, the number of competing tasks that have more immediate rewards are everywhere – we have the internet in our pockets, streaming devices for our favorite shows, and social media. Your present “self” does not care as much about your future “self’s” gratification – your present self wants gratification now.
Fortunately, consultant Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro Technique, a time management technique meant to beat procrastination and fulfill your need for immediate gratification. The term is Italian for “tomato” and was coined by Cirillo because the timer that goes went with this technique is shaped like a tomato. Here is how it works:
- Turn off all distractions. Put your phone away from arm’s reach, shut off any distracting noises, and find a quiet place to work.
- Set a timer for 20-25 minutes. This is enough time to dive into a task, accomplish a fair amount, but is not so long of a period that it won’t be possible to convince yourself to do it. 20-25 minutes is a “bite-sized” chunk of time.
- When the time goes off, this is your reward time. Set the timer for 5 minutes, and enjoy your break. Check your phone, get updates on the game, and grab a snack. When the timer goes off again, you’ve completed one “Pomodoro,” or one segment of time.
- Restart the 25 minute timer, and resume the cycle.
The point of this technique is not to rush through the work, or finish everything within the 20-25 minute time period. However, research shows that we work better, and focus more efficiently, when there is a reward tied to our task. Since this reward is more immediate than the gratification of a finished job well done, your brain will be able to buckle down and do the necessary work in these 25/5 minute increments. This technique works best when working on one task at a time. If there is a large research paper due, and also a math worksheet to complete, switching between the two tasks during each Pomodoro is not recommended. Use the Pomodoro technique to knock out the research paper, give yourself a longer break, and then do the math worksheet when your brain is able to more fully focus on the one task at a time.
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