The chicken and the egg-timer

Dear friends

I don’t mean this to sound weird, but it’s really nice to be able sit down and write to you. It’s a good feeling to write something you don’t have to write, to someone you like – writing that doesn’t require the use of an egg-timer. I don’t know if you get anything from it, but I get a lot.

I suppose you never know how letters are received, or what use they are. In his book about death, Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes describes the day he discovered that the leather beanbag that had been in his family lounge as long as he could remember had been stuffed not with foam or Styrofoam chips or even, I suppose, beans, but with his parents’ old love letters, ripped and torn into mouse-nest shreds. All his childhood and adolescence he had been flopping down on the macerated morsels of his parents’ words of undying devotion.

How had this happened? Had there been some sort of acrimonious parting? No, they were still bumbling along together, a practical, undemonstrative pair, sleeping in the same bed as they’d always done. It’s just, his mom explained, that they needed stuffing for the beanbag.

I suppose there are worse fates for a letter than to provide someone with a comfy place to wiggle his bottom after a hard day. I shouldn’t think these letters are anywhere near as useful as that, but at least I have something practical to share with you today.

For the past few weeks I have become convinced that I’ve discovered something new, a technology hitherto unknown that will revolutionise the world and our experience of time itself. Certainly, it has changed my working life, and I don’t exactly know how. It’s a mystifying phenomenon, greater than the sum of its parts, and I would truthfully describe it as the closest thing to magic I’ve encountered.

Not to build this up too much and then have you throw your device across the room in disgust when you discover that my invention isn’t a time-machine (although it is, in a way) or an invisibility cloak or a flying dog, let me just tell you upfront that what I discovered is a productivity technique, a way of structuring my work time. That sounds dreary and not worth the telling, and maybe it isn’t, but I find it interesting and it helps me, and you’re my friends so I want to tell you in case it helps you too.

When last we spoke I was fretting about an amount of work I had to do, with deadlines looming like serried rows of razor-backed mountains on the horizon in my way. Rather than actually doing the work, I interested myself in trying to calculate whether it was literally possible to do the work in the time available. But I didn’t have the data. How much measurable work goes into a column? How many minutes to write a speech, or a script, a treatment? I know roughly how long it takes to get things done, but how much of that time is actually working, and how much of it is spent making prank phone calls and goading English rugby supporters on Twitter? I needed to get scientific.

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I found a sort of large egg-timer that measures fifteen minutes. I sat down to a task and turned over the glass. Normally I work for six or seven minutes then stand up and wander around and try on my jacket to see if I’ve lost weight since I wore it last, but in my Marie Curie-like hunger for accurate data I worked for the full fifteen minutes, then made a little pencil mark on a piece of paper. I took a five-minute break, then sat down again.

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The idea was to work like that until the script was finished, then count up the little marks to figure out precisely how much work-time it took, but it soon became clear that something was different. Working that way wasn’t just measuring how much time the job took took – it was changing how much time it took.

If the amount of work I normally do in a minute is x, the amount of work I completed in one 15-minute block wasn’t 15x, it was more like 20 or 30x, and the effect accelerated, the more blocks I wrote. I was expecting the project to take four hours, typically spread over maybe seven hours or eight hours (it was a half-hour script for a television show) but it took 90 minutes, spread over just under two hours.

I tried it again, and again, with different projects, and the same thing happened. It’s obviously a function of enforced concentration and focus – during those fifteen minutes you cannot check messages or do anything but work – but it seems to also build a spooky internal momentum of its own. Once you push past a certain point something happens that isn’t identical to but is similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s notion of Flow. Time itself seems to bend – the minutes pass faster, but more happens inside them.

I experimented with different lengths of time and intervals. Less than fifteen minutes was too short, more than fifteen and I started flagging and faltering. And the five-minute break seems to be key, not just because it gives you something to work towards, but because something happens during those five minutes when you aren’t actively thinking about the work, but the work is still in there, working itself out. The second block of fifteen is more productive than the first, and the third more than the second.

I’m sure there’s some science to this – you’re combining the benefits of active top-down focus with the deeper workings of bottom-up creativity, and probably also something about neural myelin sheaths, blah, blah, blah – but I prefer to cradle and cherish it as a kind of personal magic.

I was very excited about my discovery, but of course there’s nothing new under the sun. Some chap named Francesco Cirillo developed something called the Pomodoro Technique in the late 1980s – so called because he used a tomato-shaped pomodoro kitchen timer, instead of my elegant quarter-hour-glass.

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His timings are different to mine: he works for 25-minute blocks, with 3 to 5 minute breaks for the first four blocks, then a 15 to 30 minute break, then starting again. It sounds swell, but only a monkish monomaniac can work for 25 uninterrupted minutes at a time without needing some sort of blood transfusion afterwards.

(And not even monks. Famously, the desert fathers who took to the sands of the Egyptian desert in the first monasteries in order to consecrate their days to silence and studying religious texts and copying out the gospels struggled to get past midday. In their diaries, they all comment on how the mornings went pretty well, but then they would be struck by the afflictions and temptations of the Noonday Demon, who would try to deflect them from their holy work by making them restless, dissatisfied and causing their minds to wander. Afternoons in the desert, even for holy fathers with no Wifi, were a write-off.)

My recipe is an hour containing three blocks of fifteen minutes each, followed by an hour or so of strolling or swimming, followed by another hour of work then a good long lunch and perhaps a nap (I spend most of my year in the Greek islands, where a nap at lunchtime is a patriotic duty) and then repeat in the afternoon. No one doing mental work can do more than three or four intensive hours in a day without fooling themselves.

A total of three hours in front of the screen, using this method, gets the work done that used to take about three days of grumbling pasty-faced dissatisfaction. Maybe it won’t work for you, maybe it’s just me. I offer it to you in case it does.

Anyway, I hope you’re happy, wherever you are, and that whatever problems you may have are more interesting than wranglings with productivity and overcoming your own slothfulness.

with very great love to you

Darrel

ps. Just so you know – no egg-timer was used in the writing of this letter.

13 thoughts on “The chicken and the egg-timer”

  1. I think it’s possible to do anything for 25 minutes so that makes it feel less overwhelming. And it stops me from ‘multi-tasking’ which is really just jumping about from writing, to email inbox, to facebook, to a news site, to my writing again. We use Pomodoros on campus and at our writing retreats. We even treat our Postgraduate students to coffee to do them 🙂 There’s something decidedly magical about doing them together too. All silently beavering away at whatever we’re busy with. Positive peer pressure, I guess.

    1. Ah well! For me it is not possible to do anything with intensity for twenty-five minutes, and certainly not if it’s going to be repeated through the day, so I prefer the more focused 15-minute block. But I think I’m on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to being able to sit still and write. I did recently do a several pomodoros with a couple of friends who were visiting in Greece, sitting at a tavern on Poros, and it went well enough, although I do become very tempted to chat and order more wine.

  2. You are absolutely right that your letters, though written with such love for your readers, fail to offer the comfort Julian Barnes’ parent’s love letters did. I can attest to this because I tried it out. All I have, after much bottom wiggling, is a cracked laptop screen. Perhaps, though, it’s not your letters. Perhaps my bottom is bigger or bonier than Barnes’.

    Thank you for the egg timer idea. I’ve tried Pomodoro sporadically and when I have used it to help meet deadlines it has worked. But then I forget about it for months at a time. I think I will invest in a real timer, which won’t disappear from view as easily as a virtual one. (One of my problems with Pomodoro, though, was the length of the breaks rather than the working sessions. Five minutes seemed to be too short even to make a cup of coffee and 15 to walk the dogs. I’d inevitably return to my desk long after my ‘short break’ was over.)

    1. Look, in terms of the length of time of the breaks and what-not, you have to find what’s best for you. Whatever works to improve your productivity is the period or pattern you should use, and you should adapt it to that. I would say though that the point of the five-minute break isn’t to go make a cup of coffee, or whatever. It’s just a break from the intensity, a time in which to switch off the conscious mind, and if you do three blocks, that’s an hour and then you have a longer break in which to make your coffee, or walk your dog or whatever. I use the countdown function on my phone to send a message after five minutes, and the point of the timer is that you return when it sounds, the moment it sounds. I think the idea is not to think of those five-minute gaps as recreation, therefore demanding more time to do whatever it is you would like to be doing, but as a different phase of the work hour, thus putting the responsibility on you to make whatever you’re doing fit in with the fave-minute gap. If it takes longer than five minutes, then that’s something you can’t do in a five-minute gap.

  3. I do so enjoy the tone of your letters, you have a knack of making them seem personal. Thank you. The timer idea is great, so positive – I hear no mention of procrastination or A D D. Neither of these would be relevant though, would they?

    1. Well, procrastination and an abbreviated or wavering attention (I don’t precisely know that it’s necessary to pathologise everything, as we seem to do nowadays) are precisely what it’s intended to combat.

  4. I am cleaning up my inbox, and found this gem, as a little present for end of year diligence and zen-inbox-approach. I thank you.

  5. I was actually having a fairly productive day at work until I read that in a brief moment of inattention, following which I spent 15 minutes on the internet looking for an hour glass to put on my desk. I haven’t done any work since.
    I know you could use an app on your phone to perform this function, but that would get me playing on my phone and checking Twitter for at least 5 of the 15 minutes. And I’d keep looking at my phone to see how much time is left. And then noticing a red number 10 sitting temptingly over the Whatsapp icon.
    I love the idea though. I have the mind of a butterfly over a field of flowers. The flap of its wings could potentially cause a tornado halfway across the world, but most of the time it just flits to something more colourful.
    Now, time to focus what I was doing. If I could just remember what it was.

    1. No! An app on the phone is entirely unacceptable. It must be an egg-timer, so that you can sit and watch the grains of sand running through, and feel connected to the procrastination of our fathers and grandfathers,

  6. Thanks Darrel – Great post. I too am now looking for a 15 minute timer. What is it actually used for? Surely not eggs?

    1. I know, it fells odd calling it an egg-timer. I wanted to call it an hour-glass, but that obviously wouldn’t be right either, and a quarter-hour-glass was just misleading. I don’t actually know where to buy them – mine was given to me ages ago as a corporate gift by someone inviting me to some event fairly unrelated to hour glasses or productivity. I do know they’re available though, because readers have sent me pictures of theirs. I will try to find out for you,

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