If you spend time working from home on tasks that require absolute concentration and attention to detail and have kids, you know these two aspects of your life can be incompatible. In other words, sometimes your deep work is not compatible with your dad work.
As the father of four young children, I have had this conflict come up regularly since law school. I have vivid recollections of outlining law books with a toddler on my lap, studying for the bar exam while having blocks tossed at me, and countless other projects performed with a kid crawling up my leg or back. Luckily, I have an amazing and helpful wife who always goes out of her way to keep the kids out of trouble when I have to work from home, but my kids are strong willed and things can still get raucous.
Ideally, it is a best practice to leave your work at work and focus on the home when you are home. But, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 lockdown, this is not always possible.
To deal with this distractions from your most precious treasures when working at home you need an approach that: 1) gets your work done quick, and 2) allows you to have the concentration necessary to get the task done right.
One trick allows you to both make quick work of tasks at home and keep your quality high even when the kids are acting crazy. That method is:
The Pomodoro Technique
This extremely simple, but effective, time management technique was invented by business consultant Francesco Cirillo for office workers, but I have found that I mostly use it when working from home.
Named for a popular kitchen timer that is shaped like a tomato “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato and Italians apparently have more appropriate design choices for kitchen timers than Americans. My timer is shaped like a 1950s sci-fi rocket, which is fitting for an American timer.
To execute the technique you take a timer, set it for 25 minutes, and work on a single task without doing anything else. At the end of a “pomodoro” of 25 minutes the alarm sounds, and you make a mark hash mark on a piece of paper and take about a 5 minute break. Once you have completed four 25 minute pomodoro cycles, you take a 25 minute break and start over. The working cycle takes about 2 hours and you can get a massive amount of work done in this time if you keep your attention focused.
This method takes advantage of the fact that it is tough for people to focus intensely on one thing for an extended period without getting distracted and mentally fatigued.
This is a similar system to what lifeguards use for their rotations at the pool to maintain vigilance. Every 20 or 30 minutes a whistle blows and the lifeguards rotate from the kiddie pool to the deep end and so on. After an hour, a life guard blow the whistle signaling for all the kids to get out of the pool. I suspect that the one hour break with the kids out of the pool is as much for the good of the lifeguards as it is for the kids.
While writing is not as high risk of a task as being a lifeguard, working at home with four young kids can feel like working in a kiddie pool.
Putting Pomodoros to Use
I have used the Pomodoro Technique to effectively to write articles, study for the bar exam, and complete countless other necessary tasks while working from home. It is my go-to time management approach when faced with a task that needs to get done quickly and my kids have other ideas.
To give an example of how I apply this, I had a writing task that I had to complete the other morning. After checking my email and calendar, I set aside two hours of uninterrupted time and blocked this time off on my calendar. I put my cell phone in a drawer to avoid any notifications and turned off computer notifications.
For the first pomodoro, I got to writing. When an important, but unrelated, thought popped into my head, I wrote it down to address later. At the end of 25 minutes, the alarm went off and I made a check mark in my notebook.
Then I took a short break. I try to do something physical during these breaks. I got a drink, walked around a bit, and said hello to the kids.
The second and third pomodoros were about the same. At one point my daughter came and said hello, which was fine. I stopped the clock and helped her for a bit and then got back to work. During the third pomodoro, I finished up my writing, which was a bit faster than I anticipated. I decided to devote to the fourth pomodoro to editing and proof reading.
After the fourth pomodoro, the alarm bell went off for the final time. This is a great feeling. I took 25 minutes to eat a snack and went for a walk with the satisfaction of completing a task. Then I started the cycle again with a new task.
The Pomodoro Technique works best when you have two hours of uninterrupted time to devote to tasks. For this reason, on days full of meetings, calls, and random interruptions, it can be tough to implement. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for a single 25 minute interval between activities.
In terms of meetings, in an ideal world there would be more 30 minute “Pomodoro” length meetings of full attention and fewer one hour meetings to take advantage of the limits of human vigilance. I do not see this happening anytime soon, but to the extent that you can control it, it is best to keep meetings short and focused to account to the inevitable decline in participants attention.
An additional challenge is that large numbers of Pomodoro intervals can be equally productive and exhausting. On the rare open days when I have done 12 or more Pomodoros (three sets of four each), I was wiped out at the end, even with the breaks. That said, I got a ton done.
I do not use the Pomodoro Technique for every task, but when I am distracted either because I have a lot on my mind or working in a distracting environment, it is a life saver.
If you want to give the Pomodoro Technique a try, it is remarkably simple. To summarize:
- Pick a task the requires attention and will take at least 25 minutes.
- Set a timer with an alarm for 25 minutes. It is important that you have a timer with an alarm instead of just checking the clock, which can by itself distract you. The alarm could be on your phone, watch, or a kitchen timer.
- Turn off all distracting reminders and set your phone aside.
- Start the timer and work with complete focus for 25 minutes straight.
- When the 25 minute alarm sounds make a check on a piece of paper and take a break of five minutes or so. Get out of your chair and move a bit during the break.
- After completing four cycles, take a longer break of 20 to 30 minutes.