PhD Time Management and the Pomodoro Technique: How to Take Control of Your Time

Time management

PhD Time Management and the Pomodoro Technique

How to Take Control of Your Time

Remember, time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round!


Getting PhD Work Done… or Cleaning the Kitchen

I felt elated when I won funding to spend three years focusing on a PhD on something I love. What could go wrong? I’ve got plenty of time. This is going to be a walk in the park, or so I thought. The reality was that it was one of the most challenging things I have done. The constant uphill struggle of sitting down at my desk or in a cafe with my computer seemed such an abhorrent thought. Suddenly the kitchen needed cleaning, washing needed to be put in the machine, clothes needed hanging, the cat needed shampooing, anything other than having to look at my work. It was only when I had mounting pressure that I sat down to write, reluctantly. The perfectionist in me spent hours revising the same paragraph or sentence and feeling a sense of achievement when at the end of a productive day, I ended up with three hundred words.

What helped me with writing and studying was how to manage my time and seeing the thesis as nothing more than a very long essay. I remember attending my first post-graduate meeting, when we were all enthusiastically unphased and being told nuggets of wisdom. “Don’t be so precious”, Kate McGowan, the head of the Graduate School told us as we looked up at her with wonderment and innocence, “this isn’t your magnum opus, good enough is fine”. This made sense, but it was only three years in did it start to mean anything.

Taking Control of Your Time

Time management techniques were also important. They helped me be far more productive than just sitting down for hours on end and coming up for air, exhausted and wanting to die, resulting in the rest of the day in the recovery position or face down in a darkened room. Instead, I broke my hour up into 45 minute sessions with a 15 minute break with longer for lunch. I wrote down the start and finish times for each session and could manage to complete seven or eight sessions per day. This worked well for me and I found I could get more done in a day and I had a sense of achievement after ticking off each successful session.

This worked well for me and I found I could get more done in a day and I had a sense of achievement after ticking off each successful session.

Pomodoro, the Helpful Tomato

This is similar to the Pomodoro Technique, pioneered by Francesco Cirillo and first published in 1992. The time management technique takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer used by Cirillo when he was a student. It is simple and effective and I wish I had known about it when I was studying. It can help you to become far more productive than sitting down and punishing yourself by not having adequate breaks. Each working session is broken up into 25 minute sessions or a pomodoro, followed by a 3-5 minute break. After four pomodoros a longer break is taken, from 15-30 minutes.

6 Basic Steps to Time Management

There are six basic steps to implementing the technique:

  1. Find out how much effort an activity requires.
  2. Protect your pomodoro from internal and external interruptions
  3. Make an accurate estimation on how many pomodoros you need for a specific task
  4. Use the technique not just to work on your task, but also to recap and review
  5. Set your timetable according to your tasks and the time you have available
  6. Find your own personal objectives

Sticking to the rules can be challenging at first, but I’ve found it’s worth persevering with. The first pomodoro should be organisational and the last one reviewing what you have achieved. This means setting out an ‘activity sheet’, a ‘to do today sheet’ and a ‘records sheet’. All the activities you need to do are written in the activity sheet with the number of pomodoros estimated to complete the task and then transferred to the to do today sheet and marked with an X after each pomodoro is completed. The rule is that a pomodoro in indivisible and if a task takes longer than 5-7 pomodoros, it needs to be broken down into smaller achievable tasks. The rules seem rather strict. If a pomodoro is unavoidably broken and you are interrupted, that pomodoro is void and cannot be ticked off, whereas if an activity is finished before the pomodoro rings then there is time to recap and review what you have been doing until the end of the session.

Internal and External Interruptions

Internal and external interruptions are also accounted for by the inform, negotiate and call strategy. This inverts the dependency on internal interruptions and makes the interruptions depend on the pomodoros they are slotted into. If you’re in the middle of a pomodoro and you suddenly remember you have to do something, make a quick note and add it to the list of things to do (most things can wait for 25 minutes) and if someone rings or interrupts a pomodoro, simply inform them that you’re working, negotiate a time to call back or speak to that person and make sure you call. As Cirillo writes, ‘we’re no longer dependent on interruptions, interruptions depend on us’. A pomodoro is set aside to respond to calls and deal with unforseen situations.


The Rules of Time Management

The following is taken from Cirillo’s book The Pomodoro Technique. The rules are as follows:

  • A pomodoro consists of 25 minutes plus a 5 minute break.
  • After every four pomodoros comes a 15-30 minute break.
  • The pomodoro is indivisible. There are no half or quarter pomodoros.
  • If a pomodoro begins, it has to ring:
    • If a pomodoro is interrupted definitively – i.e. the interruption isn’t handled – it’s considered void, never begun, and it can’t be recorded with an X
    • If an activity is completed once a pomodoro has already begun, continue reviewing
      the same activity until the pomodoro rings
  • Protect the pomodoro. Inform effectively, negotiate quickly to reschedule the interruption, call back the person who interrupted you as agreed.
  • If it lasts more than 5-7 pomodoros, break it down. Complex activities should be divided into several activities.
  • If it lasts less than one pomodoro, add it up. Simple tasks can be combined.
  • Results are achieved pomodoro after pomodoro.
  • The next pomodoro will go better.

This is merely an quick overview of one time management system. Far more information and detail can be found in Cirillo’s short book, which goes into much more depth and explains the reasons for using this technique as he writes,

A timetable delineates the separation between work time and free time; the latter is best defined as time set aside for non-goal oriented or unplanned activities. This leisure time is fuel for our minds. Without it, creativity, interest, and curiosity are lost, and we run ourselves down until our energy is depleted. Without gas, the engine won’t run.

So give it a go. You never know, you might be more productive and have more free time.

This blog post was created using the pomodoro technique.

For more information on time management and the Pomodoro Technique try the following links.

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