One of the ‘features’ of ADHD is an impaired executive function, which is all kind of fun. Those of us who have a difficult time with our executive functions might have problems with self-motivation, self-awareness, self-restraint, working memory (our inner monologue and imagination), planning and problem solving. In other words, those of us with ADHD might have a devil of a time controlling our behavior — or even realizing it needs to be controlled — or developing the tools that would let us be better at it. This doesn’t mean it’s impossible, mind you! It just means that we have to put in a lot more effort to be organized than someone else who might be able to take things for granted.
Learning more about executive function was a particular revelation for me. Knowing that, for whatever reason, my brain simply wasn’t good at keeping itself organized allowed me to come up with ways to off-load that function elsewhere. Mondays this month, I’d like to talk about the various tools in my toolbox that have been helping me get more shit done. We’ll start with a relatively basic one that has turned out to be extraordinarily powerful for me, the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique is a basic framework for managing time. The “pomodoro” (named for the once-ubiquitous kitchen timers shaped like a tomato) is an indivisible unit of time consisting of one 25-minute work or focus period and one 5-minute rest period. Each 30-minute pomodoro is generally tracked for review sometime later, so you can see how much work you actually got done during each pomodoro and adjust your expectations accordingly. Using this framework has helped me immensely with keeping focused, gaining a better sense of productive time, and ultimately learning how to properly plan my projects.
Most folks know that ADHD messes with your focus hard-core. Most people can drill down into the work they’re doing without too much trouble, but we have a tendency to get distracted very easily while also taking longer to refocus away from those distractions. The Pomodoro Technique offers a great way to push yourself towards focusing for longer periods of time; one of the major rules is that the 25-minute focus period is sacred. If something takes your attention away from your designated task for too long, you have to scrap the Pomodoro and start over again. This might not work too well for everyone, but I’ve found that holding myself accountable for 25 minutes of focus isn’t too hard. Sometimes, I have to fight to focus, but the period is just short enough that I find it relatively easy to commit to.
If you find you’re unable to focus for 25 minutes on a consistent basis, no worries! The pomodoro is an abstract concept, so we can bend it to our will on a temporary basis while we’re building our focus muscle. You could ‘shrink’ the pomodoro to a 15-minute focus/5-minute rest unit of time, giving yourself 3 pomodoros an hour instead of two, with an extra five minutes of downtime. You could even modify further if you’d like, to 7 min. on and 3 min. off. Find out what allows you to commit to focus consistently, and then work your way up to 25/5 as you’re ready.
Like everything, the Pomodoro Technique is a process that will require commitment, feedback and refining. But right up front it’s a great way to organize your to-do list! If you have 5 Pomodoros of ‘free time’ for a day, you could devote one of them to writing, one to reading, one to studying, and two to whatever you’d like. As you mark more time using the framework, you’ll begin to get a fairly solid idea of how much work you can do in 25 minutes of total focus — that’s where the fun starts.
I’ve been working with the Pomodoro Technique for a few years now, and I have a fairly solid idea of how much work I can do within each pomodoro. Generally speaking I can write around 600 words per pomodoro; I can read about 20 pages of text (I’m a slow reader); I can wash a sink full of dishes. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but the more you organize your projects through pomodoros the better you’ll be able to gauge how long something should take. For folks like me with a bad scale of time, that’s a minor miracle.
I’m so terrible at figuring out how long something should take, especially if it’s a more complex project or something I’ve never done before. This has gotten me into so much trouble trying to plan out my day; something I thought would take me only an hour or two ends up being the only thing I do that day, or I’ll grossly underestimate how much mental energy it’ll take to get something done, or almost every project with a deadline gets tremendously backloaded because I don’t have a good handle on how much I can do in the allotted time. It’s one thing to know that you have a 20-page term paper due in one month; it’s quite another to be able to look at your calendar and have a somewhat accurate gauge of how long it’ll take to write a good one.
So, now that I have a good idea of how much work I can do within a single pomodoro, it’s a bit easier for me to know how much time it will take to get something done. Take the Writing Desk for instance — I know that I can write around 600 words per Pomodoro, and entries here are anywhere from 1000 – 1500 words. That means, with an editing pass, it’ll generally take me 4 pomodoros to write an entry — or two hours of work. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but that’s my basic expectation. Three entries will take me six hours of work; a 5000-word first draft will take me around 10 pomodoros, or five hours; a 600-page novel will take me around 30 pomodoros to read.
With that foreknowledge, I can take a look at my free time in any given week to determine how much progress I can expect to make on any number of projects. If I want to keep The Writing Desk current, I need to devote at least 12 pomodoros to it every week. If I want to make sure that I have an entry prepared for the Jackalope Serial Company (which I try to keep under 2500 words), that’s another 6 pomodoros. If I take a look at my calendar and find out that I have less than 18 pomodoros available, then I’ll know ahead of time that something will have to give. Generally, though, I can bank on about 20 – 30 pomodoros per week for projects when I’m really dedicated.
This means that I can plan when and where I’ll have each Writing Desk entry done and posted, or just how much time I’ll need to spend on the next part of my Patreon serial. I can estimate how much time it will take to read someone’s novel or story. I can figure out how to divide an Udemy course or Rosetta Stone activity appropriately so it’ll fit within a single pomodoro, then use that to gauge how much time it will take to go through a course or chapter.
The best thing about the Pomodoro Technique, to me, is reshaping the way I look at my free time. If I have 30 minutes where I’m not doing anything, there are any number of things that I could slot into that space; I could write 600 words, or read 20 pages, or make a significant dent in some other project I had going. Of course I take some time (maybe too much!) goofing off, but I rarely say that I “don’t have enough time” to make progress on something I want to do. I know better, because I’ve done better.
If you’re interested in adopting the Pomodoro Technique, feel free to go to the official website for more information! If the whole “take a course” thing turns you off, Lifehacker has an excellent 101 for you complete with a small list of the best Pomodoro apps for download. If you’re a Windows user like me, I’d also like to recommend Pomodone — it’s a wonderful desktop app with integration for a number of different to-do apps (like Trello and Todoist).
Let me know if you try the Pomodoro Technique in the comments, or if you have any questions about it. If you’d like to drop a few tips or pointers, that would be lovely too!