Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Pomodoro technique: 1 month

It's been one month I have been using the Pomodoro technique. Like I said in a previous post, I wanted to use it for two goals.
  • In a direct, classic way, to get rid of distractions like emails, Facebook, IM, the temptation to look for an unrelated information, but also interruptions from people... when I'm reading or writing (I'm a PhD student in physics).
  • In an indirect way, to "cure" myself, to stop taking this nasty habit of switching from an idea to another, unrelated one, all the time, not only at the computer but in every type of task. I was sure this habit came from my heavy use of Internet, and using the Pomodoro technique at the computer was supposed to kill this general multitasking behaviour at the source.
First, let's talk about the direct results. At first, it may sound really stupid to use a "technique", with a name and with "rules", to implement the basic behaviour of focusing on whatever one is doing. Well, it sounded a bit stupid to me, like any of these idiotic management techniques designed to improve productivity. It turns out that it's not stupid. The modern working environment (very often, a computer) is full of tools ready to interrupt you, every minute. Even the room itself, when it is shaped according to the ridiculous, anti-natural way of the "open space", is here to impede your ability to focus. Against such strong ennemies, why not use a drastic technique, with rules? And the name is cool.

I say it is "drastic" because it was my initial impression. Indeed, a 25 minutes working interval feels SHORT at first. You feel like staying in front of the computer instead of taking a break. But I got used to it very quickly though (and I will talk about the advantages of all the little breaks shortly). During a pomodoro, the way I use it at least, you simply can't drift away from your task, it is forbidden. I had to resist emails, text messages... and above all, conversations! Conversation is the most difficult interruption to avoid. At one point I just needed earphones, for 3 reasons: I could tell people that they can't speak to me when I have them on, unless it's really important, or unless they're my boss :) ; I'm not tempted to join a conversation when working; and it blocks noise. Oh, and by the way, music is a bad idea... I think we I listen too much to music, and anyway, there always was a point where I wanted to switch from a track to another during a pomodoro. So I listen to a pink noise file I generated. It filters noise out and you forget it quickly. Pink noise is the new silence.

With all this setup, I'm now able to *really* concentrate, like I was able to concentrate alone in my room in front of a book, years ago. I read more of the stuff I'm supposed to read, I write more of the stuff I'm supposed to write. It's even been so effective that I read and write a little too much instead of carrying out my experiments. It is also a nice way to keep track of what I'm doing and to organize a planning, since I know approximately what I did and can do in 1 pomodoro. In addition, I'm using my time in a more efficient way. I know I can do something productive in just 1 pomodoro, I know it counts. When it doesn't make sense to divide a task in small subtasks, the pomodoro feels like a real, material step. So 25 minutes, when it could seem like a very short time to start or carry on a task, is now in my head a full pomodoro during which I can really contribute to the task. It helps me to work when I really don't feel like it, including at home - something I didn't really do before.

The pauses are useful. I take breaks of 5 minutes (minimum) after every pomodoro, and a 20 minute pause (minimum) after my 4th pomodoro. I say "minimum" since I want to stay a bit flexible with pauses sometimes. My rule is that I have to get away from my desk during pauses. I usually take a walk in the lab, talk to people who wanted something from me during a pomodoro, or simply chat. The frequent pauses really help to focus on a task for a long time.

To implement all this, I use Emacs with Org-mode, org-pomodoro, and todochiku (to talk to Growl for Windows and display messages). I also use the very good Tomighty, especially when working on a task which is not in my org tasklist.

However I didn't really feel an improvement of my "multitasking syndrome" outside my working sessions on the computer. I guess it will need more time to disappear, since I still aimlessly browse Internet a bit too much. To be continued!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Emacs, Org-mode, org-pomodoro, todochiku and Growl

Following my previous post, my first test of the Pomodoro technique was to set up a configuration to use the Pomodoro technique itself :) It took me one pomodoro (25 minutes), so it was quite straightforward.

First, I installed org-pomodoro through the Emacs Lisp Package Archive (ELPA). org-pomodoro is quite simple, you just have to invoke M-x org-pomodoro on a task to start a clock. org-pomodoro automatically stops it after 25 minutes (or any custom duration) and updates your Org task. After 1 pomodoro, your task will look like this:

** TODO Test
   CLOCK: [2013-12-23 lun. 14:55]--[2013-12-23 lun. 15:20] =>  0:25

Then I had to make Emacs able to talk to Growl. For this I used this code, from "Justinhj's Coding Blog". I just had to modify todochiku-command in the Elisp file to link to growlnotify.exe, and to add (require 'todochiku) in my .emacs after putting the Elisp file somewhere in the load-path. Emacs was then able to talk to Growl, with a simple call to the growl function, like this: (growl "Hello" "World"). There even are custom icons.

Finally, I had to modify org-pomodoro so it could send a message when a pomodoro would be finished. org-pomodoro have hooks in its source code:

I just had to add this to my .emacs:

How nice!

Cognitive control and multitasking

I came upon an interesting article yesterday about the effects of multitasking (switching incessantly from one task to another) on the mind. It was published in 2009 in PNAS, by a team from Stanford, and has received substantial coverage by the media. Here is the link.

The abstract is pretty clear about was what observed by the researchers:
"A series of experiments addressed whether there are systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. [...] Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set."
This is only one experiment, of course, but I can totally relate to these results. Indeed, it has been a while since I noticed my concentration abilities have decreased (maybe a few years now), notably my reading abilities, and I'm quite sure "media multitasking" is to blame here. I'm a heavy media multitasker. When I'm browsing the web, I'm constantly switching from one subject to another, to another, to another... until I forget what I was actually doing or looking for. I don't think my web-browsing behaviour is a consequence of an external change in my psychology, but a cause. The structure of the web itself encourages it, along with constant sollicitations from devices configured to notify you when something happens, or when someone wants to contact you. When I'm reading on paper, I feel literaly trapped. My mind wants to escape.

Lately, this symptom has taken a much more alarming turn. I'm a PhD student in biology and physics, with quite a long list of things to do. I use Emacs and Org-mode to keep things organized, which is an amazingly efficient way of having a whole picture of personal and professional projects, sub-projects, tasks... in my head. But this combination between my "multitasking syndrome" and this way of organizing has a huge drawback: I'm very often incapable of focusing on the current task because my mind is constantly switching its attention to another current/next task (often totally unrelated). Like I was feeling trapped in front of paper, now I often feel paralyzed, torn between two or more tasks, totally inefficient.

It's been a few years since I have been aware of the Pomodoro technique. The Pomodoro technique, as Wikipedia puts it, "is a time management method [which] uses a timer to break down work into intervals traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks." Twenty-five minutes focused on a task (these 25 minutes being called pomodori), without interruption, then a 5 minutes break. After 4 pomodori, you can take a longer break.

This technique could be a good way to end my compulsion to multitask, like a cure for my mind. I intend to try it during these Christmas holidays. I was thinking of using good old Emacs and Org-mode with org-pomodoro for that. The workflow would be to clock-in for a particular task with org-pomodoro, work 25 minutes on the task, and then be notified by Emacs (through, for example, Growl) that I have to take a break. That way, the Pomodoro technique would be directly linked to my Org-mode task list!

So, this is day 1. To be continued...