I am what you might call the
distractible typeSNAP-IV (Swanson, 1992, see e.g. pdf) describes the inattentive/distractable type as “not [listening] when spoken to directly”; having “difficulty organising” and being “forgetful in daily activities”. Compared to impulsive-hyperactive manifestations of ADHD, it doesn’t present quite as obviously, and can be dismissed as a quaint scatterbrained-ness. “ADHD” often connotes the stereotype of a particularly energetic five-year-old middle-class boy. This doubtless contributes to its underdiagnosis in adults, girls, and especially women.
. I forget what I’m doing from one room to the next; I jump to new projects as soon as my existing ones look boringly simple; I spend a week of spare time researching Dworkian differential privacy or Loomis-esque realist figure drawing, and then immediately drop it for some other fancy the next dayAlso, my writing style is rife with sidenotes and parentheticals.
. It is astonishing that I ever get anything done, remember what things I have to do, or peel myself away from the screen at night.
And, of course, I am an arrant procrastinator. My subconscious would prefer I stare into space blankly rather than starting on something that feels like work or, heaven forbid, walking to the next room.
In the case of tasks that I absolutely have the energy and desire to do (writing blog posts, cleaning house, working on some project), this is particularly galling. I’m not very familiar with temporal motivation theory or its ilk, but part of what’s happening here seems clear:
- Being productive for large unbroken periods of time is exhausting, and I instinctively avoid doing so.
- If I try being productive for a little while and stop, I feel guilty about stopping midway when I could easily have done more.
- Thus, prima facie, starting work on any moderately big task ends in one of two ways: working on it until exhaustion or completion (which is repulsive, per (1)), or working for a while and then stopping when I hit diminishing returns, causing feelings of guilt or self-recrimination per (2).
- I don’t do the thing, because it’s a lose-lose situation.
The Pomodoro Technique, coined by the Cirillo Company in the 80’s, involves alternating moderately long blocks of work (
pomodoros) with short breaks. The blocks are short enough to feel manageable, but long enough to be productive in. In its classical form, these are 25 minutes and 5 minutes respectively – time enough to leisurely finish a cup of tea as you work.
I’ve found pomodoros very useful for helping me get things done. A lot of the time, when I procrastinate, it’s because something seems insurmountable from the outside. Knowing that I only have to do about half an hour of work helps me overcome that sense of insurmountability.
In some sense, I’m forming a contract with myself…or my future self, if it’s easier to think of contracts as strictly multiparty.
. I commit to not feeling guilty if I stop at the 25-minute mark. This eliminates the scariest downside of getting started, to the point where it takes little more than that to get going. (There are other factors to contend with that make procrastination temptingNamely, hyperbolic discounting.
, but usually by the time it occurs to me to do a pomodoro, I’ve already establised that I want to do something productive right now.)
But there’s another case where pomodoros help, and it’s almost the exact opposite of the motivation issues I’ve described. Sometimes, once I’m in the middle of a task, I overfocus, becoming so absorbed in the process that the idea of breaking away seems just as psychically painful as any procrastinated task. You have likely also experienced a flow state that you don’t want to leave: the
just one more quest of an all-night Skyrim marathon, the inexorable pull of the next Netflix episode; the obsessive
I almost have this of a difficult problem you’re on the verge of solving. Sometimes, the problem isn’t starting; it’s finishing.
In this case, it seems like:
- There are diminishing returns to most activities. If I debug Java for too long, my RSI will kick in, my eyes will hurt, and I’ll run out of energy for being sociable after work. If I play games for hours on end, it will easily stop being enjoyable and start being purely slot-machine-esque, and likely I will lose sleep (both from blue light and from it literally being midnight).
- Stepping out of a flow state is mildly painful, and I will endure moderate amounts of, e.g., tiredness and/or physical pain to avoid doing so.
- Thus, prima facie, if I start doing something flow-like, and get sufficiently into the flow state, I will not stop until I am very tired, very in pain, etc.
- I exercise extreme asceticism and don’t do the thing, or I do the thing and horribly overindulge. In the former case, this sucks because I’m missing out on doing the thing. In the latter case, I feel silly and self-recriminating because I pushed further than I should have.
When I use a pomodoro in this kind of situation, it’s to set a limit, rather than a goal. I’ll set a timer for 25-45 minutes before I start e.g. poring over codeAt work, I installed TimeOut to help with RSI, and it doubles for this purpose.
or playing games, and when the timer goes off, I force myself to stop for a short break, enough time to stop and re-evaluate whether I’ve hit diminishing returnsThat is, when I successfully force myself to stop. Sometimes, I completely fail at this and ignore the alarm instead. :/
The contract I’m forming with myself gives me a safe middle ground. By committing to re-evaluating after the pomodoro, I mitigate the risk of going overboard. This makes it a much safer proposition to get started.
In the first case, the time limit of the pomodoro serves as an attractorto seriously, seriously mangle some differential equations terminology
– it takes a highly unattractive path, and adds a natural resting place that makes it look less arduous.
In the second case, the time limit of the pomodoro serves as a repellor – it takes a path of least resistance, and adds a “speed hump” that forces reconsideration.
Of course, a pomodoro can pull double duty as both attractor and repellor for the same task. I will often start blocks of day-job coding work feeling super reluctant to start, and be pulled away from them half an hour later feeling super reluctant to stop. Human motivation is weird like that.