In the mid-1990s, the well-known social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Dianne M. Tice ran a fascinating experiment about procrastination that tested the common adage “I do my best work under pressure.”
To test whether there was any truth to the claim, Tice and Baumeister gave 60 university students an assignment with a deadline. Then the scientists studied the students as they worked, monitoring their health and stress levels and, once they handed in the work, assessing the quality of the submissions.
The diligent workers—those who began labouring on the project soon after it was first assigned—experienced more stress and illness early in the work cycle. But as the deadline approached, the procrastinators’ stress and ill health surpassed those of the diligent workers. “Procrastination does not simply shift the same amount of stress and illness from early to late in the project period,” Tice and Baumeister wrote. “Rather, it apparently increases the amount of stress and illness.” (Emphasis added.) Plus, the work the procrastinators handed in wasn’t as good. Leaving things late, the researchers speculated, had led those who delayed their work to make “compromises and sacrifices in quality.”
So how does one avoid procrastination? One useful strategy is the pomodoro technique, developed by an Italian productivity coach and software designer named Francesco Cirillo. Here’s how it works. Find an actual, ticking timer that you can set manually, and set it to a duration of 25 minutes.
Then, while the timer ticks away, work hard on a specific task, without interruption or distractions. Don’t let your focus waver, even if another urgent task occurs to you—if that happens, Cirillo suggests keeping a paper notepad close at hand, so that you can write it down, to revisit later. Also, don’t check your phone even if it buzzes to alert you of an incoming text. In fact, ideally, during one of these work sessions, which Cirillo called a “pomodoro” because that happened to be the shape of the timer the productivity expert used as a university student—you should probably put your phone on airplane mode, or set it somewhere so far away that it won’t distract you.
There’s more, according to Cirillo. When the timer goes to tell you the twenty-five minutes is up, make a check mark on your notepad. That small action, Cirillo says, functions like a little mental reward. Then take a break of a few minutes. Consider walking around—the pomodoro technique syncs up nicely with the health research that suggests breaking up long bouts of sitting. You could also get more ambitious with your activity—body-weight squats, jumping jacks, or even push-ups will work. If you can swing it, consider tackling that little task you wrote down while you were focused on building your model. When you’re recharged, reset your timer to twenty-five minutes, make a mental oath to focus on a single task, and get back to it.
Cirillo suggests taking a longer break once you’ve completed four pomodoros—twenty or thirty minutes is enough time to grab lunch or a quick coffee at your nearby spot. And it’s enough time to come back with a fresh and rejuvenated mind for another round of work blitzes.
Plus, the pomodoro technique can be adapted to almost anything. Teams can use the pomodoro to focus during a meeting. Tackle the unread messages in your email inbox with a pomodoro. Or use one to process the receipts you accumulated during your last business trip. Anything that you find vaguely unpleasant, that you’ve been putting off, and that has been causing you stress.
I love the idea of the pomodoro because the twenty-five-minute work session strikes me as just the right duration for a productivity blitz. You’re not trying to focus for ten hours straight or working all out until your assignment is done. All you’re promising is twenty-five minutes. Even the most die-hard of procrastinators should be able to stave off the temptations of Facebook, Twitter, or the refrigerator for less than half an hour. Remember, according to Tice and Baumeister, if you avoid procrastination, you’ll experience better health and less stress—and do better work in the process.