21 Sep

modified pomodoro technique for getting shit done

Today Penny tweeted about having an unproductive week and suggested maybe she should have a break from social media. I tweeted back saying that usually when I’m unmotivated, I use social media distraction as an excuse for being unproductive, when the reality is I am just unmotivated. My point: don’t give up social media unless the problem is *really* social media. And even then, don’t give it up – just modify the way you use it.

So how do you get stuff done when you’re either distracted by social media or unmotivated? For me, the answer is the Pomodoro Technique.

I heard about the Pomodoro Technique from my friend and colleague Zaana. The principle is you focus on one task and work intensively on it for short bursts of time. Traditionally, a Pomodoro session runs for 25 minutes. During that 25 minutes you work exclusively on the task you set yourself, and at the end, you take a five minute break.

I do a modified version of the Pomodoro Technique. I find I need longer than 25 minutes when I’m working on research, so I work for 45 minutes and then take a 15 minute break. When I start a session, I put my phone on silent  and I leave it face down on my desk so I don’t see notifications. I also close distraction apps like TweetDeck and Outlook and then I put my head down and go. During my 15 minute break, I’ll get up and make a coffee, answer email, catch up on Twitter, take a Pinterest break, look at my favourite fabric stores to see what’s new, work on my schedule, plan what I’m going to do next, check my grocery order, work on a blog post, catch up with RSS feeds… Most of the time I do some kind of work in my 15 minute break, but it’s still a break because I’m switching tasks. I try to restrict my social media use to my breaks and it helps that I often do Pomodoro bursts with a friend, so we tweet as a start gun and then when we’re finished, we check in with each other on Twitter to see how we both went. Being accountable to someone else for finishing the session is a really good motivator, and it also gives a sense of working in a team environment when I’m actually squirreled away at home (and so is the colleague I’m working with).

I use a Pomodoro app (Easy Pomodoro, available from the Mac App Store), which not only times the sessions, but also allows me to name them. Last Saturday, I called my sessions ‘Sorting Saturday’; Wednesday was ‘Whacked out Wednesday’; Thursday was ‘Think it through Thursday’. The app gives me a quick view of how many sessions I’ve completed for each session name, which means at the end of the week, I can quickly see how many sessions I got through in the week.

I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique every day, but when I’m distracted or unmotivated, it really helps me push through and get stuff done (without killing my social media time).

29 Aug

when the pursuit of efficiency makes you completely inefficient

I am all about efficiency. I’m a task monster. I like to strike stuff off my to do list.

As a task monster, I try to do things the most efficient way possible. My quest is to find the fastest way to do a task without compromising on quality, and without impacting on my workload down the road.

Here’s an example.

I started coding my interview transcripts for my PhD in Word, using comments. I thought this would help me see the codes in context. I quickly realised this wasn’t going to work. After one transcript, it became clear I needed a system to help me manage the codes. So I followed up on research I’d done earlier about qualitative data analysis software. I bought and installed HyperRESEARCH and started coding my transcripts. Along the way, I generated almost 1500 codes. Two weeks ago, I hit a point where I was ready to start coding at a higher level… to start moving from codes to categories.

I have spent the last two weeks trying to figure out how to manage this process in practical terms. And my preoccupation with efficiency means I stalled, in a big way, and I haven’t made nearly enough progress.

Rather than just getting in and getting it done, I have been fretting about finding the most efficient way to do this. My concern was I knew I couldn’t sort my codes in HyperRESEARCH because it wouldn’t support my workflow (and I only realised this after I’d done a lot of coding using the software). I didn’t want to do it anywhere else, though, because ultimately, I’ll have to put everything back into HyperRESEARCH to map the categories with the original codes and the chunks of transcript they relate to. I became so caught up in doing this in a way that wouldn’t impact on my workload down the track that I just didn’t do the work at all.

This morning I sat at my desk and cried because I couldn’t fathom how to get out of this quicksand and make some progress. Then I DMed one of my PhD ledge buddies (@zaana) in frustration and in amongst her very practical and helpful reply was this gem:

i think the reality is that some of the ways we need to synthesise & sense make are just not efficient but at least you know you’ll get there

I don’t actually know I’ll get there. Not today. Some days I know it, but today isn’t one of them. But apart from this last phrase, the rest of this statement resonates. Sense making is messy. (It’s also other things, for me personally: it’s happens through crafting a story in a visual way, but that’s a digression.) So I just need to let it *be* messy, or whatever else it needs to be in order to make some progress.

So I made a plan. Breakfast (at midday – is it any wonder I was crying into my keyboard at 11am? I couldn’t find the tomato sauce for my french toast so I skipped breakfast.) > coffee > blog post > JUST FREAKING DO IT.

Because ultimately, staring at the wall, crying, while I sink further into quicksand is not very efficient at all.

27 Jun

debunking the myths about working from home

When I tell people I work from home most days, they say one of two things:

Oh, you’re so lucky!


Oh, I’d never get any work done.

The first one is true, at least in part. The second couldn’t be any further from the truth (most days).

I’m so lucky!

Let’s start with luck.

I’m lucky to work from home because it saves me a lot of commuting time.

This is the number one reason I work from home. All the other benefits of working from home are great, but it’s the time I save that made me make a shift from spending a majority of time in the office to a majority of time at home.

The single biggest time saver is forgoing my commute, which takes anywhere between two and four hours a day, depending on what time I’m going to and from the office. If I have a 9am meeting, I have to give myself two hours to get to work. I left the office at 3.30pm the other day to ‘beat the traffic’ and it took me two hours to get home.


  • No commute means I’m not in the office, and sometimes it is actually nice to be in the office.
  • No commute means no time to decompress. I can’t sing out my shit day in a concert on the way home, or take out my rage by banging out drum and base beats on the steering wheel. I just get up from my desk, push in my chair, and walk into the kitchen.
  • No commute means I work stupidly long days, because I can.

I’m lucky to work from home because I save lots of little bits of time.

These little time savings might sound petty, but they add up quickly. I’d say I save about an hour or two a day on these little time savers.

  • I don’t need to put makeup on or blow dry and straighten my hair if I’m working at home. That’s a half an hour saving.
  • There are less interruptions at home (on weekdays at least – weekends are a bit different). When my niece and nephew were living here, people often asked me how I could get any work done with a couple of three year olds in the house. The reality, though, is that I’ve worked from home for as long as they can remember, and they actually interrupt me less than the adults do.
  • There are no hallway conversations when you aren’t in the hallways. I save a lot of time by missing all the incidental conversations that happen in an open plan office.
  • Meetings are more efficient on Skype. For one-on-one or small group meetings, Skype is a big time saver. You don’t have to factor in time to get from your desk to wherever the meeting is, and no one ever bothers with all the niceties you get in face-to-face meetings.
  • If I ever ironed anything, I’d also save time on that too, because yoga pants (my work at home uniform) don’t need ironing.


  • I rarely have to bother with my appearance and never putting any effort in invariably impacts on how you feel about yourself.
  • I miss out on hallway conversations. I like the people I work with and I value my interactions with them. We run a great ‘virtual office’, but I still miss out on serendipitous encounters. It’s the encounters with the people I don’t work closely with that I miss – my immediate team is highly connected online.

I’m lucky to work from home because I save a lot of money by commuting less.

Parking costs me at best $25 a day and at worst $70. Last year I spent $2000 to rent a car park for 6 months, and it was bliss. For a whole six months, I didn’t sit in morning traffic stressing about making it in time for the early bird parking. Now there’s a new car park at work right next to my building that has reasonably priced parking (for the city at least), but it’s still $40 a day.

Then there’s petrol, which, if I had to go to work five days a week, would cost me well over $200 a fortnight.


  • Ummmm… Yeah. I can’t think of any either.

I’m lucky to work from home because I save money by not buying lunch and coffee.

There’s a bunch of temptations on campus, including the irresistible Guzman y Gomez and delicious Campos coffee. And we won’t talk about the pineapple lollies at the corner store. When I’m on campus, I spend at least $20 a day on coffee and lunch without even thinking about it.


  • At home, I forget to have lunch or I skip it because I don’t want to ‘waste time’ making it (because you never prepare lunch the night before when you’re working at home).
  • I drink waaaaay too much coffee because my Nespresso machine makes delicious coffee, fast. And relatively cheaply.

I’m lucky to work from home because I do good work here.

I think best when I’m wearing yoga pants, a hoody and my slippers. Have you ever tried to write a thesis chapter in heels and a suit jacket? I don’t recommend it. When I’m comfortable I’m more creative, more productive, and smarter. It’s true. Hoodies make you smarter.

Music helps me focus, but not if it’s pumping into my ears via headphones. I need music to be around me, not inside my head. I can work longer and concentrate better if I’ve got music playing, particularly when I’m doing repetitive or bitsy work, like marking. But firing up my sound dock in an open plan office is really not an option.


  • I find it hard to do good thinky work when I’m in the office because I’m used to the conditions at home.
  • The only shoes that come close to the comfort of slippers are Birkenstocks, so I’ve traded in my Jimmy Choo flats for a million pairs of the German sandals.

I’ll never get anything done!

Now we’ve got luck covered, let’s move on to the idea that you don’t get anything done when you work from home.

I get heaps done because housework is really not that tempting.

People tell me they think they’d be distracted by dirty washing, floors that need vacuuming, and pantries that need rearranging. Fortunately for me, I don’t do the washing, I have a cleaner to look after the floors, and PhD procrastination has already taken care of my pantry. And my spice drawer. And my fabric stash. And my stationery supplies.

Most days, my work is infinitely more interesting than the dishes. Strange, but true. In fact, I rarely do even tiny domestic jobs like washing my breakfast and lunch dishes until the evening. I generally wash my coffee cup and the Nespresso milk jug because I’ll invariably want more coffee, but that’s it. I don’t do this stuff because if I’m going to waste work time, I’d rather waste it doing something fun.


  • My family don’t understand why I can’t do the washing while I work. Or rather, they profess to understanding, but then I occasionally hear them muttering about my being home all day and not doing the dishes.

I get heaps done because I have more time.

I’ve already talked about how working from home saves me time. You might think I’m spending that extra time sleeping late and watching daytime TV, but the reality is, I spend pretty much every minute of it working. If I go into the office, it’s difficult to put in more than an eight hour day because I’ve got a commute at either end. There’s a finite amount of time in the day and something has to give. If I’m at home, I can put in ten hours, 12 in peak times, and still get to bed a decent time. Most days, I knock off for a bit around 6pm, try to sort out something for dinner, and then put in another couple of hours in front of the TV, with half an eye on whatever’s on. In short, staying home means I can work longer hours and get more done.


  • The work day rarely ends before bed time, or to be more accurate, until I fall asleep (cause you can still process email in bed!).

I get heaps done because the conditions are perfect.

My wifi is fast. I’ve got more HD screen space than you could ever imagine needing. My stationery stash is well stocked. I get to control the temperature. My chair is super comfy. I have a huge amount of desk space. My sound dock is within reach. I’ve got several pin boards. I’ve got an awesome colour laser printer.

My home office is perfectly set up.


  • I’m a creature of habit and my on campus workspace is not set up the same way, so this means I feel a bit out of sorts in my office work space. This could have something to do with the fact we’ve been in transit for quite some time, but now I have my own desk things might change.
  • I don’t control the conditions at work (like temperature, light level, noise), and that can impact on my productivity.

I get heaps done because I can have a nap if I need it.

I start work early (starting with email in bed from about 7am – terrible habit – and then moving to my desk by 8am) and I finish work late (and I don’t mean 5.30-late, I mean 9pm-late). So sometimes, I am dead tired in the middle of the day. Instead of staring at my computer screen and wishing the day would end (which is what I would do if I was in the office), I have a nap. Having little kids around has taught me to sleep in 45 minute sleep cycles and to get to sleep fast. A 45 minute nap can give me literally hours more productive work time in the day.

I used to torture myself about having naps and ‘making up the time’. Then one day I realised just how much I was working, so I stopped worrying about it.

Most people have lunch breaks. I have naps. I stopped beating myself up about it because the reality is I still work fifty million hours a week even if I have a daily nap (which I don’t do all that much these days, seeing I get more sleep now the kids are older).


  • There are none. Everybody should nap. We should all have sleep pods built into our cubicles.

I get heaps done because when you’re always in your office, you tend to work all the time.

People tell me they wouldn’t get anything done if they worked at home. But what these people don’t realise is that when you work from home, you never leave ‘the office’. Not at the end of the work day. Not at the end of the work week. And not when you’re on leave. The reality for me is that I’m tempted to work all the time. If I want to take a weekend off, I have to plan an itinerary in advance, because if I don’t have plans and I’m sitting around idly, I’ll invariably end up working.


  • I work. All. The. Time.

But you know what? I really love what I do, and it is very rare that I wish I worked less.

30 posts in June: 21/30

PS. Tomorrow, I’m going to post my top tips for making working from home work for you.

23 Jun

my week in stick figures

When you can’t do anything but lie down, and there is nothing on the TV, and you’re a workaholic but you can’t work, you get stuck in a great big pool of lament.

So I made this drawing that describes the week I just had. It is essentially a great, big, woe is me lament.
It was kind of cathartic. Lots of things on this blog have been cathartic, it seems. I left the drawing in Bamboo Paper thinking I’d update it as I got better. But I’m not better and I’m a bit sick of woe-is-me-ism. So I did something productive. I invented an awesome system for marking while lying down. Then I made another drawing about the weekend and my system.

Here’s how the system works.

  1. First I make the criteria sheet a PDF and save it to Dropbox
  2. On my iPad, I send the PDF to Good Reader, where I circle the relevant criteria and write the mark in each section of the table (with a stylus), then I save the PDF back to Dropbox
  3. As I work through the assignment, I record my feedback using Voice Record, then I convert the file to MP3, rename it then save it to Dropbox from within Voice Record

Lucky for me, I’m marking blogs I can view in Safari on my iPad. I’m also marking presentations that are on YouTube or Slideshare or files I have in Dropbox. So all I need is to lie down with a wheat pack under my back, prop my knees up on a pile of pillows, and away I go. This will be really handy for lots of other situations too – travelling, working in cafes, working in waiting rooms. The best part is it works perfectly on my iPad mini, which fits in all my handbags.

So, from shitty back, to workflow win. Shame the shitty back is sticking around, though.

30 posts in June: 18/30