As women age, we find that we no longer want to – or are able to – work until we drop like we used to. Energy levels and stamina gradually decrease as a woman ages, forcing her to take a more mature approach to accomplishing goals and completing projects. In the second half of life, we begin to understand the importance of oscillating our energy between periods of intense mental or physical activity and periods of restorative rest.
A time and energy management technique that works well for me and my executive coaching clients is called the Pomodoro Technique. It is designed to take advantage of the oscillating principal of human energy. Human energy cannot be expended continuously without periods of rest. Both knowledge workers and physical workers, like athletes and musicians, are capable of incredible feats of mental and physical exertion.
However, athletes understand one aspect of energy management better than business people: Periods of intense energy exertion must be followed by periods of rest. Athletes know their muscles are strengthened by intervals of extreme stress followed by intervals of rest and regeneration. The same can be said about intellectual work. In order to achieve peak productivity, periods of rest and relaxation must follow periods of intense mental activity. I depict the healthy oscillation of energy expenditure and rest like this:
This stress wave shows that periods of intense energetic outlays are followed by equal periods of reduced exertion in order to be most productive.
As I age, I find that I crave those periods of rest and regeneration. And yet, we want to contribute, make a difference and leave a mark. Our young years were focused on child-raising, business-building, family life and keeping up with it all. Now, we generally have the luxury of more time and ability to choose work and commitments that deeply satisfy us. Accomplishing goals is still important to us, but we want to achieve them while enjoying the ride. We need to manage our time and energy better.
The Pomodoro Technique is perfect for mature women to channel their intense creativity and make their mark, while conserving energy. It helps you accomplish more in less time. The technique builds on the oscillating principle of human energy. The Pomodoro Technique is named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro is Italian for tomato), used by the founder of the technique, Francesco Cirillo, to measure periods of intense activity followed by short breaks. It is a great way to get past writer’s block, psych yourself to accomplish a large amount of work and commit to expending a lot of energy at once, knowing you’ll get a rest break at the end.
You can download Cirillo’s e-book with everything Pomodoro here.
In a Pomodoro (25-minute burst of work), you commit to focus on the task at hand without interruptions or distractions. Allowing interruptions can increase the time to complete a task by 25%, according to Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy in a Harvard Business Review classic entitled Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time. When you divert your attention away from your original task, it’s called “switching time”, and that’s time you lose when you try to multi-task. In fact, Professor Gloria Mark of University of California at Irvine found in her research that when you are interrupted, it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to the original task. Ensuring that you are not interrupted or distracted gives this technique its power.
Here is the Pomodoro Technique:
- Prepare for your Pomodoro. Select one project to work on. Tell everyone that you can’t be disturbed for two hours, and turn off all distractions. You are about to accomplish a lot.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work feverishly on your project – this is a sprint! Your goal is to do as much as you can in a short period of time. Tell yourself that it’s only 25 minutes, so it’s no big deal. Just get started!
- When the timer goes off, note where you are in the project and then set the timer for 5 minutes. Get up and take a rest break – even if you are in “the flow” of work. Your work will be enhanced by the short break.
- Set the timer again and work intensely for 25 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, note where you are in the project and then get up and take another 5 minute rest break.
- Set the timer again for a last 25 minute period and focus on your task.
When the timer goes off for the third time, take stock of your situation. Congratulate yourself for all you’ve accomplished. I usually marvel at all that I got done. Now take a real break and do something else. If needed, you can do another Pomodoro set later in the day.
One important guideline is to do only 3-4 Pomodoros (for a maximum of 120 minutes) in a row. The mind needs a rest after that amount of time. Tony Schwartz and Dr. Christine Porath report in the New York Times that “employees who take a break every 90 minutes report a 30 percent higher level of focus.”
In addition to curing bad bouts of procrastination, the Pomodoro Technique is helpful for people who have a tendency to over-polish their projects or who push for perfection when good isn’t enough. For these people, you can self-assign a limited number of Pomodoros to spend on a project. For example, you might allow yourself three Pomodoros to complete the presentation you promised to the charity board you serve.
The benefits I have discovered about the Pomodoro Technique are:
- I move off being stuck. In fact, I get energized about the project that I was dreading, procrastinating or couldn’t get started on.
- I hear myself saying, “Wow, that was easy,” as I realize that I finished a project more quickly than anticipated.
- I get more done because I don’t allow distractions or interruptions.
- Because I know that I’ll have a reward at the end, I’m willing to work hard for a limited amount of time.
- I feel a sense of urgency because I know I’m timing myself.
Try the Pomodoro Technique and let us know how it went!