12
Apr

Of Tomatoes and Discipline

Discipline. Now that's an old-fashioned word. It conjures up images of strict parents, being stood in the corner, being unable to do what you want; but there is another side. Any skill that takes dedication and focus is also called a "discipline". The image there is of perfecting a movement, refining your understanding, excluding distraction. The common theme is focus, excluding one thing so that another can be successful, pouring your energy into one bright spot, rather than dissipating it over a wide field.
Of course I am not very much about focus. Everything interests me, including the busy fireworks of my own neurons: I am blessed and cursed with lots of ideas. All the time. One of the reasons that I use Getting Things Done is that it helps me to keep focussed on the stuff that I need to... wait for it.... get done. The ability to boil the mass of distractions and projects down to lists is very useful to me.

As I wrote a while ago about the Pomodoro Technique it can also be useful to work on how we handle that one task. Pomodoro does not say anything about how to handle your mass of inputs, that is what you have GTD for after all, but it is a very effective discipline when you get to the point of doing something. The pomodoro technique simply says that you need to fully focus on that single thing for a short (typically 25 minutes) space of time, to the exclusion of everything else. I have to admit I initially did not apply it with much... here is comes... discipline. Discipline is necessary to get the benefit. Discipline in this case is quite simply not letting yourself be interrupted, staying on target. It requires a little effort of willpower, but only for a short time.

You need to exercise discipline to run a pomodoro and get the benefits of the focus it provides, but like every exercise it is strengthening : you need to actually do the movements to get the muscles and do the thinking to get the ideas. The trick to any kind of exercise (or new behaviour)  is to make sure that you perceive benefits very close to the time when you make the effort. Do 25 minutes of effort and then give yourself a (short) reward. Then do it again...and again. I have been running Pomodoros for a week and a half now. It certainly has improved my ability to concentrate and it has had an unexpected side-benefit too: quality improvement. When you break things down into 25 minute blocks you inevitably find yourself finished with time to spare at some point. The Pomodoro technique says that this is an opportunity for "overlearning", which makes sense for study tasks, but not when you are writing a document or coding a program. What does make sense is quality checking. I have consistently found that being forced to stay with something that I had mentally declared finished and double-check it has improved the final quality. I always find something to sharpen and improve. Curving back round to the subject of discipline, the extra value of small disciplined step is that is reinforces your faith in your own ability to drive yourself, keep promises to yourself.

Bottom line? I recommend the Pomodoro technique for those of us (=me) that are easily distracted from doing. It is very GTD-complementary and gives a nice little win at 25 minute intervals. Give it a try.

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