Over the last few months, we’ve seen the many ways in which technology can improve our lives as 21st-century researchers. Unfortunately, it also presents endless distractions, making it very difficult to actually get any work done. In this week’s Thing, we’ll explore some tools that help us stay focussed and meet those writing targets.
Assessing the scale of the problem with RescueTime
The trouble with the internet is that 5 minutes on Twitter actually equates to an hour in the Real World. And often we have no idea how much time we’re devoting to aimless web browsing. RescueTime tracks how long you’re spending on the internet and allows you to set limits. For example, you might want to restrict emailing to 1 hour per day, permit yourself just 10 minutes on Twitter, or block all online activity in the mornings when you’re supposed to be writing. It’ll expose all your bad habits, too, by providing sobering graphs of all online activity.
If you’re completely at the mercy of your smartphone and its endless notifications, try Forest. This simple app plants a virtual tree when you start focusing but kills it if you fiddle about with anything else. The aim is to build your own forest (and get some work done).
Squash those tomatoes with the Pomodoro Technique
It’s not enough just to eliminate distractions. To really get results, you need to ensure your activity is directed and measurable. The Pomodoro Technique is a revelation for many researchers. Named after those novelty tomato-shaped timers (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato), this time management technique improves focus and productivity by breaking your tasks down into 25-minute sessions. Here’s what you do:
1) Make a list of your tasks
2) Choose a task to be accomplished
3) Set a timer for 25 minutes
4) Work on the task until the timer sounds (don’t do anything else!)
5) Give yourself a big tick and then take a 5-minute break
6) Start again, giving yourself a longer break for every 4 pomodoros (or pomodori, for pedants) completed
You can use any sort of timer – you probably have one on your phone, watch, or oven. An excellent web-based alternative is mytomatoes.com. This simple tools acts as a timer and also logs your tasks. It’s very pleasing to see the list of finished tomatoes at the end of a hard day of hammering at the keyboard.
If you haven’t locked your phone in a drawer, you could use the Brain Focus app (available for iPhone and Android). This tracks your progress, blocks notifications, and stops you accessing other apps.
Be as specific as possible with your tasks: eg “Write concluding paragraph to chapter one” or “check references for introduction” rather than “write thesis”. This gets easier after a couple of days and you’ll become much more accomplished at estimating how long certain tasks take, and breaking your work down into manageable chunks.
The key challenge is to stay focused on your task during the 25 minutes: don’t be tempted to fiddle about on Facebook. If something urgent suddenly pops into your head, quickly write it down and return to the task. Use your 5-minute breaks for having a stretch and talking to the cat.
Introduce an element of peril with Write or Die
Some writers swear by Write or Die, an alarmingly-named app that encourages productivity by dispensing virtual punishments, such as emitting ear-piercing screeches or deleting everything you’ve written. If this is too masochistic, it’ll also run in ‘reward’ mode, giving you encouragement on reaching certain milestones. Using it all the time would probably drive you mad, but it could be an effective virtual bootcamp for meeting a deadline.
For a gentler approach, try Written? Kitten! Here you’re rewarded with an adorable kitten when you reach your goal. Other quadrupeds are available, too.
Persuade yourself to write just 500 words every day and that’ll add up to 10,000 words each month. And you’ll get lots of kittens.
There are lots of other tools out there, but don’t spend too much time Googling for them. The answer is to give yourself some uninterrupted blocks of time to focus, and protect them vigorously.
This week’s suggested activities are:
- Install RescueTime (or similar) and watch in mute horror as your internet activity is exposed
- Experiment with a tomato-based timer to establish some uninterrupted blocks of time
- Put your phone in a drawer (or use the Forest app)