a meta-post on productivity

I’ve clearly been having a hard time keeping up with a regular schedule of blogging, but it’s certainly not for lack of trying! Because of that, I this is going to be more of a meta-post about productivity and productive behaviors. Maybe by writing about it I will somehow manage to convince myself to participate in some of these behaviors. In this post I want to talk about the problems I ran into combining a program called Toggl with the Pomodoro technique. (Spoiler alert: It made me crazy and I blame a strange physical illness on it!) I also want to discuss the difficulties I’ve been having in convincing myself to just write already.

Toggl and the Pomodoro Technique

The first thing I want to write about is something that I was obsessed with for at least six months. At the beginning of the Fall 2012 semester I heard someone discuss the Pomodoro technique, and I immediately adopted it into my work practice. The basic premise is that you work for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and then continue working. Each such repetition is called a “Pomodoro,” which means “tomato” in Italian and is named after the classic tomato-shaped kitchen timers. There are a few variations on this technique, but they mostly rely on this idea that you work for a set amount of time, take a short break, and keep working. Then, after four or so full pomodoros, you get to take a slightly longer break.

Around the same time I was becoming obsessed with this technique, I was also looking for a way to track the amount of time I was spending on various projects. That Fall semester I was working as both an AI (assistant instructor) and an RA (research assistant). I was originally just going to be an RA, but my familiarity with Arduino, my programming background, and my general love of prototyping was needed to help teach a prototyping course, so my 20 RA hours were split into 13 RA hours and 7 AI hours. The awkward split was symbolically chosen to remind me that my efforts as a research assistant should come first. I know myself pretty well, and I could foresee that I would want to spend most of my time working on the prototyping class, not because I dislike my research, but because I enjoy spending time with students, teaching, and thinking about how cool technology is and how empowered people feel when they learn how to use it. I was specifically in charge of teaching the Arduino section of the course, and I was unreasonably excited for it. To solve all of my problems, I downloaded and began using a program called Toggl, which let me track all of the time I spent working and categorize that time according to whatever project schema I could come up with. Then I could visualize that time with some fancy graphs and notice if I’ve spent too much time on my own school work, or too much time on my AI instead of my RA.

This was organizational heaven for me for a few months. I had around 14 different categorizations of work. Every time I sat down to do any kind of work, the first thing I would do is type into Toggl exactly what I was doing and select the category it belonged under. After hitting “start,” a timer would appear on my laptop’s menu bar, letting me know exactly how long this session had lasted. I tried to get the timer to read at least 25 mins before I would take a break. My breaks were never just five minutes though, since I didn’t actually time them. I justified that by working longer pomodoros…sometimes. But that didn’t always work out well either. In general, though, I thought I was doing pretty well.

I made sure that the timer was only running when I was actually working. If I had to get up to get a glass of water, I would turn it off. Same if I had to use the restroom, if I was driving between meetings, if someone came up and talked to me while I was reading. Each time I would stop the timer. I often justified how I was doing by comparing it to someone who works an 8-hour day in an office situation. I know people with those kinds of jobs don’t get to work the full 8-hour day. There are lunches that go over, meetings that they shouldn’t really be sitting in on, chit chat with coworkers, complaining about the boss, sharing stories, small talk, etc. Those time wasters add up to a lot of time by the end of the day, so I never really felt like I had to get my total time spent on work during a day to actually read 8 hours, since I was cutting out all of those little time sinks. On a few particularly difficult days I would actually manage to get the timer all the way up to 8.5 hours, but that kind of workday was definitely unsustainable. It would only happen on a Wednesday for me, which consisted of getting a start on work early by reading for class, writing up an ethnography session, preparing for a meeting, going to said meeting, going directly to a three hour class, and then at the end of that class going straight to the hackerspace where I conduct observations. By the end of those kinds of days I could get 8.5 hours of Toggl time, but I was actually out of the house for 14 hours!

I say all of that as a way to justify the fact that I would typically be proud of myself if I could get Toggle to read 5 hours by the end of the day. 5 was a good day. 4 was acceptable. 3 was fine too, if that was 3 solid hours of independent work. But if that 3 included meetings or class, then it really didn’t count for much.

The good thing about Toggl was that I had this external entity to which I could point and say “see! I worked today! I did things! I was productive! That’s why I shouldn’t feel guilty right now that I’m playing video games or watching TV or out with friends. I shouldn’t have to feel like a bad student for not working at the moment because here I have proof that I was good all day and deserve this break.” It was, essentially, supposed to act as something that could keep me from feeling guilty about whatever it was I was spending my time on. But it totally backfired on me.

For starters, I would feel guilty when my pomodoro breaks were longer than 5 minutes. I would start to worry that it would take me forever to get the timer to read a number I was satisfied with, and it was all my fault for deciding to do the dishes instead of read for class (doing the dishes didn’t count on the Toggl timer because it wasn’t school-related). I also felt guilty for hating it when people would interrupt me while I was reading, because I would have to stop the timer at something like 14 minutes, 8 minutes, 3 minutes, and I didn’t want to have to look back at a bunch of small time logs at the end of the day. A few, large time logs were much better!

I stopped doing a lot of small, “administrative” tasks. If it wasn’t going to take long enough to warrant me turning on the timer, sometimes I just didn’t do it at all. Just earlier today, I remembered that I had written something down in a document somewhere and I wanted to find it so I could reference it somewhere else. I spent probably four or five minutes looking for it. If I was still chained to Toggl, I simply would have never even bothered looking. What could that possibly be categorized under? While reading from a book I’m currently enjoying (Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0 by David Gauntlett) I had some inspiration for a presentation I was creating. Back in Toggl time, I would have written that inspiration on a post-it note and hoped that I remembered later what it was I wanted to say, rather than take a break from reading the book to incorporate it directly into my slides right then while it was fresh.

A big problem I had with this particular productivity strategy was my self-imposed assumption that I had to finish all my homework before I could go play. Who’s to say you have to finish all your work before you can play anyway? Lately I’ve been noticing that I work better in the evenings. Should I resign myself to being miserable and guilty all day before I actually get to work in the evening, or should I allow myself to relax and have fun during the times when I know I won’t get anything done anyway? Of course that’s a slippery slope, but I could probably be more giving with myself in that area.

Finally, and probably the biggest problem of all, is that timing yourself while you work and keeping track of that time forces you to assume that time is the metric that maters. It doesn’t! It’s not about how much time you put in to something at all! Effort, quality, and sometimes quantity are really what should be being measured. Should I value the time when I’m sitting in front of my computer slowly working through something but timing it more than the moments when I have unexplainable surges of productivity? I don’t think so.

In short (too late) Toggl was driving me crazy. I just wasn’t attending to all of the little pieces of my work life that would otherwise be holding me together, I was feeling guilty about how I chose to spend my time, I was expecting an unreasonable amount of control over my brain, and I was using the wrong metric to evaluate my own work. I wasn’t allowing myself to work on multiple things “simultaneously,” which sounds like a good thing at first, but bouncing back and forth between projects is actually good for your brain. It promotes synthesizing activities, which are far more important for a PhD student than many other kinds of things you can be doing with your brain.

What finally pushed me over the edge to actually quit this thing that I was obsessed with? In early January I was sick for a few weeks. I never ever get sick. And by that I mean maybe once a year for two or three days. So not feeling well for a few weeks really had me worried about myself and about my ability to be productive. I was still trying to time my work while in bed reading! I finally realized just how much stress I was causing myself, and that that stress might have actually been the reason I got so sick in the first place! So I quit Toggl and I quit timing myself while working. I’m not 100% sure I’m being more productive without Toggl, and I very well might not be, but I do know that I’m causing myself less mental stress and anxiety, and that’s much more important for me.

On input vs output and being selfish

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about a different kind of guilt altogether: the pressure to be producing things. This will be shorter. I didn’t want to make two meta-productivity blog posts in a row, because that might send the wrong message about what it is I actually study anyway. Or if I actually do any work at all or do I just think about the fact that I don’t get anything done (which isn’t true! I promise!).

In any case, this is just a kick-in-the-butt for me to write, make, and produce more things. I spend an awful lot of time reading articles and books that are completely valid and about my subject area, but then what do I do with that? I create little documents with notes in them. I write all over those books. I work to build a gigantic annotated bibliography about craft, materiality, making, hacking, empowerment, and other such themes that are potentially central to my work as a researcher. But only I get to see those documents. It’s really quite selfish of me. By not writing anything about what I’m thinking, I’m sending myself a clear message that I don’t think I have anything valuable to say. Of course that’s probably a normal thing for a first year PhD student to think, but I have to snap out of that sometime and it might as well be now.

What’s particularly embarrassing about this for me is that I study Makers! I should be making things and creating things all of the time! I try, I really really try to get myself to make more things. But other than knitting or doodling, I really don’t make much. And that is shameful. Pure shame.

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