Spinning Wheels

Let’s make big goals.
Every day, be clear about
the task at hand.
Ambiguity and ambivalence
are the cause for spinning one’s
wheels and getting nowhere.
Challenge yourself unremittingly
until you seize victory and success.

~Daisaku Ikeda, Nichiren Buddhist philosopher

Lately, I have not been clear about the tasks at hand. I have neither reviewed, revisited, nor reconsidered my goals, big or otherwise. There are certain tasks I must complete for my job, and those are easy to acknowledge and accomplish. But it’s the personal work I’ve neglected as of late. My writing. My teaching. Healing work.

I’ve let things slide.

The result? Days like today: a day in which I have the time and freedom to delve into pleasing topics, but no sense of joy because I’m rather unfocused. Haphazard. Today felt as though I were driving around in circles. I was obviously moving, but wasn’t really going anywhere.

I’ve talked a bit in recent weeks about what I’ll now call personal victory strategies (PVS). I conceive of them as strategies that work for sure. When you implement them, you are productive and are able to accomplish great things.

For various reasons, we I often engage in a bit of self sabotage. Fully aware of what works, I choose, inexplicably, to turn a blind eye and do something else!  One tried and true PVS is listing. I’ve made lists since I was a kid. In fact, I used them religiously, much to the consternation of my mother who thought I was a bit too obsessive with them.  “Are you okay?” she’d sometimes ask when she saw me brooding over yet another list.

Listing is my favorite PVS.

No one taught me to list. I simply thought of all the things I wanted to do in a given time period (hours, days, weeks, or even years), and I jotted them down. It was natural to me. I always knew exactly what to do, and I could just go do it. I’d cross things out, and when I got about half way through it, I’d rewrite it, revising as needed.

I remind myself of this particular PVS when I feel out of sorts, and after a day like today, it’s definitely time to implement it once again. Tonight and tomorrow I’ll be reviewing, revisiting, reconsidering my 2012 goals. I’ll list specific action items so I can move toward my goals with clarity and focus.

So tell me, what are some of your personal victory strategies?

In Praise of the Pomodoro Technique

You might’ve seen one before – a little red timer disguised as a tomato. Well a tomato is a pomodoro, and the tomato timer is the inspiration behind the Pomodoro Technique. Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the technique is designed to make time our ally as we manage it better and become more productive.

This is a pomodoro timer. I just used the timer on my phone though.

To Do Today
“To Do” lists. We all have them. Some of them may be indescribably long. Sometimes they may simply include one item. A big item. An item that takes a week or two to complete. (Or a semester, e.g., “Complete dissertation”). At any rate, many of us set about the tasks at hand pretty clear about what we’d like to accomplish, but not going about them in a strategic way. Before we know it, time is passing and at 3 p.m. we’re wondering where noon went.

Chunking larger tasks into smaller, bite-sized pieces is invaluable. I did it to great effect to build momentum and finish said dissertation in a timely fashion. I went from feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of it all, to excited and energized every time I completed a task successfully.

Pomodoro Basics
The Pomodoro Technique takes that idea a step further. Take your same “To Do” list and figure out specifically what tasks you plan to accomplish in one day. No, seriously. Then follow these steps:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (15-30 minutes)

Proof in the Tomato Pudding
I tried it today. I really had to get a project done. It’s one I’ve been putting off, literally for weeks, because other things kept taking priority. But time does eventually run out and the clock was ticking. I chunked the whole project into five tasks and started the timer for “round one.” I was amazed and encouraged at how easy it was to bat away my typical distractions knowing that a break was imminent. For the same reason, I pushed myself to focus as I wanted to see at least a little progress by the time the bell rang. The cheat sheet says the “next” pomodoro will go better, and, ladies and gentlemen, the cheat sheet doesn’t lie.

Productivity begat more productivity and I was on a roll. Turns out, I chunked my tasks pretty well. The first one was most difficult, taking 4 pomodoros (2 hours) to complete. But the other tasks took one pomodoro each, with seconds to spare each time. A project that seemed to take forever, only took four hours to complete. And I still had time to check email and tweet on breaks!

Any Drawbacks?
Yes! The momentum can be tiring. It’s really important to take those “longer” breaks every two hours. You’re basically moving at top speed constantly. I would recommend mixing in all sorts of tasks so you can sort of relax in between harder ones. And by relax I mean doing something that doesn’t require as much mental work – organizing, filing, returning a call, etc. Things we do have to accomplish anyway.

At any rate, shout out to Amanda for reminding me of the technique. I heard about it years ago, but for whatever reason, chose to stick to the Nicole Technique – working for 60-90 minute blocks on long assignments, with 15-30 minute breaks. That worked fine, but I’m really glad I now have this tool in my toolbox. And now, so do you! If you try it out, please let me know how it goes for you. Happy timing!

A Note of Encouragement

A friend of mine is writing his dissertation. He’s in one of those difficult phases and he vented. This is what he said and what I shared in return.

I have been growing more and more unfocused and frustrated w/myself.

Please don’t do that. The more you judge yourself and become disappointed in yourself, the more of that you create. Then, the harder it becomes to overcome each little hump. Instead, I would go in the opposite direction – literally praising yourself and your efforts for every small success. This was the key to turning around my stagnation and transforming it into momentum.

I decided to pick one small, focused, manageable task each day. Not a list. Not several. Not a couple.


I made sure I could and WOULD accomplish that specific task and celebrate and praise myself for that milestone. If I had more energy, I would do other work, but there would be NO PRESSURE to do anything else that day. The next day, I did it again. After about three days I felt like I was floating on air. I had tangible, actual, forward motion. Each tiny step counts, so there’s no need to get bogged down in the “smallness” of a task.

Even if your task is revising one paragraph. Or writing a new intro to a section. Or outlining a *portion* of a chapter. You name it. It all has to get done anyway. If you truly understand the idea of a thousand mile journey beginning with a single step, you will embrace that your dissertation is nothing more than a thousand miles putting one foot in front of the other.

Even if it’s only one step in a day, it counts.