When the world turned upside down in March 2020, I was one of the millions of people (luckily) sent to work from home with really no guidance or structure. If you’ve been a reader for a while, you’ll know that I am a high school science teacher by day and it’s a career, despite its challenges, I really enjoy but in March 2020 the regimented and controlled flow of the day was thrown off its axis and now I was at home. The guidance of what we were supposed to be doing, lessons we were to be delivering, or how we would interact with students was a constant change and everything was different.
The time span of March 17, 2020 until June 17, 2020 was a free for all as far as how to organize my day and still attempt to connect with kids during this difficult time. I worked hard on preparing and delivering lessons that were easy enough to do without my supervision but interesting enough to not just feel like busy work. I sent emails to students and their adults trying to stay connected; sometimes my work paid off and sometimes it fell flat but during that time frame we were trying to survive. During that season, I realized how the structure and routine of the school day with set periods I was teaching and set periods I was supposed to be accomplishing prep work or grading really kept me on task and organized so I searched for a way to recreate that structure at home even though I was basically left to my own devices and often in the house alone since my partner was an essential worker allowing my daughter to stay in daycare and me to keep working without losing my mind.
It was during the spring of 2020 that I discovered the Pomodoro Technique; originally described by Francesco Cirillo and named after the cute kitchen tomato timer he used to delineate work and break. Since discovering this technique myself, I’ve read more and more research about how “microbreaks” are really important to overall functioning and productivity both from a mental and physical standpoint. Now I’ve tried to implement it in my classroom especially since my district has lengthened the class period and I have seen it work for myself, my kid, and my students.
The basics of the Pomodoro Technique is that you work for a certain period and then you’re able to take a short break — this cycle is called a “pomodoro” and after 4 of those such pomodoros you can take a longer break. I almost never make it to 4 pomodoros because I’m either finished what I needed to work on at home or the period has ended at school but you can accomplish a lot in just 1 or 2 of these cycles. The “perfect” pomodoro is usually 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break but I usually use 20 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break.
Flash back to the Spring of 2020 when I implemented this technique for myself to continue trying to do my job in such a way that I had never tried to accomplish it before — lo and behold I found it worked; it kept me on task and working on my to do list often completing all the things. The key to the work period though is to cut out distractions. For me that meant putting my phone on do not disturb or airplane mode so it wouldn’t constantly suck my attention away. I also installed impulse blocker and pomodoro browser extensions so if I needed to work online, I wouldn’t just be able to go check what social media or deals on Amazon for “just a minute.”
It is these “just a minute” distractions that ultimately made the to do list take a lot longer to accomplish or make it harder to focus and understand what I’m working on; by constantly diverting my focus to something else it takes me ANOTHER minute to reorient myself to the task on hand.
When I’m working on crafting a project or lesson plan, I even close out my email at work because I can’t afford the constant “ding” notification because the noise itself is enough to through my mental train off the track even if I don’t go check that email.
I also started implementing this at home with my daughter when it came to cleaning or doing anything she fights me on. I ordered a sixty-minute time timer (I also ordered a bigger one for my classroom) and I’ll set it for 15 or 20 minutes. If the time timer isn’t handy, I’ll use a timer on my phone or even the sleep timer on her radio to measure it. We’ll do something for x minutes and then she can take a break. Or I’ll play with her for x minutes and then she plays by herself.
In my world it works beautifully for all ages. I get more accomplished in a focused 20 minutes than I get in a distracted hour and I often find that I’ve completed all the to do list items with time to spare.
It’s amazing what cutting out the constant distractions and interruptions can do; by giving myself the structure and I know a break is coming relatively soon so I don’t even feel like I’m being deprived of all the “fun”.
Part of being successful for me has also been to use technology to help me not just to hurt me. In my experience, many people bemoan the distractions but don’t use the tools available to help manage them so here is a list of my favorite techniques that help:
1. Tomato Clock (Firefox) Browser Extension
2. Impulse Blocker (Firefox) Browser Extension
3. Forest App (App Store and Google Play)
4. Actually closing down my email
5. Quality Time (Android App) — this is really great for setting and forgetting times when you want your phone to be unavailable you can also set this through the “digital wellbeing” settings on some phones (I have it set to lock my phone from 5:30p-8:15p for family time and 9:15p-6:00a for bed time and get ready for work)
We decry the digital connected-ness because our nostalgia takes over and it was so much “easier” to get things done or focus on the task at hand before all these distractions but on the flip side, we revel in what the digital age has brought us in the ability to connect across time and space or to see, experience, and learn things we never have before. I believe the way forward is finding the way that blends the nostalgic, rose-tinted glass look of the past with the possibility and opportunities of the future. The phones and technology are here to stay so finding the ways to work WITH them instead of AGAINST them is an important part in crafting the future we want.