The same way we create habits that kill our productivity, we can fix them.

Illustration by Julius Andersson, Common Ground

I am Figge Suter, Designer and co-founder of digital design studio Common Ground in Stockholm. After returning to work from nine months of paternity leave (thank you Sweden!) I took the chance to reflect on how I shape my workdays. Coming with a fresh mind and a relaxed body made me see clearly how I kept repeating patterns in everyday life that created stressful situations. What I also realised was that often I was the one creating them, not external factors.

One thing I focused on was my time spent working in front of the computer. In my work as a UX Designer, no two days are exactly alike. More often than not, I get to spend time doing hands-on design work. During these hours I usually kept going without a break. Although productive, I usually felt exhausted and lost my sense of perspective on what I was doing and why.

Also, I felt my body getting more and more tense and filled with stress resulting in a stiff neck (or ‘gamnacke’ in Swedish). Simply put, I was pushing out good work, but it often left me feeling uneasy and stressed after each session.

A while back my friend and colleague Jesper Gisslén introduced me to something called the Pomodoro technique. A time management method where you focus on your work in 25 minute intervals with 5 minute breaks in between. It was created by Francesco Cirillo in the late eighties and was named after the (tomato in Italian) kitchen timer. I remember trying it out a bit but it didn’t stick with me back then.

Now I decided to give it a try again. I wanted something that put some structure around my workday and forced me to focus on completing tasks and taking breaks. There are many variants of this , but I opted for only using the time interval of 25 minutes with 5 minute breaks and trying to set a task for each Pomodoro (interval).

I like the idea of a physical timer, but it just wasn’t practical as I sit in places shared with others. I decided to use a free version of the timer app Be focused for Mac. It’s not great, but it does the job. I’ve now spent roughly a month using the technique. Here are some reflections I’ve made so far.

It’s frustrating to be interrupted when time is out and you’re not done. Sometimes it’s really hard to force myself to stop working when I have a good flow going. But it also forces me to think about how to spend my time more effectively in the next Pomodoro and that makes me eager to get going again.

This is who I would turn into, i.e Skalman

It only works when I have a few hours where I can focus on design work. Applying the method when I collaborate with others, or sit in meetings is ridiculous and would turn me into a strange character in the workplace taking breaks in the middle of meaningful interactions with other people.

I’ve become more aware of how scattered my attention is. The time box, and a clearly defined task has made me more aware of how my mind often wanders off or gets distracted. Anyone that has tried meditation knows what I am talking about. It’s like a comedy sometimes to follow your own mind disappearing into god knows where.

The deadline for each interval pushes me to wrap up my work. This has been one of the clearest upsides with the technique. The deadline forces me to make design decisions and not spend too much time on tiny details. It also gives me a better idea of how much time it takes to complete something.

Stretching my legs for a few minutes takes away a lot of tension. It’s kind of cool that just a few minutes break can make such a difference. It also makes me appreciate the surroundings and gives me a chance to talk to people.

Reality clashes with the technique. Quite often I get interrupted during a Pomodoro by a colleague that wants to bounce around ideas or chat. That’s fine, it’s part of what I do. I usually pause the Pomodoro and pick it up once finished. It also helps to tell the people around you that you are using the Pomodoro technique. People are usually curious and have their own tips to share.

Things tend to fall apart over time. As with most things I start out doing, I notice how I gravitate to my ‘old’ way of going about things. Sometimes I get the feeling that ‘I don’t have time for this’ when probably the opposite is true. It’s when I have tight deadlines and lots on my plate I need to focus on one thing at a time and wrap up my deliverables.

I’m perhaps not a better designer but I do feel better going about my day. The small breaks create mental space that helps me to take one step back and see where I am in my work and what to focus on next. I also noticed that I am more at ease and calmer during the day.

So maybe you’re wondering how many Pomodoros it took to write this article? For the first complete draft, I did four Pomodoros, roughly equal to two hours of work. The clock is ringing soon so better wrap this article up! 🙂

Do you have any experience trying this out or have other tips to share? Feel free to share your thoughts!

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