The Pomodoro technique and other ideas for getting Un-distracted

As a fresh Phd candidate currently failing at balancing a job and study, people often impress upon me the absolute importance of thinking time. Or space to write. Or both. I remember listening to my colleagues complain about a lack of time and space to write. Their solution was to have a writing holiday. Get away from the phone, desk, office and in extreme circumstances, the home. Now I know exactly how they felt. While I am still on track to seeking PhD work/study/life harmony, I am not ashamed to seek advice from everyone who has more experience than I in this regard. However some of the tried and true techniques are still very useful.

Shut down your email. No, I mean close it down completely. And before you do, turn off those annoying notification alerts that pop up in the corner of your screen. Emails and notifications are distractions best friend.

Next – if you haven’t done the concentrating thing for some time, I can really recommend the pomodoro technique. It’s name is associated with a tomato like timer that runs for 25 short minutes (pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato – hence the name). Here’s the deal. You identify the task at hand. You turn your phone to silent (or take the phone off the hook), definitely shut down that email and set your countdown alarm (or your flash tomato shaped pomodoro timer) to 25 mins. Then you do something you probably haven’t done since a fourth form maths exam (I am showing my age here – I think that’s equal to year 8). You focus, entirely, on the task at hand. It’s amazing what you can get done in 25 minutes. Once the timer chirps (or crickets in my case) have a brief stand up, coffee or wander around the cube farm and take a break for 5 mins. Rinse and repeat. The pomodoro website recommends you take a 20-30min break after 4 consecutive pomodoros.

When I first used it about a year ago, this technique absolutely worked for me. I think the days of multi-tasking have made me feel wonderfully busy, but it’s hopeless for the concentration needed for reviewing research papers and writing. I hope that by rectifying the pomodoro technique next week that it will help me get more from my work and study day.

Collaborative Writing Tools

In the last week I have been collaborating with a university colleague on a report. We are both experienced and neither of us has time for version control issues. The tool we have been using is Dropbox.

We have one document and dropbox lets me know when my colleague has edited it. Via email I let him know when I plan to work on the report and what sections, vice versa. Mostly this hasn’t been a problem – except for one thing.

My colleague works on a Mac, I work on a PC. When he first received the file, he had issues opening it. Following some troubleshooting and editing, now the style features in the report are locked. By ‘locked’ I mean the contents page is now an image, all the figure numbers/reference links have gone and all the images in the report have all moved.

This means that once we are finished the text, I will be cut and pasting content into my original report format to get back the style features I need for the final version. I can’t say I look forward that and it leaves me thinking about improved options for collaboration tools.

Thankfully, Christof Schoch has reviewed a few collaborative tools for me here. The one the appeals most is Etherpad. This allows collaboration to occur in real time and tracks contributions by colour – a neat feature! However referencing sounds like a challenge in Etherpad, so another option is fiduswriter. A quick review tells me that this wouldn’t have solved the style problems I experienced on this occasion but it works well with referencing tools. It’s currently being developed so no doubt will continue to improve in the future.

With a range of collaborative tools emerging and currently available – I am already looking forward to trialling something on my next collaborative writing escapade!

Please let me know if you are aware of other collaborative tools that are available.