Your Own Personal Kanban: The Tomato

Since I went full-time freelance as a writer, designer, and consultant, a number of people have asked me how I manage my workload. It’s a fair question, since I juggle three consulting contracts and usually two to five projects at any one time. I thought I would write a few blog posts to detail my personal management process as it looks now. Maybe it will help other creative professionals as they get ready for the new year.

Let’s start small and work our way up.

Minute-to-Minute: Pomodoro

As I work from home, I discovered I needed a process. There are a number of distractions, ranging from taking the dogs for a walk to running errands or checking the mail, so I needed to find a way to keep me focused. I tried a few different ways (including “sit there and fucking work”), but I ended up learning about the Pomodoro Technique, which I’ve used for six months now. It’s named after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

There’s a website and a book and stuff about the technique, but at the core it’s very simple. For each task, you set a timer and devote 25 minutes to just that task. If other things pop up while you’re working on the task, you jot them down and get back to the task at hand. If something interrupts you that you can’t put off, you cancel the sprint and start a new one. Once the timer goes off, you take a five-minute break, and then either go back to the original task or move on to another task. After four such sprints (or pomodoros), you take a 15 minute break.

It’s surprisingly effective. It turns out that there isn’t much that can’t wait for 25 minutes, which means that over time I was able to cut down on things like obsessive email and social media checking, which were eating up a lot of time. I can also usually put of the dogs or errands or the like until my current pomodoro is done, and then I don’t feel guilty for not continuing to work.

Hour-to-Hour: Pomodoro Weighting

One of the things I picked up from Agile methodology is the idea of weighting tasks. For example, “write a Twitter post” is nowhere near as time-consuming as “write a book,” but simply written out each task looks equal. The idea is that if you can assign a value to each task, you can better estimate how long each task takes.

Since I already use pomodoros (I call them “pomos”) to focus, I realized I can also use them to weight my tasks. I spent a few weeks estimating how long it took me to do a variety of tasks each pomos, and how many pomos I can do in a day.

That lead to something else I got from Agile. While we might be scheduled to work, say, eight hours a day, we don’t spend all eight hours doing productive work. Meetings, breaks, socialization, computer problems — all sorts of things cut into your real work time, so it’s best to estimate that a percentage of that time is actually used for productivity. In general, 75% seems the common metric, and I used that for a while, but I didn’t expect the amount of things that I have to do myself outside of a work environment. Further, once in a while I just wasn’t in the groove, while others I could crank out wordcount until my fingers bleed.

In the end, I settled on a simple goal: 10 pomos of tasks a day. That’s five hours a work. My logic is that it’s a reasonable amount of work to commit to, with the idea that I could do more most days. Sometimes I might not be feeling a particular project, so I’ll take a long lunch to get a fresh perspective. Other times I’m so in the zone that even the five-minute breaks seem like forever. But either way, I can get 10 pomos done reliably.

Tomorrow, I’ll go into how I manage and track tasks day-to-day.

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