Assorted Q&A: avoid distractions during pomodoro, my favorite failure, and more
Over the last year, I’ve collected some questions from coffee chats or messages. Commonly asked were details on my pomodoro practice and how to avoid distractions, along with career questions and how to grow as a new graduate. In this post is a selection of answers to those questions.
These answers capture what has worked successfully for me at this point of time, which is subject to change with trial and error. I hope that these points can be mixed and matched to apply to your individual situation.
- On distraction and grounding oneself
- On career and mindset
On distraction and grounding oneself
Do you get distracted while on a pomodoro focus timer? What do you do in that case?
Aside: pomodoro timer is a productivity technique where one focuses for a block of time (e.g. 25 minutes), and then takes a break for 5 minutes. Optimal timing can vary: I sometimes do 50 minute pomodoros, for example. Here’s how I built the habit.
I do get distracted during pomodoros, even after years of the practice. Here’s what I do to fight it. When I get the urge to check social media or email, I can open a browser tab of said social media, but don’t check it. Shortly before I wrote this, I actually opened a Slack tab but quickly minimized the tab, which quelled the impulse.
Another approach is to write down the urge on a notepad, and then return to it during a pomodoro break. Right now on my notepad I have typed “tax stuff folder”, which is a to-do item that suddenly came to mind, as I was writing this blog. But I shall put that off.
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed?
When I notice I’ve been restless and overwhelmed, I schedule time to step away from the internet, and do a “reverse pomodoro”.
This means that I sit or stand somewhere away from my computer and phone, and let my mind wander freely. If a particularly stressful thought wiggles its way up, I might latch onto it to probe deeper into what’s bothering me. I keep my pen and journal at hand during these sessions.
One thing to note is that often these sessions don’t really go anywhere, because if the solution to all problems is simply to turn off the Internet, I wouldn’t have problems, heh.
Regardless, this practice is cathartic to me, and provides an opportunity to reset and clear my mental cache, so that I can then direct my energy into actual progress.
Do you have any tips for facing immediately stressful situations?
I will answer this question with the example of a looming presentation or deliverable that I am nervous about.
In situations when I feel extremely frazzled or anxious, I have a ritual and “comfort music” that I’ve been using for many years. I put on headphones or just blast the music loudly, and imagine some cinematic cutscenes of me overcoming the problem, like a movie or anime. Yes, it sounds dramatic, but it helps me!
Here are some of the tracks, which tend to be powerful and upbeat. Each person will have their own tracks that provide this effect.
Overwerk is one of my favorite electronic artists. Since my university days his music has helped ground me.
M2U is another electronic artist whose upbeat, symphonic tracks energize me.
Recently I’ve added this upbeat track by Taeyeon that really lifts up my mood.
On career and mindset
How do you stay adaptable to change?
I have a habit of asking myself “what if one day I don’t have this?” about random things as I go about my day to day. Now that I type it out, it seems kind of strange, but I shall explain.
The more “essential” something is in my life, the more important it is to ask now and then whether I could live without it (within reason). For example, while brewing coffee I might ask myself if I could live without it.
I’ve lived through painful headaches when I quit coffee cold turkey (a productivity experiment of old). So my brain resists this train of thought initially - “there’s no way you can go without coffee!”. But then, something magical happens if I keep probing - I start to come up with practical solutions.
I could function, perhaps, if I lined up working hours with times of the day when I wasn’t going through caffeine withdrawal. Maybe I could quit caffeine over the weekend to get the worst out of the way.
It’s oddly fun to mentally break my assumptions and try to dance around the initial objections my mind reacts with. Additionally, this exercise has the below benefits:
Helps me be mentally ready to not have
Helps me be grateful to have
For fun, you can try it out - answer these questions and let your mind go wild!
- What if, for a month, you didn’t have Internet access? Would you be okay with this, and why? How would you make it work?
- What if, you didn’t have hot water for 2 weeks?
- What if, tomorrow, you got into a car accident and lost use of your dominant hand?
What advice would you give to a university student?
In my experience, high GPA and scores are not that helpful to life in the long run. Sure, grades gatekeep some opportunities such as grad school, but even so I got into a top economics program, at the University of Toronto, with 3 failed undergraduate courses. I did well only in my final 2 years of university.
I scraped by the graduate program with a B+. By getting into that program I was already the top of the top students in Canada, hence, in the hypothetical situation that I came dead last in that program, that fact likely wouldn’t change too much. So I didn’t really bother aiming for an A+.
Right after I received my diploma, all the grades went into metaphorical trash. I had to dig up my old transcript to fact check I had a B+ because I never ever needed to mention it, not even on my work resume.
So, I think it’s important to have fun and explore during university. Grades help, and they do matter, but they’re not the most important thing by far. If you don’t have great marks, there is no need to feel inadequate. Don’t sell yourself short in life based on the rules of a small enclosed system.
Do you have a “favorite failure”? What did you learn from the experience?
Failing 3 courses in university. Being able to come back from that was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, and it reinforced the belief that I am a resilient person.
Looking back, that situation felt like the end of the world, but seems insignificant now. But had I not made it back out, my life would be very, very different now, so in fact it probably was significant.
In many ways I learned more from that experience than when things were smooth sailing. The self-assurance I gained from overcoming hurdles have carried on to my future pursuits, helping me dream big without fear.
This concludes the assorted inbox Q&A! I had to cut some questions, as the article was getting quite long. I’ll continue to collect questions and answer them in another part of this series.