Wanted: a starting pistol for your brain

Sometimes you just need a little "John Kerry with a gun" in your head to get going.

Ever have one of those busy days where you know exactly what you gotta do, but it’s a lotta stuff, and you’re not quite sure how you’re gonna make it all happen? I just had one of those days.

Often, for whatever reason, zen-like time management isn’t much help when staring down the barrel of a day like this. You feel the clock ticking. Pre-organizing your tasks just feels like lost time. Anxiety starts to tighten its grip, and you feel a swelling compulsion to check Facebook.

In these situations you need a starting pistol for your brain: something that snaps your attention like a whip and gets you out of the blocks and on your way, regardless of whether you’re perfectly “ready” or not. But when you’re working by yourself in a home office, this can be hard to come by. Here’s what I did:

It kind of happened on accident. I’d heard of the “Pomodoro technique” from some lifehacking blog, and it seemed like a good way to sprint through some first laps of my work. The basic idea is, you get an egg timer (I used the timer on my smartphone), set it for 25 minutes, pick a single task and then hit “GO.” You focus on jamming through that task in 25 minutes or less, then take a 5 minute break, then pick another task, set the egg timer again, and repeat. It’s like cardio training for your to-do list.

So I set the timer, sat there staring at it… and said to myself, “OK. I’m going to outline my article and get the lede graf written.” Then I took a couple deep breaths — as if someone were saying, “Ready…Set…”–and then hit it. And I was off.

It sounds ridiculous, but doing that little ritual really did feel like a mental starting-gun going off! Just seeing those timer numbers start cascading down flipped my switch: it was go time. And the check-Facebook urge just flew away like a bunch of startled pigeons.

…and suddenly the timer was going off. The 25 minutes had flown by. But I didn’t follow the Pomodoro technique and stop. Why would I? I obviously had picked up some serious momentum and I wanted to stay with it. Turns out I didn’t need or want to sprint — I wanted to be like Forrest Gump: just runn-nang, and runn-nang…

Run, brain, run! (Note: my inner monologue has a Southern accent.)

I kept running steady for another hour until I’d not only outlined my piece and written the lede, but finished the whole damn thing. Then I took a short break. But when it was time to get back to work on my next deadline, I still needed that go-gun in order to get moving again. So that’s what I did. I set the timer for 25 minutes, hit GO!, and then ignored it when the 25 minutes were up.

Turns out this is an awesome mind-hack: when you hit that button, you’re thinking, “OK, this isn’t that bad, I only have to get through the next 25 minutes.” That gets you going off the blocks at a good clip. But then you forget about the time and lose yourself in the task… so when that timer goes off, you think, “wow, that went fast — I can keep going, easy!”

Suffice it to say, I pwned my multiple deadlines today without even cracking a sweat. (That’s why I have time to write this post.)

So what did I learn? Well, I can take or leave the Pomodoro Technique… but the “Mental Starting Pistol Maneuver”®©™ works wonders.

About John Pavlus

I'm a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics.
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