Vitamin-R for Results

When you think about it, we can’t really manage time so “Time Management” is a misnomer. What we can really manage is our attention and how much time we allocate to paying attention to a chosen task. There are new tools becoming available to help us do that.

Getting Bigger Things Done

Vitamin-R is a Mac application to help you get things done (GTD) by helping you focus your attention on the ever so critical doing part. There are many other applications, most notably OmniFocus, that help with planning, organizing, and tracking completion of tasks but remarkably few that help with directing sustained attention on the longer tasks that typically are more challenging and often are the most important. David Allen, the original GTD guru, suggests that if you have an item that take less than 2 minutes to complete then “just do it”. Projects that take longer to complete need to be broken down into smaller tasks but some of these tasks, often the most worthwhile, need prolonged concentration from 15 to 30 minutes or more to make significant progress. Unitasking flow has become a rallying concept for improvement as more information has become available about the detrimental productivity effects of multitasking.

Traditionally the prescription for completing these most important and challenging tasks is just to “buckle down” and be disciplined. That can still work but why not go into battle with some ammunition and tools to fight back against all the distractions that can sabotage your best intentions. In recent times more information is becoming available from brain research which provides clues on how to more effectively manage attention in support of your better self and GTD ambitions.

Pomodoro Technique

The pomodoro technique is one approach that is becoming popular for getting done those longer tasks that require sustained concentration. Pomodoro is “tomato” in Italian and the technique is named after a simple timer shaped like a tomato that was used by the originator (Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s) to time his sprints of concentration on an important task. The technique consists in setting a timer for a short interval like 25 minutes and focussing your attention on just one important task for that interval. Afterwards reward yourself by taking a short optionally timed or untimed break.

Your computer, which is itself the source of many of the distractions, can also be put to use to help you concentrate your attention and that is what Vitamin-R supports by several functions in addition to the pomodoro timer.

Vitamin-R Features

Vitamin-R provides the following items:

  • Removal of distractions by quitting or hiding other applications and muting sound
  • Linking with OmniFocus tasks
  • Timer start, pause, resume, stop.
  • Task documentation editor for task objective, now, later, and scratch
  • Insertion of text templates
  • Reading objectives aloud
  • Log book for results

Pomodoro Steps with Vitamin-R

When you have identified a “pomodoro” task you would like to complete the steps with Vitamin-R support would be as follows:

  1. Removal of computer distractions by quitting or hiding and muting applications that are not needed for the task.
  2. Link to an existing OmniFocus task or define a new one
  3. Set the timer
  4. Use the notes capability to identify now, later, or miscellaneous scratch items you want to remember but not distract you
  5. Log results and track completion in your task manager such as OmniFocus

Benefits

Use of a timer for these important “pomodoro” tasks has the benefit of recording task times which can help in future task estimates. If the task wasn’t completed another pomodoro session can be timed after the break.

I like how keyboard control, shortcuts, and templates are provided in a rich text editor which help keep the focus on the task. Links to OmniFocus make for a more elegant workflow since productivity aficionados are almost certainly going to be using this or a similar application (support for Things is coming soon) for task management. I like the markup shortcuts provided with FastType magic which allows you to create action items, bulleted lists and checklists with a minimum of fuss by automatically translating certain characters into those formats. An enhancement that would be welcome is to have more integration of vitamin-R notes with OmniFocus so the complete record of a task is in one place.

The application also comes with pdf documentation which explains some background about the application, relevant brain research, future plans, and some suggested references. I like the tone of the documentation that recognizes that it is early days for this type of tool and that many changes are sure to come. It is mentioned up front that the software isn’t written by brain scientists but the important thing is whether the technique supported helps you get important things done. I found the free trial timed out before I was finished evaluating the product but it does offer a way to test the full functionality before purchasing.

Conclusion

A person could argue that there are alternatives to getting things done without Vitamin-R with separate timers, notepads, and utilities but if you believe as I do that removing as much friction and distraction as possible will improve your ability to get the more important things done then vitamin-R is well worth a try. I look forward to doing more pomodoros using vitamin-R.

Full disclosure:

Publicspace.net is offering a free license worth €14.95 Euros (currently $19.16 Canadian) for blog posts about their product. The content of this blog post has not been affected by this offer.

Brain Wars

There is a lot of brain research that is being published that shows that the brain rewires itself based on how it is used. This is sometimes referred to as neuroplasticity of the brain. The bad news is that doing some activities can actually rewire your brain in a negative way. The good news is that that same flexibility can allow you to recover by practicing beneficial activities. This could be thought of as a brain war you fight by using your brain in different ways that determine how your brain develops.

In the most recent issue of Wired, Nicholas Carr wrote an article (“The Web Shatters Focus and Rewires the Brain”) about how the Internet and hyperlinked material in general are affecting people’s brains by making them shallower thinkers that skim material and can’t focus or concentrate on concepts as well. The article is an excerpt from a whole book on the effects of the Internet called “The Shallows” that advocates unplugging at some times as one way to counteract these effects.

Another issue, is that people today in many environments face a lot of stimulating distractions and stress about getting many things done. This has lead people to try multitasking which research has shown can be counter-productive.

Since using the Internet regularly is important to a lot of people and has a lot of benefits, methods of having the best of both online and offline worlds are desirable. One option that could be beneficial is to practice the Pomodoro technique which addresses both distractions and multi-tasking by advocating short bursts of activity on one task which you give your full concentration before taking a break.

Original video from Pomodoro Technique on YouTube*.

The Pomodoro technique is very similar to what is advocated in the book, “The Power of Full Engagement” where it is emphasized that managing energy (and attention), not time, is the key to high performance. In ‘The Power of Full Engagement”, 90 minutes is identified as the maximum time that people should try to stay focussed before taking a break. In “Brain Rules”, another book on brain research results, 10 minutes is identified as a point where something needs to be done to retain a person’s attention. The suggested Pomodoro interval of 25 minutes might be a good stretch for focussing on a key task.

Update: 2010-06-11

Steven Pinker in the New York Times provides some necessary context on the history of blaming new media for affecting thinking. There are a lot of benefits to new information sources in addition to new challenges in the assault on our attention.

MindHacks says that neuroplasticity is a dirty word since it is often used without a clear definition of what it really means.

“It’s currently popular to solemnly declare that a particular experience must be taken seriously because it ‘rewires the brain’ despite the fact that everything we experience ‘rewires the brain’.”

* Note:

The video above does not use Flash. Please use a modern Internet browser to view it.

Supported Browsers

Browsers that support both the video tag in HTML5 and either the h.264 video codec or the WebM format (with VP8 codec) will work. These include:

  • Firefox (WebM enabled version available here)
  • Google Chrome (h.264 supported now, WebM enabled version available here)
  • Opera (WebM enabled version available here)
  • Apple Safari (h.264, version 4+)
  • Microsoft Internet Explorer with Google Chrome Frame installed (Get Google Chrome Frame)