A long time problem of mine is getting started with creative tasks and keep working on them. When I set out to learn some Ruby on Rails, I chose to try a technique I had heard about a couple of times called the Pomodoro Technique.
The idea is basically to work short bursts of time, usually 25 minutes and then rest for a couple of minutes, reading email, getting coffee…
I started using it at home for programming and learning some new tools. In the beginning I chose shorter intervals and longer breaks, slowly advancing to regular intervals. The Pomodoro Technique helped me focusing immensely. I stayed with my task and only checked Twitter or email in the breaks. When I was in flow I just skipped breaks and worked through two or three pomodoros.
When I applied the Pomodoro Technique at work, I soon found some limits of applicability, though.
I work as a sysadmin, where I have to deal with all kinds of task lengths from minutes to days. Working on small user requests and being interrupted all the time by users or colleagues doesn’t play well with Pomodoro. It works great however, when requests get slow and I am able to work on some bigger tasks. There, Pomodoro again helps me to focus on the task and keep distractions out of my mind.
A second scenario that didn’t play well with Pomodoro was Pairing. Working with a colleague on some bigger task, being interrupted by the Pomodoro timer felt counterproductive. There was enough energy between the two of us, that staying focused was no problem.
From my (limited) experiences I believe Pomodoro to be an effective technique for improving focus if working alone on a bigger task. It helps me get started and keep going. If working in different conditions, I still like to schedule regular breaks to limit exhaustion.