by H. James Wilson – HBR Blog Network
Against the backdrop of a declining and temptation-filled Roman Empire, Augustine hesitantly prayed for impulse control: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
More recently, against the backdrop of marshmallow tests and America’s “culture of entitlement and instant gratification,” Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld reexamine impulse control in a new best-selling book and in The New York Times. For them, it’s a success “driver” of better academic performance, higher SAT scores, and upward mobility, and helps explain why certain groups “are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.”
It’s a provocative argument, and I expect business practitioners will be tempted to translate the insights into their professional lives. What does impulse control look like in the workplace? Can better impulse control buffer against the proven perils of multitasking, like slower and shallower thinking, lower creativity, and increased anxiety?
For some insight into these questions, I gathered a sample of personal experiments from entrepreneurs and employees who’ve made an intentional effort at impulse control by using the Pomodoro Technique. For the uninitiated, Pomodoro is a variation on batch processing. It involves setting a timer to 25 minutes and working steadfastly on a single task (or single batch of work, like email) for the full 25 minutes— thus quelling urges to multi-task and mind-wander. At the end of this work interval, users get up and walk around for a 5 minutes to rest and recharge.
An old-fashioned kitchen timer, such as the kind resembling a tomato (or “pomodoro” in Italian) will work. However, many in the sample prefer desktop and mobile apps. Focus Booster is more helpful if you like visual cues on your progress, for example, while Pomodairo is better for those motivated by personal data, as it tracks how many 30 minute sessions (each called a “pomodoro”) they completed by day, week, and project.
In my sample, experimenters initially assumed that better impulse control would result in at least one of three things: improved productivity, reduced technology-induced distraction, and a more reliable work process. However, as they put the technique to the test, initial expectations were regularly exceeded, showing that impulse control can be a surprisingly powerful pathway to self-discovery in the following ways:
Experiencing the Paradox of Control. Experimenters often start using the Pomodoro Technique to boost productivity and determine it works. “I could see a sudden improvement,” notes Jarno, whose measurements showed that he was developing code at two to two-and-a-half times his previous rate.
But they are surprised to learn that more output is not the most satisfying outcome at the end of the day. Experimenters tend to perceive quantifiable outcomes as less significant than existential ones, such as enhanced feelings of power and control. “What was way more important to me [than productivity] was that it changed the way it felt to start concentrating on hard tasks…and to tackle difficult projects,” Jarno concludes, echoing an insight I see again and again from these personal experiments.
“I felt like I was in control now. Which is kind of ironic as my day had been divided into these forced time slots,” he says.
Discovering the Root Cause of Distraction. In adopting an impulse control technique like Pomodoro, you’ll want to take steps to turn off potential technology distractions like email alerts, desktop Twitter feeds, and text messages.
Nevertheless, the real power of Pomodoro goes far beyond these familiar pop-ups, dings, and buzzes. Adopters often discover that technology accounts for only a fraction of interruptions overall, and that most interruptions originate in their unruly minds.
By batching work into tight 25-minute packages, individuals create a context for recognizing internal interruptions and for developing personalized strategies to minimizing them. During his experiment, a consultant named Magnus reports, “I quickly noticed a change in how I dealt with internal interruptions. When I found my mind-shifting to other things, searching the web…or looking up the lunch menu, I realized off the top of my head that it was a non-task.”
Tapping the power of delayed gratification, Melanie, a teacher, observes the technique “helped me keep internal distractions under control. Knowing that I could do what I wanted after a solid period of work helped me not to give in to the temptation to web surf before doing what needed done.”
Sorting What You Love From What You Hate. The initial goal for most Pomodoro experimenters is obvious: to boost resistance to digital distractions while allowing them to methodically allocate time to tasks. “The general idea is to systematically adjust the way I work,” says Sam, a writer and consultant, before he began testing the approach.
But adopters are frequently surprised to learn that each 25-minute session provides a temporal lens on what they really think about certain types of work. For work they love or value, it can be difficult to stop for a 5 minute break after “just” 25 minutes. For Warner, the ringing end to a 25 minute interval of writing code brings on the realization that this sort of work induces a state of flow. He discovered that the 5-minute break “breaks his groove.”
By contrast, others learn the technique is particularly effective at helping them complete work they dread doing. “I…use Pomodoro to help me get through the tasks I really don’t want to do — it’s a lot easier to make yourself do something when you know you only have to dedicate 25 minutes to it,” quips Lisa, a web designer.
The last 40 years of impulse control research have focused mainly on what’s quantifiable — not just on how it effects things like test scores, but also on its physiological and cognitive basis. For instance, in a recent follow-up study of original Stanford marshmallow test participants, researchers used brain scans to investigate impulse control’s biological basis.
This focus on measurement is certainly important in science and business. But as the experiences of Pomodoro adopters suggests, there’s more to impulse control than just numbers and enhanced productivity; meaning, it seems, can matter more than metrics.