If you’ve walked by my area in the couple months or so, you may have noticed that I sometimes have a massive stopwatch displayed on my computer. I was consuming some content produced for the Agile 2008 conference, and came across a very interesting article about the Pomodoro Technique, a way to think about time and work differently. Staffan Nöteberg has a draft of his new book about the system, and can probably explain it more coherently than my attempt in this post.
What is it?
The Pomodoro Technique is a system that Francesco Cirillo created and used when he was a student to help him focus. Staffan then used this technique successfully in software development, and believes that it can be applied to most things that people do. Pomodoro comes from the Italian word for tomato, which was the form of his original timer.
For the system, you just need a pen, paper, and a kitchen timer. I’m using this online stopwatch and using simple text documents to replace the pen and paper. The online stopwatch is nice because it has an alarm that rings through my headphones so I don’t bother anyone.
How do I use it?
So anyway, a pomodoro is a set period of 20 to 35 minutes in which you focus intently on the task at hand. After each pomodoro, you take a 3-5 minute break to stretch, relax, or just kind of space out. Nothing mentally challenging should be done. When you do four pomodoros back to back, it’s called a set. After each set, you should take a longer break (15-30 minutes.) This is an ideal time for lunch, running errands, making non-work related phone calls, etc.
The idea here is that the mind works best when single-dispatched, and that changing work habits to accommodate this reality increases effectiveness.
The more philosophical ramification is that instead of worrying about the passage of time (becoming), you simply work and record the activities. As Staffan says in a summary blog post:
Anxiety about not being done before some point of time is eliminated with Pomodoro Technique. One completed Pomodoro is the result. One more X marked next to the activity proves that I’m climbing higher. And the systematic reducing of interruptions gives me the opportunity to plan what used to be event driven actions.
I really think that this speaks to the sustainability of the work. Staffan noted that it reduces procrastination.
Before the pomodoro begins, you look at a list of tasks that you created at the beginning of the day and pick the best one to work on next. If you get distracted by an internal or external distraction, you need to 1) recognize and stop the distraction 2) write down the distraction so that you can reevaluate it at some point 3) get back to the pomodoro as quickly as possible.
Once a pomodoro begins, it must ring. This means that if you start working on something, you should work on it for the whole pomodoro. If you finish five minutes early, take the remaining five minutes and “overlearn” by ensuring you understand the solution completely. In the case of coding, perhaps you look over the comments to ensure that they make sense, or do some quick refactorings to make the code base more readable.
The first time I tried this, the internal distractions were quite numerous (“drink water”, “check bank balance”, etc.) However, once you can separate your desire from actually implementing the thing, your work goes a lot smoother. Really, this works with the Getting Things Done system by dumping things that seem important into another bin before actually dealing with them. However, if you don’t write down this distraction or review it in a timely manner, it keeps coming back. As David Allen would say with GTD, you need to keep the contract with yourself for it to be effective. But once you can file the distraction away, you are ready to get back to work!
Planning your day helps immensely to prioritize what you are working on. This is similar to sections of The 4-Hour Workweek that ask you “if you had a heart attack and could only work two hours today, what would you spend those two hours on and know that you had accomplished something significant?” When things come up during the day (which they invariably do), having a list of things that are important to you helps to put them in perspective. Moreover, by deferring things that are not really critical but merely seem that way, you allow yourself to get in a better rhythm. Ordering tickets to the show or emailing someone real quick might seem really important, but impedes your flow.
The system is simple, meaning that you get the maximum results for minimum overhead. The overhead in this case is winding up the timer and recording what you did. If you already track your time, the overhead is minuscule.
The greatest benefit to me is that instead of thinking in terms of fifteen minute or hour-long periods, I instead focus in terms of what I can do in twenty-five minutes. I think that this is a more natural time period and helps break tasks down a bit better, which helps with estimation. I haven’t gotten to the point where I have been able to estimate the tasks, but Staffan says that this is the next step. This makes sense, as it gives you feedback on how well you are estimating your tasks.
I also like seeing what my progress is like and where exactly I’m spending my time and doing a retrospective each day to see any personal process improvements. In a sense, the system is similar to the Personal Software Process promoted by SEI.
The hardest thing for me so far has been dealing with external distractions (other people. :) ) I shut off auto-alerts on emails. If there’s anything that can’t wait about twenty minutes, then that person should have called me or walked over. But it’s kind of tough when my manager walks over to chat about work. I can’t just say, “hey, come back in 16 minutes and I will have time for you.” So the result is a major interruption, which cannot be filed as a pomodoro (“a pomodoro is indivisible.”) I don’t have a solution other than to either seriously tell the important person to come back later or to just accept that there will be large but important interruptions at times and to optimize the whole by accepting them.
Part of my early success might lie in the fact that I have primarily been working in a non-team environment since I started the experiment. I found that often focusing for a few more minutes than I normally would have gives me additional insights and I solve the problem quicker. Moreover, taking a quick break helps to clear the mind. Often I see something in the first few minutes of the pomodoro that I missed at the end of the previous one. Staffan also suggests trying this for pairing, with similar results.
I think the real takeaway here is getting in the groove and not spreading your attention too thin. I think that this has been a large realization for me in the past year or so.
Staffan also suggests mindmapping to more intuitively understand your day and to let the creative side of your brain work. Perhaps I will write more about that in the future, but here’s one that I created that I thought was representative and noncontroversial.