For the past week, I've gone ahead and actively and almost religiously lived through the Pomodoro time-management Technique. And this might have been the most productive week that I've had in years, which is both fantastic, and eye-opening as to what have I been doing with my life. I am a huge fan of anything that improves my day to day performance in life. Whether it be in the realm of fitness or in my cognitive capabilities, self-improvement has been the most important thing that I've actively introduced into my day to day life during the past few years. It can set you up for a much better shot at success in life. As it turns out, my focus was not as sharp as I had pictured myself while I sat there in the coffee shop day-dreaming away occasionally perusing through a video or two, or three.
For those unfamiliar with the technique, it is a time management tool/method created by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique is very straightforward and doesn't require anything except maybe a piece of paper, a pen, and some form of time keeping device, like a timer or a clock, which is where it got its name. Pomodoro is the Italian word for "tomato", and Cirillo used a tomato shaped timer while in his university years. The technique involves essentially, splitting up your day into chunks of time (such as 30 minutes), in which you perform a task until the timer runs out. You then check said item off your list, re-evaluate, and do it all over again. After a set number of Pomodoros (time-chunks) you take a quick break so that you don't burn out, which I can attest to, happens frequently.
It may sound simple enough, just by hearing it, but it was exhausting the first few days to keep up with my own schedule. Normally, we assume we are busy based on the number of emails or tabs we have open, but we don't really measure the work being done or the results. We sort of finish things until we get distracted enough by something else, and then we either leave the first item partially completed, or we decide that it wasn't as important as we once thought. Most people don't take the time to re-evaluate the day's outcomes and goal reaching, so we are unaware whether it was a productive day, or whether we just trudged along and stuff happened.
What I liked
One of the primary things I have to mention is that it is so simple to begin the process as it doesn't require anything really. It doesn't even require a tomato timer, so don't jump on Amazon and wait until your timer arrives in 2-3 days to begin the process. I use notepad.exe, my most favorite tool on my Windows machine and I use the naturally occurring societal time to keep track. By that I mean, I use natural 30 minute intervals of the day, such as 8am - 8:30am, 9am - 9:30am, etc. Not only does this make the process simpler, but my mind doesn't have to worry about keeping track of 8:12am - 8:42am, and then panicking when it's 9:43am and I have no idea how many Pomodoro's I've gotten myself into.
And secondly, is that it gives my mind just a tiny bit of accountability. Enough to not be too stressful, but also enough to realize that I have 9 minutes left and I can hold off on watching that next video or on checking that email that just popped up on my phone. Which goes against my old behavior patterns of immediately picking up the phone, reading the email, not responding to it (of course), and then randomly clicking on other icons that I've probably gotten into a habit of clicking.
And that's the biggest benefit that has resulted in all of this. It has retrained my mind to some extent into moving away from old habits, which have gone unnoticed for the most part but which have been running my life. Habits such as not finishing tasks, because other more "important" tasks have popped up, or even because boredom kicks in. This time around, boredom kicks in still, but now I know that there is a break coming up as soon as I'm finished with this task. Something which is so obvious, but that many times we forget in our day to day lives.
I can definitely feel the gradual sharpening of my focus this week. The number of distractions that I have allowed in has definitely decreased by a tremendous amount. Not only that, but now when I do take a break in between my Pomodoro's, it's actually more satisfying. It's my 15-30 minute chunk of time to not be distracted by any work or perceived work. Because even learning to take a break it seems, was somewhat of a foreign concept to me.
What I didn't like
Now comes the interesting part. There really isn't much not to like about a simple time-management technique such as the Pomodoro Technique. But the one thing that stood out the most to me was the complexity of it. I'll say this now, I did not follow it word for word. I actually tried, and got confused a few times. I lost track of Pomodoro's and my breaks turned into mini-work sessions, which I couldn't recover from and then felt terrible about myself. To give an example, the following is a part of the technique which I did not put much focus on.
For the purposes of the technique, a pomodoro is the interval of time spent working. After task completion, any time remaining in the Pomodoro is devoted to overlearning. Regular breaks are taken, aiding assimilation. A short (3–5 minutes) rest separates consecutive pomodoros. Four pomodoros form a set. A longer (15–30 minute) rest is taken between sets.
That. That right there is stressful to me. Too many constraints in my opinion. Sometimes I enjoy my work, and I'm in the flow state. Ideas are shooting out left and the right, and visions of the future permeate my mindscape for hours as I type uncontrollably what seems to be gibberish to the regular person, but that screams potential and creativity to myself.
It seems like the technique prevents that from happening many times, at least to me. This isn't a state that is a rare occurrence to me. As someone who spends most of their waking life in front of a laptop typing some form of code on a variety of projects, ideas live in my periphery and jolt in at random intervals. And when they do, the entire day is a blur and 9am seems like it is already late in the day.
However, when I need to get more practical things done, such as paperwork, reply to emails, research, and even my recreational breaks in the day, the technique works wonders for me. Which is important, because these things need to get done at some point, while not the funnest moments of the day.
It takes some getting used to
While very effective in getting things done, it's also exhausting to stay within focus for that amount of time. The first few days I was an anxious mess, as within 10 minutes of responding to emails in my queue my mind wanted nothing more than the sweet relief of doing anything else. However, by minute 20, those emails were written and shipped out and I still had 10 minutes left, which felt pretty fantastic. I've taken those remaining minutes as a personal break until my next Pomodoro begins. Usually by catching up with the daily tech news or writing down ideas for the day.
But it is tiring to push your focus to new levels, as with any muscle, particularly if you have spent many months or even years not doing so. The brain uses a large portion of our daily caloric intake, roughly around 20-25% depending on your workload and level of cognitive demand. So it does make sense that attempting to increase this workload, will create some form of fatigue. In me personally, it has increased the amount of calories that I need to ingest per day in order to feel more energetic, as shortly after my 5th or 6th straight Pomodoro, I am exhausted and wandering around looking for sustenance.
I'm at a point now, however, where a 30 minute Pomodoro seems pretty standard, and in fact, even kind of short sometimes. So I am working on extending the times by 10 minute intervals on a weekly basis. The reason I chose 10 and not 5, is again, due to the whole using natural time intervals to track. And 8:40am - 9:15am just doesn't have a nice ring to it and puts me in a slight panic. Very slight.
So do I recommend the technique? Absolutely. It is at least worth a few days of your life. Give it a shot, and modify it to your liking. You might actually need the strictness of the formal technique. You might find that it increases your focus by a certain percentage each day. And eventually, as your focus sharpens more and more and old habits begin to die out, you might not need any technique anymore, and we can just say that you are a more productive person in general.
As our society grows many arms into many disciplines, many designed to eat away at our attention, we will need these type of techniques to bring us back to our naturally focused and driven selves, so that we may also be a part of the rapidly growing system, and not get left behind.
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Walter G. is a software engineer, startup co-founder, former CTO of several tech companies and currently teaches programming for a coding bootcamp. He has been blogging for the past 5 years and is an avid BMX rider, bio-hacker
and performance enthusiast.