The Power of Pomodoros

Un­til re­cently, I hadn’t paid much at­ten­tion to Po­modoro, though I’ve heard of it for a few years now. “Un­cle Bob” Martin seemed to like it, and he’s usu­ally worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to in such mat­ters. How­ever, it mostly seemed to me like a way of or­ga­niz­ing a va­ri­ety of tasks and avoid­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion, and I’ve never had much trou­ble with that.

How­ever af­ter the Jan­uary CFAR work­shop sug­gested it in pass­ing, I de­cided to give it a try; and I re­al­ized I had it all wrong. Po­modoros aren’t (for me) a means of avoid­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion or di­vid­ing time among pro­jects. They’re a way of blast­ing through Ugh fields.

The Po­modoro tech­nique is re­ally sim­ple com­pared to more in­volved sys­tems like Get­ting Things Done (GTD). Here it is:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes

  2. Work on one thing for that 25 min­utes, noth­ing else. No email, no phone calls, no snack breaks, no Twit­ter, no IM, etc.

  3. Take a five minute break

  4. Pick a new pro­ject, or the same pro­ject, if you pre­fer.

  5. Repeat

That’s pretty much it. You can buy a book or a spe­cial timer for this; but there’s re­ally noth­ing else to it. It takes longer to ex­plain the name than the tech­nique. (When Francesco Cirillo in­vented this tech­nique in the 1980s, he was us­ing an Ital­ian kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. Po­modoro is Ital­ian for tomato.)

I got in­ter­ested in Po­modoro when I re­al­ized I could use it to clean my office/​desk/​apart­ment. David Allen’s GTD sys­tem ap­pealed to me, but I could never main­tain it, and the 2+ days it needed to get all the way to a clean desk was always a big hur­dle to vault. How­ever, spend­ing 25 min­utes at a time, fol­lowed by a break and an­other pro­ject seemed a lot more man­age­able.

I tried it, and it worked. My desk stack quickly shrunk, not to empty, but at least to a place where an ac­ci­den­tal elbow swing no longer launched avalanches of pa­per onto the floor as I typed.

So I de­cided to try Po­modoro on my up­com­ing book. The pub­lisher was us­ing a new au­thor­ing sys­tem and tem­plate that I was un­fa­mil­iar with. There were a dozen lit­tle de­tails to figure out about the new sys­tem—how to check out files in git, how to cre­ate a sec­tion break, whether to use hard or soft wrap­ping, etc.--and I just worked through them one by one. 25 min­utes later I’d knocked them all out, and was fa­mil­iar enough with the new sys­tem to be­gin writ­ing in earnest. I didn’t know ev­ery­thing about the soft­ware, but I knew enough that it was no longer avert­ing. Next I used 25 min­utes on a chap­ter that was challeng­ing me, and Po­modoro got me to the point where I was in the flow.

That’s when I re­al­ized that Po­modoro is not a sys­tem for or­ga­niz­ing time or avoid­ing pro­cras­ti­na­tion (at least not for me). What it is, is an in­cred­ibly effec­tive way to break through tasks that look too hard: code you’re not fa­mil­iar with, an office that’s too clut­tered, a chap­ter you don’t know how to be­gin.

The key is that a Po­modoro forces you to fo­cus on the un­fa­mil­iar, difficult, aver­sive task for 25 min­utes. 25 min­utes of fo­cused at­ten­tion with­out dis­trac­tions from other, eas­ier tasks is enough to figure out many com­plex situ­a­tions or at least get far enough along that the next step is ob­vi­ous.

Here’s an­other ex­am­ple. I had a task to de­sign a GWT wid­get and plug it into an ex­ist­ing ap­pli­ca­tion, and I have never done any work with GWT. Every time I looked at the fron­tend ap­pli­ca­tion code, it seemed like a big mess of con­fused, con­voluted, de­pen­dency in­jected, late bound, spooky-ac­tion-at-a-dis­tance spaghetti. Now doubtless there wasn’t any­thing fun­da­men­tally more difficult about this code than the server side code I have been writ­ing; and if my ca­reer had taken just a slightly differ­ent path over the last six years, fron­tend GWT code might be my bread and but­ter. But my ca­reer didn’t take that path, and this code was a big Ugh field for me. So I set the Po­modoro timer on my smart­phone and started work­ing. Did I finish? No, but I got started, made progress, and proved to my­self that GWT wasn’t all that challeng­ing af­ter all. The wid­get is still difficult enough and GWT com­plex enough that I may need sev­eral more Po­modoros to finish the job, but I did get way fur­ther and learn more in 25 min­utes of in­tense fo­cus than I would have done in a day or even a week with­out it.

I don’t use the Po­modoro tech­nique ex­clu­sively. Once I get go­ing on a pro­ject or a chap­ter, I don’t need the help; and five minute breaks once I’m in the flow just dis­tract me. So some days I just do 1 or 2 or 0 Po­modoros, what­ever it takes to get me rol­ling again and past the blocker.

I also don’t know if this works for gen­uinely difficult prob­lems. For in­stance, I don’t know if it will help with a difficult math­e­mat­i­cal proof I’ve been strug­gling with for months (though I in­tend to find out). But for sub­jects that I know I can do, but can’t quite figure out how to do, or where to start, the power of fo­cus­ing 25 min­utes of real at­ten­tion on just that one prob­lem is as­ton­ish­ing.