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.