What’s wrong with Pomodoro

[Split out of my last post, previously called Rational Breaks: a better way to work, as part of a slight rewrite & rename. So no need to read this if you read that post before.]

POMODORO is a popular way to manage your time. The idea is that instead of half-working all day, you work in intense 25-minute stints, with 5-minute breaks (or occasionally longer) in between, marked by an alarm:

Invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, Pomodoro was named after a tomato-shaped timer. Even back then there was nothing new about working for fixed periods until an alarm goes off. For centuries, schools have taught lessons this way, ending with a bell.[1] And there are various other techniques (listed below) for working in fixed time intervals against the clock. I call such methods ‘clock-work’.

The good

Clock-work has various benefits, principally:

  • Each period is an achievable, bite-sized chunk of work. This makes it easier to start on a daunting project, and to plough on to the next break when a task gets hard or tedious.

  • Each period has a short-term deadline, which focuses your mind and creates a slight sense of urgency.

  • You get regular breaks to maintain your energy, attention, decision-making, performance and well-being. They also provide an opportunity to step back and reconsider what you’re working on (though thinking about work doesn’t make a restful break).

  • The fixed lengths simplify planning, such as school schedules/​timetables; similarly, Pomodoro users treat the 25-minute stints as a unit to plan and track their work.

The bad

Though clock-work suits some people, tasks and situations, it has big problems too. Years before I’d even heard of Pomodoro, I devised a similar system using hour-long work stints. But I could never stick to it for more than a few days at a time, as it kept going wrong. Eventually I abandoned it altogether, and figured out why it kept failing:

No fixed work length is best

How long should each stint last? There’s no consensus between rival time management systems, experts and scientific research at all:

  • Productivity author Mark Forster recommends starting with 5-minute bursts, and progressively extending them to 40 minutes.

  • Medical professor Dr James Levine suggests 15 minutes’ work at a time.

  • Though Pomodoro advocates 25 minutes, many users choose their own length.

  • 30- and 60-minute stints worked equally well for computer operators in one study.

  • School classes typically last 30–90 minutes, and it’s unclear what length is best.

  • Time-tracking software DeskTime found their most productive users average 52 minutes’ work, plus a 17-minute break.

  • The best music students practised for about 80 minutes at a time in a well-known study.

  • The Ultradian system advocates working for 90 minutes, and it’s based on biological cycles lasting up to two hours.

This vast range — 5 minutes to two hours — shows that there’s no one best work length. Which is hardly surprising: how long you can stay productive depends on your attention span, stamina, and motivation. These vary with the individual, the time of day, and the task at hand; one size won’t fit all.

Clock-work hinders creativity

The regular pattern of clock-work can be good for grinding through monotonous tasks. But more creative, intellectual work needs flexibility. When you’re ‘in flow’, you want to keep going — alarms and breaks are annoying and counterproductive.

Conversely, if you finish a task early, Pomodoro tells you to spend the rest of the 25 minutes reviewing or planning; the fixed time periods are sacrosanct. But why can’t you just stop, or begin something else when it suits you?

Annual protests against Pomodoro

Clock-work conflicts with other people

School schedules/​timetables work because everyone has to follow them. But with meetings, calls and interruptions, you can’t expect others to obey your tomato. So when these happen, you have to stop what you’re doing and cut a stint short — disobeying the system.

This means clock-work is mostly for working alone, perhaps just for part of the day. And you’re unlikely to stick to a system you can only use part-time.

Clock-work fails in emergencies

Crises and deadlines don’t obey your tomato either; when they arise, you may have to skip breaks and keep working. Again, if a system breaks down when push comes to shove, you’ll probably end up abandoning it.

In short, clock-work techniques like Pomodoro are too rigid. Your work, your attention, other people, and external events won’t fit into neat time-blocks.

An alternative proposal, called Flowtime, suggests working and breaking freely, while keeping a timesheet of what you’ve done and any interruptions, to see what patterns emerge. Though there’s nothing new about starting and stopping when you like (which dates from the Stone Age), it does avoid the rigidity of clock-work. The trouble, though, is that it’s too loose. If work isn’t regulated, your breaks have to be, to avoid lapsing into laziness. Timesheets are also a chore.

A solution

All these problems are solved by my new technique, called Third Time. The gist of it is:

Work for as long or as short as you like, until you want or need to break. Then break for up to one-third of the time you’ve just worked.

So after 15 minutes of dealing with emails, you could stop for up to 5 minutes. After an hour-long meeting, you can take a nice 20-minute coffee break. And if a task bores you after 3 minutes, you can even break then — but only for 1 minute!

Third Time’s work stints can be any length; breaks are (up to) one-third of the time just worked

Because you can stop whenever you like, you can fit work around meetings, calls, interruptions, meals and errands. It’s completely flexible. But the limit on breaks guarantees you’re working for (at least) three-quarters of the day.

Full details on Third Time are in this post. (And if you still like Pomodoro, you can even use it alongside Third Time, which fixes its flaws.)

  1. ^

    And for many decades, British high schools have used much the same pattern of breaks as Pomodoro: typically 5 minutes between lessons, a longer mid-morning break, and another for lunch.

Thanks to Cat and Ari for suggestions & comments