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8 Aug 2010

The Pomodoro Technique – It’s been a while since I’ve posted, so I thought I’d share something I’ve been trying since the beginning of last week. The summer has been quite busy for me, and I decided that I finally needed to get organized and structured with my time. I have gone into “super-productive” mode before when necessary, but this usually just involved me buckling down and getting things done, with no real plan other than “doing a lot of work.” For some reason, having a timer running while I was working always helped me focus on the task at hand. In the past I used an online program called ClockWork that allows you to track how much time you spend on certain tasks. I looked up the website again, found that my old password still worked, and gave it another spin, but I was disappointed to find that the page didn’t seem to like Korean characters anymore. I could enter Korean characters fine, but whenever I reloaded the page they would show up as question marks.

“I know that I’ve spent a lot more time working, and I feel like I am getting a lot more out of my day.”

So I began to look around for other timers that I could use, and during that search I stumbled across a rather elegant site called E.ggtimer. It allows you to set a timer for any length of time by entering that number in the URL, and the homepage also has “special timers.” One of these special timers had the label “pomodoro” and ran for one “25/5 minute cycle.” I did a little more searching and found myself on the website for something called the Pomodoro Technique. I downloaded and read the short book explaining the system and decided to give it a try.

The website has all the information you could want on the technique, but in a nutshell it is a system for structuring time. The book starts by talking about the stress of “becoming time” (with “becoming” here used as an adjective rather than a verb) and other ideas that I didn’t really pay much attention to, but all you really need to know is that it divides time into “structured time” and “unstructured time.” The structured time is when you get your work done, and the unstructured time is free time for you to do whatever you want. This distinction is especially important for me, since I work at home. I’ve talked about this before in the past, but when you have no spatial distinction between “work space” and “leisure space,” you really need to have a temporal distinction between “work time” and “leisure time.” Without that distinction, you are less efficient during the time that you should be working, and you are more stressed during the time you should be relaxing.

So the idea of structuring time was nothing new for me, but the way in which the Pomodoro Technique structures time intrigued me. If you’ve checked out the site, you already know this, but a “pomodoro” is a period of twenty-five minutes of work followed by three-to-five minutes of break time. Every four pomodoros, or two hours, you take a longer break, from fifteen minutes to a half hour. These breaks are critical to the technique; the author calls them opportunities for “detachment,” or getting away from what you’re doing for a moment and giving your brain a chance to rest. So you set a timer for twenty-five minutes, and when that timer goes off you stop what you are doing and rest (thus the “25/5 minute cycle” on E.ggtimer). You can’t work past the timer, and you can’t spend your break thinking about what you did or what you are going to do next. Those three to five minutes are for recharging your brain and your energy.

It’s a pretty good idea, I think. In the past, when structuring my time, I’ve worked for hours on end, and it tends to wear you down. When you only have to work for twenty-five minutes, though, it’s a lot easier to focus on the task at hand and just work. I’ve used this technique for a week now, and so far it seems to be working. I know that I’ve spent a lot more time working, and I feel like I am getting a lot more out of my day.

There are some areas where the Pomodoro Technique and I don’t quite fit, though. It starts with the timer. I don’t have a kitchen timer like the one used in the technique—one that ticks incessantly and then rings obnoxiously when time is up. Apparently, the incessant ticking of the timer is a positive thing; it’s supposed to remind you that time is passing, and that it’s OK that time is passing. Or something like that. To be honest, I didn’t really get that part, and I didn’t pay too close attention because I do not have a ticking timer. Instead, I have E.ggtimer. It doesn’t tick, but it does keep time accurately, and it has a 25-minute work session followed by a 5-minute break built in. One other thing that the timer is supposed to do is be visible all the time so you can see how much time you have left. E.ggtimer is not always visible, because I generally have something else on the screen, but I can always look at the clock sitting in the corner of my Windows taskbar. If I know when I started the current pomdoro (or 25-minute period), I know how much time I have left.

These issues are fairly minor, though. What seems to be a bigger issue for me is the concept of estimation. When you plan out your work schedule at the beginning of the day, you’re supposed to write down a list of tasks to complete and then estimate how many pomodoros will be required to complete that task. No task should take more than five to seven pomodoros—if it does, it should be broken up. Also, no task should take less than one pomodoro—if it does, it should be combined with other minor tasks. The problem is that my summer has been largely occupied by a single massive project. I can’t even begin to describe how huge this project is—so I won’t. Suffice it to say that if I measured it in pomodoros, I would be well into three digits, if not four.

One of the advantages of the Pomodoro Technique here is that it forces me to break down this huge project into manageable pieces. This is a very good thing—for the first time since I started working on this project, I can actually envision myself completing it, because I can see the steps I need to take to get from here to there. If nothing else, the Pomodoro Technique has helped me break down this project into something I can handle.

At the same time, though, there are disadvantages, one of them being the aforementioned estimation. Because all of my individual tasks are part of the same big project, sometimes it’s hard to tell where the boundaries between tasks lie. In other words, the tasks are not entirely discrete—they are interlinked and connect with each other in many different ways. This makes it very difficult to estimate how long a given task is going to take me. Take Thursday of last week, for example. There was one particular task that I needed to tackle first, and I estimated that it would take me three pomodoros (or ninety minutes). As it turned out, I spent the entire day (with the exception of my “organizational pomodoros,” or time spent planning and reviewing) working on that single task, for a total of twelve pomodoros. And I didn’t even finish it. But not a single minute of those six hours was wasted or inefficient. I just failed miserably when it came to predicting how long it would take me. According to the Pomodoro Technique, this task should have been split up, but it is one single entity and splitting it up probably would have been inefficient.

The other disadvantage surfaces when we take interruptions into account. The Pomodoro Technique book spends a lot of time talking about interruptions, dividing them up into internal interruptions and external interruptions. I work at home, will often shut off my cell phone, and don’t have any IM programs or email notification programs running, so for me external interruptions are very rare. So what I need to focus on are the internal interruptions. What you’re supposed to do whenever you feel an internal interruption coming on is write it at the bottom of your daily to do list under the “Urgent & Unplanned” section and then move on. Later on, during your organizational pomodoro, you can decide whether or not you really need to accomplish this. If so, you work it into your activity list (from which you draw your daily tasks). If not, you discard it.

As I read through the book looking at a sample scenario, I was surprised at some of the things being written down as “internal interruptions” by the fictitious pomodoro practitioner. “Order pizza... order Chinese take-out... choose a bike to buy... tidy up desk drawers?” Really? Are people that absent-minded that they can’t concentrate on a given task for twenty-five minutes at a time? When I started using the technique, I found that the only internal interruptions I could come up with were moments where a particular task made me think about something I had to do for a different but related (since they’re all related) task. It was still work, but it wasn’t directly related to the task at hand. The interconnected nature of all of my various tasks sometimes makes it difficult to stay on one single thread. However, I do appreciate forcing myself to deal with one task at a time—it makes me feel like I’m accomplishing things, more so than when I jump from one task to another. I just have to make sure to take detailed notes when I think of something not directly related to what I am doing at the moment.

I guess these aren’t so much problems with the technique as there are instances where the technique does not quite fit my particular circumstances or my personality. Once I start working on something, I don’t really have a hard time concentrating on it, especially when I know I can take frequent quick breaks. So I may not need the interruption-control techniques as much as some people. But in that it helps me structure my time and increase my productivity, so far the Pomodoro Technique seems to be working. I will be continuing to use it for the remainder of the summer, and hopefully I will be able to finish this grand project of mine.

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