The Pomodoro Technique in practice

Soon after switching my major to computer science at Michigan State, I realized I was spending too much unproductive work time at my computer.

Sometimes after writing code for an hour, I’d step away only to realize that I hadn’t accomplished anything meaningful since I sat down.

Other times, I’d quickly check the news while my code compiled. When I remembered to go back to work, I’d find that the compilation finished ten minutes ago.

In short, I wasn’t focused enough.

A friend recommended I try out the Pomodoro Technique. Its prescription is simple: devote 100% of your focus to a clear task for a fixed amount of time, then take a break. Its name - the Pomodoro Technique - refers to the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the creator used to track his focus time as a student. (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian.)

Over the last ten years, I’ve implemented and dropped so many productivity habits that Erin (somewhat ironically) calls me a self-help junkie. Through that, the Pomodoro Technique has remained at the center of my productivity workflow. Above all, it’s effective at squeezing out the nebulous, unproductive middle ground that can unobtrusively slide between work and leisure.

If you’ve never heard of the technique before, perhaps this post can sway you to try it. Whether you’re a wee cherry tomato or an experienced beefsteak (is this metaphor working?), I hope this post helps you make the most of the Pomodoro Technique.

So what is the actual Pomodoro Technique?

Okay, I may have oversimplified above. The actual Pomodoro Technique is as follows:

  1. Choose a task to work on
  2. Start a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Devote 100% of your focus to completing the task. If you get distracted, jot down whatever distracted you for later and get back to work.
  4. When the timer rings, take a 5 minute break. Add a tally mark on a piece of paper to indicate that you’ve completed one “pomodoro” (one block).
  5. After every fourth block, take a longer 25 minute break.

As with all techniques, though, the devil is in the details. Here’s what I’ve found.

A crisp task definition is critical

A “crisp task” is one that:

  • Is accomplishable within a single block
  • Makes it excruciatingly clear what the action associated with the task is. Not crisp: “Decide on my future profession”. Crisp: “Come up with a list of five potential professions with 1-2 sentence descriptions of why each might be a good fit for me”

I’ve found that time spent upfront clarifying the task pays outsized dividends when you get to work. I’ve also found it’s much easier to decide on a crisp task before you sit down at your desk.

Different tasks call for different block lengths

I usually work in either 25 minute or 50 minute blocks. The key decider of the block length is this question: “How likely am I to be going down a stupid path at the end of this amount of time, even if I’m 100% focused?” The more likely I am to be doing something stupid, the shorter the block needs to be. Otherwise, I’ll get tired and lose the mindfulness required to make good decisions.

For tasks like debugging a program, I often find I’ve gone down a stupid path at the end of even 25 minutes. This stands in contrast to writing, when I’m generally still humming along a good path at the end of 50 minutes. Writing in 25 minute chunks feels too choppy.

If you fail to complete the task within a block, strongly consider breaking the task down further

These situations usually fall into a few categories:

  • Type 1: I just need a minute or two more to finish the task. In this case, I’ll finish it before my break.
  • Type 2: The task was a little bit harder than I thought and I need another 10 or 20 minutes to finish it. In this case, I’ll take my break now and work on the task for another block.
  • Type 3: The task was much harder or more ambiguous than I thought. In this case, I find it’s incredibly important to break the task apart into something that’s less ambiguous and accomplishable in a single block.

For me, there’s a huge temptation to say that a type 3 task is actually a type 2. To counteract this, I try to err on the side of breaking tasks apart: a too-small task is motivating, whereas a too-large task is daunting and can lead to procrastination.

Before starting your break, set a timer for when it will end

Otherwise, it can be too easy for a five minute break to stretch into a 15 (30, 45, …) minute break.

I like going for walks. Walks make Charlie happy.

Try it out!

There are still aspects of this technique I haven’t nailed down: how should awkward chunks of time between appointments be handled? Should blocks be shorter at the beginning of the day when getting started is most daunting? If you’re blocked on a task because someone isn’t responding, how long should you wait before switching tasks? These are all questions that still stump me.

It’s certainly not a complete or perfect system, but it’s the best one I’ve found so far.

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