Shortly after I got back from my sabbatical at the beginning of this year, a colleague of mine introduced me to the Pomodoro technique as a method to manage my working time. Initially I was highly sceptical about working in 25 minute increments throughout the day, so it took me some time to try it out.
My typical approach to work is to sit until the job is finished. And I have a habit of sitting at my desk the whole day programming. I have the ability to sit and concentrate on work for long periods of time, which as I have found as I have gotten a bit older is rather destructive.
So I eventually gave it a try. Initially I found it a bit difficult to get into the habit of actually doing something different in the five minute break. I would just ignore the timer, or restart it immediately, or simply forget about it entirely. But with some time I got better at getting up for a walk around the building or switching windows to read something interesting on the internet for five minutes.
I was very disciplined with the Pomodoros for a few months and really enjoyed the benefits, but then somehow fell out of the habit. I think it was the change in cadence on the project I am working on, we had the big go-live and the pressure was off, so the bad habits came back. What I have found over the last few weeks is that I was becoming tired and irritable again, becoming less productive and battling to focus. So I did a bit of a retrospective to determine what had changed, and came to the conclusion that it was the Pomodoros that were missing.
There are sceptics as to the benefit of the Pomodoro technique, but below are some of the benefits that I have found while utilising this time management technique.
Although I can sit and work for long hours on end, ultimately at the end of the day I am not as effective as when I started in the morning. While utilising the Pomodoro technique, I feel almost as fresh at the end of the day as I did in the morning. I am not nearly as fatigued and my concentration seems to be improved as a result of the enforced breaks every 25 minutes.
One might argue that taking a five minute break every 25 minutes is wasted time. What I have found is that, during my wanderings around the building, in those five minutes my mind is still working and subconsciously solving problems. I more often than not get back to my desk and I see the problem I was working on from a different angle. Prior to doing the Pomodoros I would often have “epiphanies” in the car on the way home, and I think it is a similar sort of process, whereby you are removed from the setting and your mind is subconsciously solving the problem.
One task only
Email, IM and other distractions are also not as prevalent. I typically do a couple of Pomodoros without these distractions, only one task at a time, and then at the start of the third or fourth Pomodoro I would clear out and answer any emails that need to be answered. This has been a great benefit for me in that the switching cost is eliminated and I truly focus on my task for 25 minutes. Previously, if I was finding a piece of work to be a bit tedious, it was always better to check the email that had just arrived than complete the task. So I would end up having more Work In Progress so to speak, which is very un-lean.
The best part is that I find my concentration is far better, primarily as a result of the above points. Because I am not being interupted all the time and I am giving myself a break every 25 minutes, my concentration within the 25 minute pomodoro is superior and consistent for the 25 minutes. I find that my mind does not ‘wonder’ as much as before, when I was not doing the pomodoros.
Pomodoros are not for everyone, but I think there is definitely something beneficial for those willing to try. As with everything you have to be pragmatic about it’s use. I am in the process of getting back into the habit of doing the Pomodoros again and look forward to the benefits again.
Finally, I found a great Pomodoro timer app for my iPhone, called Simple Pomodoro Timer. It is brilliant in that it has nice big numbers, it goes orange when then Pomodoro is complete and green when your break is over. So nice simple visual queues for the start and end of the pomodoro and the break, and no ticking. What I like about this is that, because I have got my phone sitting on the desk with the timer running, I can also start training my colleagues to not interrupt me when the timer is on. They would be blind to miss it.