Test Drive: The Pomodoro Technique

By on January 4, 2012

“Remember, Time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round!” writes Baudelaire in his poem “The Clock” (1). Is this the true nature of time? — Francesco Cirillo, The Pomodoro Technique

How productive can you possibly be in 25 minutes?

The Pomodoro Technique aims to change how people feel about time and productivity by breaking up days into easily digestible chunks punctuated with frequent breaks. Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the technique, says he named it after the tomato-shaped timer he used to mark the passage of time.

The Technique is beautifully written, providing an almost sublime aspect to the drab functionality of most guides to getting more out of your time. Check out how Cirillo describes time:

Of these two aspects, it is becoming that generates anxiety – it is, by nature, elusive, indefinite, infinite: time passes, slips away, moves toward the future (16). If we try to measure ourselves against the passage of time, we feel inadequate, oppressed, enslaved, defeated, more and more with every second that goes by. We lose our élan vital (3), our vital contact, which enables us to accomplish things. “Two hours have gone by and I’m still not done; two days have gone by and I’m still not done.” In a moment of weakness, the purpose of the activity at hand is often no longer even clear. The succession of events, instead, seems to be the less anxiety-ridden aspect of time. At times it may even represent the regular succession of activity, a calm-inducing rhythm.

I need my élan vital! Sign me up!

The technique is fairly simple. You only need a task list and a timer to really commit to it. Even the book describing the method is a free PDF download. The book describes the principles in depth, like how to track an activity and how to eliminate distractions, which I admittedly struggle with — the difficulty with me wasn’t in generating a list (I’m a champion at that) but rather making sure I only focused on one task for the duration of the 25 minutes. This was a tall order, as I tend to surf around from tab to tab, moderating comments here, checking email there, calling up the perfect song on YouTube, finding art for posts, and all kinds of things that tend to break focus. So the time block occasionally felt oppressive, as I had to squelch the instinct to keep checking how much time had actually passed before I could look at another tab in Chrome.

The trouble I’ve had with this method is that it works really well for slaying tasks, but it doesn’t help with doing actual work.

The 25-minute commitment is a good jumping-off point for a draft that just will not write itself, but when it comes down to serious work like article writing or designing or coding, my brain just doesn’t slot into neat little segments. As a writer, I quite often find myself in what I like to call a flow: when all the words are coming quickly, when sentences fit together seamlessly, and it doesn’t feel like pulling teeth to get an article out of my head and on to paper. During those periods, I don’t want to stop writing. I will happily skip lunch, blow off conference calls, and postpone my morning shower if I get into a good groove. But by using the Pomodoro technique on those days, all I do is annoy myself.

The secret may be in yet another productivity hack, Paul Graham’s comparison of the maker’s schedule vs. the managers schedule:

The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another; it changes the mode in which you work.

Many productivity books and methods assume some form of the manager’s schedule — that everything can be broken down into individual tasks with distinct time frames and actionable items. And to some extent this is true. An article can be broken down into an outline and smaller paragraphs, just like a coding project can be placed into segments. But it’s the messiness of the maker’s schedule that helped me to explain why I routinely get annoyed by conference calls when I’m flowing or why I am willing to throw a whole day’s worth of tasks out the window if it leads to that one blissful moment of feeling well and truly finished with something because I gave it my full attention for the better part of a day.

But most of us aren’t either makers or managers — nowadays, we are a blend of the two styles. So for me, the solution has been to just change the way I look at days. Now, Mondays are meeting days and Fridays are errand days. These are the days when the Pomodoro Technique works best because I can slay a to-do list with just a little bit more attention paid to each task. Tuesdays and Thursdays, though, are sacred maker time, when I turn off my phone, ignore my email, and just work on writing. Wednesdays have been a mixed bag — I choose what I am doing for the day based on what was scheduled earlier in the week. Free morning? Maker time. Two meetings in the afternoon? In between, I use the Pomodoro Technique to hack my to-do list.

In terms of productivity, there isn’t really a right or wrong answer. It’s just a matter of how we spend our most precious commodity: time.

Slide photo is by Alex Hung via Flickr user alexhung.