At first glance the pomodoro technique just sounds like timeboxing (an old standby of time management) and in many ways it is. But pomodoro’s real secret sauce, and its key to effectiveness, is adding a layer of methodology to timeboxing.
Let’s start at the beginning. Timeboxing refers to the concept of taking a set amount of time to do a specific task. It’s often mentioned as a technique to fight perfectionism.
For example, I have a bad habit of spending way too much time looking for the perfect digital devices. I don’t want any camera. I want the *perfect* one! So a few years ago, in the stone ages before everyone had a camera on their phone, I went looking for a digital camera. I probably spent 8 hours over a weekend looking for just the right camera. I read all the reviews and obsessively compared each feature. At the end of it all, I got a great camera, but I have to wonder if it was worth all the time I spent.
In the language from The Pardox of Choice, I’m a maximizer (as opposed to a satisficer)– I need to compare *all* options before making a decision. For people like me, timeboxing is very useful and prevents us from wasting too much time analyzing everything.
Nowadays when I go to buy a new gadget, I timebox it to a couple hours of research and tell myself that I will make a decision after those few hours even if I haven’t done all the research. As the classic Patton phrase goes:
A good plan violently executed today is better than the perfect plan tomorrow.
Another useful aspect of timeboxing is that it focuses the mind. If I tell myself that I have only a half-hour to write a blog, I’m going to make a lot more progress on it then if I have all day and intersperse it with other tasks.
And that’s where the pomodoro technique comes in. It builds on the idea that timeboxing can help focus your mind and adds a specific set of rules around timeboxing. Timeboxing is a little too vague by itself to help in day-to-day life.
As I’m learning from the book Switch, we sometimes need very specific guidance to make a change in our life and the pomodoro technique provides that specific direction.
Enter the Pomodoro
The pomodoro technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo in 1992 when he was a university student struggling to concentrate. In order to track his 25 minute time blocks he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (or pomodoro in Italian) and the rest is history.
The technique consists of the following rules:
1) Plan out what you want to accomplish
2) Break your tasks into 25 minute chunks
3) Take 5 minute breaks between each chuck
4) If a distracting thought or another task comes along while you’re working within your 25 minutes try to continue working and just log the task for later processing (similar to GTD).
5) After completing 4 work sessions take a longer break of 15-30 minutes
So, as you can see, it’s essentially structured timeboxing in 25 minute chunks.
Some other major takeaways and recommendations:
- Use a visible timer – There’s something about the clock ticking in front of you that helps you to work harder.
- Don’t use pomodoro for free time – It’s intended to be used for cranking out work and you’re trying to build up your ability to concentrate.
- Breaks are a GOOD thing! – You can concentrate better when you give yourself mini-breaks rather than trying to concentrate for 8 hours straight.
Real World Experience
I’ve now been consistently using the pomodoro technique for the past few weeks and it has made a huge difference in my ability to focus. I feel like each time I consistently work through a 25-minute pomodoro, I’m not only knocking out work but increasing my ability to concentrate.
There is definitely something about that ticking clock that helps to focus the mind. I’ve been using a free digital pomodoro timer and it’s been wonderful.
Like anything else, your mileage may vary, but I think pomodoro is at least worth trying especially for those of us who have to focus to get our work done and are too easily distracted by other tasks, emails, Wikipedia entries and, of course, twitter…