Katie Pomodoros

4 December 2012

The cult of Pomodoro is strong in the IT sector, and I'm one of its converts. From time to time, new recruits are sent to me, so I decided it was time to write about how I use the Pomodoro method.

The Pomodoro method is almost stupidly simple: Set a timer, work for 25 minutes, break for five. Do this four times, then take a twenty minute break rather than a five minute break. If you get distracted during a Pomodoro, void it.

Why I use it

Working from home, keeping a tight focus can be difficult. If I turn my head, I can see our entertainment set-up, from which I can play hundreds of games and watch practically any show made in the past 60 years. I can also see my personal computer, from which I can play dozens of Steam games. Hell, on the very computer I'm working on, I have access to everything on the Internet. If I'm done with the stuff that's already there, I can go make more things.

Pomodoros keep me tightly focused by only asking that I keep that focus for 25 minutes. If I can do that, I can take a break, get some coffee, take a walk, or get a snack. I can also switch tasks, if that one task is one that I utterly hate, then come back to it later.

It also helps me keep track of what distracts me. Calls from family are a big distraction (especially if there's some new controversy occupying everyone's brain space). Random chats also kill my concentration. People being wrong on the Internet? Huge distraction. Email was created to distract me.

Pomodoros also help me keep my flow by separating out tasks. Before, whenever I got mail, I would immediately read it, digest it, then respond. I'd try to restart whatever I was doing, but then I'd get another email. Read it, digest it, respond. This would happen over and over again, until the entire day had passed, and I hadn't written a single line of code.

Types of Pomodoros

I generally have two types of Pomodoros: Working and admin.

Working is self-explanatory: pick a task, work on just that. Admin, though, needs some explanation.

One Pomodoro out of four is always an admin Pomodoro for me. I've found this to be vital for keeping my sanity. What do I do during an admin Pomodoro?

  • Check email
  • Respond to email
  • Clean off my desk
  • Restock what needs to be restocked
  • Return phone calls

I do keep an eye on my email through Growl notifications, but unless something is marked as absolutely urgent, waiting on it is not going to kill anyone. Besides, truly urgent matters usually come to me through IRC.

Breaks

When I first started doing the Pomodoro method, I would mess around on the Internet during my breaks. This can be a very bad idea. The timer goes off, but you're in the middle of a comment or a really interesting article, and the next thing you know, it's two hours later.

I try not to make my small breaks Internet breaks, especially on days when I'm not concentrating as well. I go get some coffee, I grab a snack, I stare out a window. Five minutes feels much longer when you're not staring at a screen.

For my longer breaks, I've been trying to move more. Maybe I'll do a small set of yoga, maybe I'll do some weights. If I'm feeling particularly saucy, I'll break out one of the less embarrassing dance games that come with Your Shape Fitness Evolved 2012.

Really bad days

Sometimes, I have really bad days. I didn't get enough sleep. I have an oncoming illness. Something in my personal / other professional life is distracting me.

These days, I modify the system slightly to ten-on / ten-off. I work for ten minutes. I break for ten minutes (and this time, totally away from the Internet). I find this slowly ramps my focus back up to where it needs to be. By the end of the day, I'm usually back to 25/5.

Tools

I do not have a dorky tomato timer. The last thing I need is my daughter finding it, messing around with it, then tossing it into the no-mans-land of her play room, only to go off an hour later. Also, I can't take the timer with me when I work in a coffee shop.

Instead, I use my phone, and an app made especially for Pomodoros. I onced use Pomodorium, but found I didn't like the fact that it would automatically start my break. Sometimes, I need to do one last thing before breaking, and when your break is five minutes, you get very, very protective of every last second.

Also, it uses Adobe Air. Goodbye, CPU!

Where to learn more

Really, everything you'd ever want to know is on Pomodoro's official website. It's not a complicated technique, but they do have some nice templates and cheat sheets.

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Comments

1 Radomir Dopieralski says...

This method is probably the only thing that actually let me finish my master thesis on time.

I found out that forcing the break on yourself is crucial. That's because you are still thinking about the thing you are doing during the break, but can't do it! This means, that when the break is over and you come back, you have lots of new ideas about the thing, and you immediately start implementing them, instead of staring blankly at the screen.

There is a related mechanism for discussing anything -- on a wiki, forum, newsgroups or via e-mail. If you first read all the new messages, and then wait all day until evening before replying, then your reply will be much, much better!

Posted at 10:13 a.m. on December 4, 2012

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