Help with the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro technique is a rare productivity tool: simple, powerful, and popular.

Years ago when I first started working by myself, I used the technique to train my mind to focus for longer periods of time; my previous job had so many interruptions I was wired for only ten minute periods of actual work. I organized my day into Pomodoros of longer and longer length to increase my endurance. It was not fun, but it worked.

While I don’t use it every day anymore, I do find myself using it to kickstart myself when things get hard. Typically, when I return from lunch I’ll set a timer to warm everything back up.

Even though the technique is dead-simple it does have some common problems for practical use at work; here is what I hear from people who have tried to use it:

I get interrupted too much at work; I can’t exactly ignore the phone.

Please don’t use Pomodoro if you are a 911 operator.

Otherwise, if you have a job where you have to respond to interruptions with great urgency then you may have to lower the “robustness” of your use of the technique, but it can still help you make the most of the time you aren’t interrupted. In this case, it might make sense to try to lower the Pomodoro time (to less than 20 minutes) so you feel yourself completing them.

For the rest of us we probably just think we have to respond when we don’t. We have been trained to respond to instant messages immediately much like we have all been trained to answer a ringing phone even if someone is right in front of us. These tasks might feel urgent, but are not typically important. If the message isn’t an emergency then ignore it or tell them “I’ll get back to you in 12 minutes”. Once you do this enough you will establish a reputation for being attentive when you do speak with someone.

To help with this you can of course simply communicate that you are using the Pomodoro Technique to get stuff done and therefore might be a bit delayed in responding to IMs. There are also ways to integrate popular messaging tools with Pomodoro tools so you can passively communicate “Do not Disturb” semantics.

If you really never have time for deep work sessions, I’d recommend just creating yourself one time for it, and to use Pomodoro only in that time:  This will keep your endurance up and allow you to keep your ‘focus muscles’ ready for those rare times when you get a few hours to work.

The 5-minute breaks are so dumb. I just check my email or look at the web – what a waste. (Or – the 5 minute breaks aren’t long enough to get a cup of coffee)

You might not be taking effective short breaks, or effective long breaks.

It is tricky because 5 minutes is hardly any time at all to some deep thinkers and too much time for the NADD among us. This will need to be closely managed at a personal level. The idea is to clear your head during the work enough that you are essentially catching your breath a bit but not getting fully out of work mode (that is what the longer breaks are for). Think “stop pedaling during a bike race as you round a large corner” rather than “get a cup of coffee and a doughnut” or “go walk the dog”. I typically stand up, squat, look out the window, take some big deep breaths then freestyle rap for a bit (you know the standard combination) and then sort of let my mind be blank and suddenly the 5 minutes is up and I sit back down.

I don’t want to stop every 25 minutes, once I get going I want to keep going.

Pomodoro doesn’t force 25 minutes as the timeframe – it is just a wise default amount of time. You can increase, as I did and many do, the amount of time for each block of work as it better fits the type of work that you do and your ability to focus. I increased from 25 minutes to 45 minutes with longer breaks; make sure these stay in a sane proportion or you will miss out of some of the benefits of the technique. You control the joystick – if you feel like you can keep going then the timer going off can simply be a reminder to stand up or rest your eyes or some other simple break. The point is long-term endurance rather than exact compliance to a technique.

This puts too much structure in my day man, I need to just ‘feel it’. I’m not a robot; I work when inspiration strikes.

This is true you are a unique snowflake – everyone knows it. Pomodoro works for multiple reasons:

  • It makes you stay in your chair.
  • Because it forces you to catalog all your interruptions it makes you focus on how much you interrupt yourself.
  • It is a form of mental interval training which is a great way to improve your focus and mental endurance.

I agree that doing it as prescribed all day is sort of nuts; I certainly don’t do this. This said, sometimes you have to turn into a robot for awhile to gain the advantages above. And to return to the objection about inspiration – let’s agree that the “work when you feel it” is clear bullshit. All people who have accomplished large works have done it by having a worker mentality that to you might look like a robot. I can’t say it better than Pablo:

La inspiración existe, pero tiene que encontrarte trabajando.

Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.

– pablo picasso

I’m writing a book about successfully working from home; click here if you want to know when it is complete.