Swaroop C H

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Book Review - Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

17 Jan 2011

  1. Have a list of things to do.
  2. Pick one thing to work on. Start clock.
  3. When tired, stop clock. Take a break.

It worked because of two reasons:

  1. Observing yourself led to the Hawthorne Effect
  2. Time spent per day was a quantifiable measure of productivity.

Simple.

It worked quite well for more than six months, but it just fizzled out for me. I couldn't explain why at that time.

In retrospect, I think it was because of a few problems:

  1. It did not solve procrastination. When I knew it was a big task, I would just delay getting started because I had put pressure on myself to not pause the clock early once it was started.
  2. It did not help me stay focused for long. I would lose enthusiasm every few days because I would feel drained.
  3. It was easy to lose track that I was doing time tracking! For example, I would be focusing on an action item, and when something urgent came up, I would just switch to that and would have forgotten about the running clock.
  4. After a few months, it was not satisfactory enough to just look at a number at the end of the day and say "I've been productive today." It just wasn't doing the trick any more.
  5. If a task was big and could not get completed that day, I would often feel demotivated and frustrated rather than happy about having put effort on the task.

Many people had commented on that article suggesting that I try out the Pomodoro technique. After six months, I did visit that website, but reading "Work in units of 25 minutes, with 5 minutes break in-between" did not stir up my enthusiasm. Same goes for reading the official book.

Then I happened to notice on the Pragmatic Programmers website that they had a book out on the same topic called "Pomodoro Technique Illustrated" by Staffan Nöteberg.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated book

I have a high degree of trust in the quality of the PragProg books, so I blindly bought the ebook, downloaded and read it. It turned out to be one of the best books I have ever read.

There are plenty of reasons why I loved the book, and having written a couple of books myself, I wish I could write a book like this one - it has a fabulous approach of one page per topic which forced the author to be concise yet insightful, it is backed by extensive research as indicated by the references to other books in the footnotes, it has an engaging experience via the usage of sketches which presents the topic at hand in a fun spunky manner, and generally speaking, I really liked it's whole "no fluff, just stuff" approach to topics.

And I have not even mentioned the content of the book itself. The second chapter "Context" alone is worth reading this book for. It explains a lot of the psychology on why the Pomodoro technique is designed the way it is. It was a powerful motivator for me to try out the technique and consequently experience the benefits.

First, let's explain the name "Pomodoro", it's the Italian word for "tomato." This name was used because Francesco Cirillo, the creator of this technique, used his kitchen timer which was in the shape of a tomato.

Now back to the book... let's take what's wrong with the simple 'time tracking' approach mentioned at the start of this article and add a few extra steps that the Pomodoro technique has and show how it provides benefits.

The first problem with simple time tracking is fizzling out of energy because of pressure on oneself to work for long uninterrupted hours. Our lizard brain just cannot keep doing that for long, so you split time into units of 25 minutes with breaks:

  1. Have list of things to do (the "Activity Inventory" sheet).
  2. Pick one to work on. Start clock.
  3. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind, for 5 minutes (break).
  4. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan notes in the book (Page 56):

During your breaks, you’re not allowed to think about the previous Pomodoro or about the next Pomodoro. Don’t make important phone calls or start writing important emails. Your brain needs to absorb the last 25 minutes of challenging thinking.

If your stress system is never neutralized by mental recreation, you’ll notice a number of symptoms. The thinking system in the brain stem is affected, as well as the senses of the limbic system and in the end your biological rhythms. For example, your sleep might be affected.

At chronic stress levels, the capacity of your working memory and your ability to concentrate will fall. The joy of working will be transformed into anxiety - inspiration is altered to irritation.

This rhythm of 25 minute units leads to a sustainable pace (Page 74):

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

Overview and control are the opposite of flow and deep creative-thinking processes. You can’t see the big picture and focus on details at the same time. Your focus will benefit from a process where you minimize the points where you have to sort and allocate priorities. But you need to do both. And you also need recreation time on a regular basis in order to absorb and recharge. So, you have three mental states to switch between. You alternate between them, but what triggers the mental state change?

I use three hats: the recreation hat, which is a jester’s hat; the working hat, which transforms me into the lion who is 100 percent focused on hunting the antelope; and the strategy hat, which makes me feel like a king when I’m sorting and deciding what to do during the next work iteration.

I come to work wearing the recreation hat. I put on the strategy hat and choose what activity to focus on. Then I put on the work hat, wind up the clock, and begin to focus. The clock rings after 25 minutes, which reminds me to put on the recreation hat. After a short break, I put on the strategy hat, and so on.

This timebox schedule that interleaves to focus, to prioritize, and to rest gives me a sustainable pace.

The second problem is that this a bit too lax in that there is no race to finish something, there is no goals. So let's start every day with a subset of the todo list and make a commitment to oneself to finish that subset on that day with the caveat that it is okay if we don't accomplish it:

  1. Have list of things to do (the "Activity Inventory" sheet).
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the "To Do Today" sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 51):

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

Distinguishing between the Activity Inventory (a traditional to-do list) and the To Do Today (an extracted commitment) is a compulsory strategy for doing the right thing, getting started now, and putting optimum effort into your work. It gives you clear goals and personal control.

The third problem is that there is frustration when a task is not finished on a given day because the task is so big. So we break down how long the task will take and focus on that as well as finishing the task:

  1. Have list of things to do (the "Activity Inventory" sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the "To Do Today" sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.

This gives the physical pleasure of marking a X on successful completion of a pomodoro. This also means it can help measure our progress on whether we are on track to finish the task in the estimated number of pomodori.

As Staffan says (Page 95):

Planning based on estimates makes your commitment for the day more realistic, and as a result, your motivation will improve. Recording the number of completed Pomodoro every day gives you a good understanding of your Pomodoro velocity.

So far so good, but how do I know whether I'm improving myself day over day? Now we shall add tracking to the technique:

  1. Have list of things to do (the "Activity Inventory" sheet) plus number of pomodori you estimate for each task.
  2. Consult your priorities and make a list on what to work on today (the "To Do Today" sheet)
  3. Pick an activity from the To Do Today sheet to work on. Start clock. Mark every internal interruption with an apostrophe next to the task name and mark every external interruption with a dash.
  4. Stop after 25 minutes (one pomodoro). Mark one pomodoro completed for the task on the To Do Today sheet. Relax your body and mind for 5 minutes (break).
  5. After 4 pomodori, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes.
  6. At the end of each day, note down statistics that you are interested in w.r.t. your performance for today in the Records sheet.

Of course, this tracking only works if you make sure that each pomodoro is atomic (Page 61):

Never switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. If you finish an activity halfway through a Pomodoro, spend the rest of the time over-learning. For example, if I finish early, I review what I have done, I repeat what I have learned, I see whether I can enhance my work, or I note new conclusions on paper—until the kitchen timer rings.

So, you’re not allowed to impulsively switch activities in the middle of a Pomodoro. In fact, just having the option to switch in the middle is a recurring disturbance. You can’t just stop in the middle of a Pomodoro and take a break either. Then you will lose the rhythm. And since the stopped Pomodoro was shorter, it will not be compatible - in terms of tracking - with other Pomodori.

Examples of statistics include basic things like number of pomodori you committed to at the start of day versus the actual number of pomodori spent.

It can go as comprehensive as you wish, for example take interruptions we tracked during each pomodoro - we can track the average number of internal interruptions (your mind wanders) per pomodoro, the average number of external interruptions (somebody at work asks you something or you get a call) per pomodoro, what time of the day you get most interruptions, how long into each pomodoro you get your first distraction, and so on.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

The point is to keep it simple and measurable. And something that motivates you to be productive each day. You should have a little ceremony but not too much otherwise it becomes self-defeating.

There is a LOT more to this than meets the eye and this is where Staffan's book makes a difference. I would highly recommend reading this book. I'm making a mental note to myself to make this book one of the most important books that I will make my kids read and practice when they are in school. It is a valuable life survival tool that I feel they must learn at an early age (the next generation is going to be even more competitive!).

The best part is that I can fit GTD and Pomodoro techniques together. I remember reading a comment somewhere which said "GTD helps you answer what to do. Pomodoro helps you answer how to do it."

Last, but not the least, the important thing to keep in mind is that Pomodoro technique forces you to adopt good habits. In more technical terms, "conditioned reflexes are key." The act of marking X against an action, the act of crossing an action item when it is done, the act of making your brain instantly focused at the start of a Pomodoro (as well as the ticking sound of the clock, if you're inclined), etc. they all help you adopt good habits. And I personally believe that good habits are the secret behind most successful people.

As Staffan says in the book (Page 48):

First prioritizing and then focusing on the most important activity will make you feel safe and sound. Otherwise, your focus will constantly be disturbed by questions like "Am I really doing the most important thing now?" At the start of my day, for instance, I first look at the whole backlog and pick the most important activity. Then I stick to it for a short timebox, before I reevaluate whether it's still the most important one. In my mind I replace "I must finish" with "Where can I start?" and I replace "This project is so big and important" with "I can take one small step."

...

Without the Pomodoro technique, figuring out how to start each workday can be hard. You might feel like you have a billion things and you can't possibly do everything simultaneously. So, you never really start, and suddenly it's lunch time.

Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

On a related note, there are variants to this technique, they can be called Kanban or they can be called GTCD but I hope you get the gist of why this technique works.

If you're looking for tools, I would suggest these two:

Just in case you were curious, I revised the book this time in 5 pomodori, and wrote this blog post in 5 pomodori :-)

So what are you waiting for, go read the book now! And do write in about how the Pomodoro technique has helped you.


Update : "We believe what we want to believe, so it's better to get data" -- B J Fogg in an interview with Ramit Sethi - I guess this is the most succinct answer to when people ask me why use the Pomodoro technique :-)

Twitter Comments

@dhavaltrivedi says:

@swaroopch just read your blog post on Pomodoro Illustrated book. Superb! You're still using the technique?

@swaroopch says:

@dhavaltrivedi All the time. I'm replying in my Pomodoro break :-P

@dhavaltrivedi says:

@swaroopch haha awesome!

Comments

Noufal Ibrahim says:

The technique has generally helped me. I've not used the entire timing and task based thing but the idea of 25 minutes of work followed by a short break generally helped me focus.

Just in case it's useful, I wrote a simple offline version of the focus booster application. First as a shell script and then ported it to Python. It's available here.
http://code.activestate.com/recipes/577358-pomodoro-timer/

Chaitanya Nettem says:

hey...i love your blog. I just love it....so that brings me to my question(unrelated to this post)...can you please tell me what blogs you read...i seriously am in need of good stuff to read...more specifically stuff similar to what you write...

Bhargava says:

I use this - https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/inmpdhfldpfjhjdnkhhpbpoapplpcdom

It's pretty neat!

Swaroop says:

@Chaitanya I write about so many different things, so not sure which topics you want to read about. If you're looking for blogs specifically, I would suggest Study Hacks blog. But my real suggestion would be that you start reading good books.

Chaitanya says:

@Swaroop - I liked that Study Hacks website you suggested....What i want is blogs like that...about clever hacks made by clever people like you, whether the hack is related to coding or it is related to something else.

And one more thing-i live near Rajarajeshwari Nagar in Bangalore(i'm an engineering student). Do you happen to know any good jogging routes around that area?

Swaroop says:

@Chaitanya You should be able to find related lifehacking stuff at LifeHack.org and LifeHacker.

And no idea about Rajarajeshwari Nagar :)

Chaitanya says:

Thank you for the help. Keep Blogging. I hope a new post is coming soon. And never mind Rajarajeshwari Nagar :)

Freewriting - Review of the Accidental Genius book | Swaroop C H says:

[...] Use a time limit, say 10 min, to practice non-stop, fast and easy freewriting. And then take a break. The reasons for this are obvious if you have read my review of the Pomodoro Technique book. [...]

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