In the last lesson, I offered the pomodoro as a counter-tactic to the habit of procrastination. In this lesson, I’d like to explore that in a little more depth.
I’d hazard a guess that most people signing up for a productivity course have already heard of the Pomodoro Technique, but just so everyone is on the same page I’ll lay out its essence. Incidentally, the name comes from the old-fashioned kitchen timers resembling a tomato.
The Pomodoro Process
Simply put, the process is as follows:
- Choose a task you’d like to get done.
- Use a timer set for 25 mins – and focus on the task at hand intently. Don’t stop till the timer buzzes.
- Take a short break of 5 mins as a reward once your 25 minutes are up.
From my own personal experience, that’s the version that anyone who has heard of it describes it. Struggling to get something done? Put your phone out of the way, close off distractions and ‘do a pomodoro’.
BTW, if your timer is on your phone, set your phone to flight mode and switch off wifi. You will be able to use your phone without interruption from the outside world.
Now this process is often good enough – that 80/20 principle once again. But there's more to the technique, extra features, if you will. I’ll talk you through them.
In his 2006 paper on the technique, the ‘inventor’ Francesco Cirillo goes to the trouble of distinguishing between internal and external interruptions. Internal interruptions are very closely related to the procrastination we identified in the previous lesson. We’ll look at those next. In these examples, Cirillo uses a simple worksheet to capture information, I personally have just used post it notes to achieve the same outcome.
Dealing with Internal Interruptions
Internal interruptions are the distractions that come into our heads – some are legitimate, some are simply the pain avoidance of procrastination. Using the pomodoro technique, we deal with these internal interruptions in a uniform way:
- Mark the interruption on a price of paper when it comes into your head. Don’t deny that it happened. (Cirillo uses an apostrophe on his worksheet, I just use a tally on a post it note)
- If the task is ‘Urgent and Unplanned’ then put it on today’s todo-list. Don't stop the pomodoro though.
- If the task is unplanned, but not urgent, instead put it on a backlog list with a ‘U’ marking that it was unplanned. Again, don’t stop the pomodoro.
The point of these metrics is to give you an objective basis for improvement.
If you have a lot of apostrophes on a given day, with no new work created, then perhaps you simply need to work on your focus. Using the technique more will help. Focus begets focus.
If on the other hand, these apostrophes are also accompanied by new work, then perhaps there’s an opportunity to improve your planning, and with it, your flow. Why has new work come as a surprise to you?
There are also interruptions that you don’t directly control – external ones.
Dealing with External Interruptions
These interruptions are far more tangible. Someone comes up to your desk, your phone rings, Slack messages get your attention, etc etc. Now the following quote from Cirillo is gold in my opinion:
“Invert the dependency on interruption. Make the interruption depend on us.”
What it translates to is – “it can wait”. Therefore we should:
- Close down any instant messaging stools.
- Switch your phone off (or to flight mode).
- Train your colleagues by politely telling them you’ll get back to them in 25 mins – and keeping that promise.
If they’ve come to tell you that the office is burning down, then sure, we can make an exception, but the general rule for this style of interruption is:
- Allocate any new work to either today’s to-do list or your backlog.
- Mark that the interruption happened with a different marker – Cirilo suggests a hyphen for external interruptions.
- Stick to the pomodoro at hand.
As with internal interruptions, at the end of a working day you’ll have a convenient report. On the one hand, you’ll know how many times you get interrupted (where your ‘hiding’ is going wrong). On the other, you’ll again see where collaboration is going wrong if others are bringing you to work on an ad-hoc basis. Let's look at how we can at least control our own planning next.
Planning and Estimating
For many, the pomodoro is a reactive tactic, by which I mean you’re using it when you’re struggling to focus. However they also lend themselves to planning. As a developer you really need to be good at breaking tasks down, and what better way than 30 minute chunks? Luckily a pomodoro plus a 5-minute break neatly fits into that category. Assuming a 7.5 hour workday, that’s theoretically 15 pomodoros you could do.
Let’s say for argument's sake I think I can fit in 4 tasks for the day. I have 15 pomodoros (absolute best case, it rarely happens) to allocate across them. I’ll use an example from my work – although you don’t need to understand the technicalities. I’m migrating some Java applications to use Docker containers, so I estimate:
- Task 1 – Fix errors in DockerFile – 3 pomodoros.
- Task 2 – Create bamboo plan to deploy docker image to Amazon ECR – 2 pomodoros.
- Task 3 – Deploy ECR image to test environment – 3 pomodoros.
- Task 4 – Update reverse proxy to point to new environment – 3 pomodoros.
Two things have happened here, I’ve broken out of work rather than kept it in my head, and I’ve forced myself to think properly about how long it will take.
Cirillo uses a simple worksheet, so just imagine a simple piece of paper with two columns. Row ‘zero’ has a header for the first column – called ‘To do today’. The header for the second column just reads ‘number of pomodoros’. Then for my workday:
- Row one on today’s todo-list has “fix errors in docker file” with three empty square boxes.
- Row two on today’s todo-list has “create bamboo plan” with two empty square boxes
- The same for the other tasks for the day.
- As I complete each pomodoro (not the task) I mark a cross in the next empty box
- When I complete the task itself, I cross the line for the task out.
Ok, so what does that achieve? Well you get simple feedback on when you’re over or under-estimated.
If you are looking at a row with a crossed out line for the task and some empty boxes for pomodoros, you have overestimated that task. If you have the boxes all full but the task is not crossed out, you have under-estimated. Incidentally, keep going till you finish the pomodoro as before. You just mark each newly-completed pomodoro to the right of the filled boxes. This indicates how many pomodoros you under-estimated by.
There are also techniques for re-estimating work – I’ll leave that to you to investigate if this has piqued your interest.
To recap, the pomodoro technique has given us tools to:
- Improve our own focus.
- Mark the interruptions caused by ourselves.
- Mark the interruptions caused by others.
- Identify previously unplanned work.
- Improve our estimations.
I bet at least some of you didn't know the pomodoro technique could do all this. And that's hardly surprising. Most of the value it gives is simply in the ‘tool for focus’ part of it. And that’s kind of my intention for the course.
If by the time we finish, you decide that GTD is too ‘elaborate’ for you, then that’s fine. You’ll still be able to take all of these planning and focus components, and build your own system. This is because you’ll be aware of what a productivity system needs. You can then build your own from your personal workflow and preferences. In the next lesson I’ll cover precisely that – The anatomy of a productivity system.