The last few times we’ve chatted, my good friend and fellow time-management-hacker, Erik Marcus, has been urging me to try out something called the Pomodoro Technique (there is a book that’s available free at the website). The idea is deceptively simple: to organize work in 25 minute uninterruptible sessions, with forced 5-minute breaks in between (and longer breaks every 4 sessions), using a clearly visible time signal. The 25-minute session is called a pomodoro (named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the author, Francesco Cirillo, first used when experimenting with the idea).
Reading it, I realized that I’d encountered versions of this idea before (I recall my 9th grade biology teacher making us try something like it back in 1989), but had never stopped to consider the psychology of the idea. I recommend reading the book (it is free like I said, and very short at 45 pages). Here are my initial thoughts on how/why it works and how it relates to the ideas in Tempo. If you’ve used it, I am curious about your take.
The technique, beyond the 25-minute-on/5-minutes-off basic tempo, also recommends working with daily to-do lists of prioritized tasks. This component I think, is weak. The technique is most interesting at the sub-hour time scale. Things like GTD are much better for thinking about longer time-scales.
That said, I sometimes do use daily to-do lists when my GTD-style management is in disarray. Daily lists are great for those periods that are so chaotic that you literally do have to take one day at a time, since the complexity of your whole life will overwhelm you. Daily lists are part of my forgivable sloppiness toolkit I guess.
So the heart of the technique is refreshingly simple and easy to remember: an uninterruptible 25-5-25-5… tempo. There are details and subtleties and exception-handling techniques in the book, but most are relatively obvious.
By focusing heavily on fixed, unbreakable, atomic time units, you end up focusing entirely on mindful process. Goals become secondary. Cirillo argues that by conditioning yourself to associate clocks and alarms with the experiences of doing rather than becoming (shades of the be somebody vs. do something dichotomy here), we eliminate the anxieties associated with clock-driven work.
How it Seems to Work
The philosophy served with the tomato is a restatement of mindfulness in behaviorist terms. It is essentially operant conditioning around the stimuli we normally generate for ourselves using clocks. So you could say the technique tries to reprogram your responses to clocks and timers in healthier ways.
Normally clocks in our work are associated with anxiety-provoking meaninges: deadlines, overdue states, penalties for being late, or billing and timesheets. Alarms/rings are associated with the harsh and unpleasant experience of waking up or being late for something.
If you use the pomodoro technique enough, in theory glancing at a clock could become associated with the positive signal of how well you are doing, and how soon you can stop work and take a relaxing break. What elevates this above factory clock-watching behaviors is the voluntary nature and the fact that you use it around information work rather than dull assembly-line grind.
Alarms signal relaxation episodes rather than cueing scrambles and panics.
The theory seems solid enough to me.
The key I think is in making the 25 minute bursts uninterruptable and the breaks forced. In operations research terms, the former corresponds to the scheduling constraint called non-pre-emption, which generally makes scheduling much easier in a computational complexity sense. The latter is a more subtle idea that took me a while to understand to my satisfaction.
I don’t really have a comprehensive take on the technique to offer, mainly because I think it is fundamentally sensible. But I did have some notes and initial thoughts. I might have deeper thoughts to offer once I’ve tried it over a longer period.
- Mental Breathing: The 25-5 tempo might seem to unnecessarily interrupt and break situation awareness. I think though, that this is a good thing. It is the mental equivalent of consciously maintaining a steady breath while doing yoga or other physical activities that contain a natural temptation to hold your breath. Just like muscles tense up and the practice becomes strained if you hold your breath in yoga, doing a mad two-hour dash of work because you are “in the zone” is dangerous. If your “zone” state really runs deep, it can easily weather 5-minute breaks, and can probably be sustained much longer. It has always seemed funny to me that yoga teachers have to constantly tell us, “don’t forget to breathe.” We need a similar reinforcement for mental work.
- The Tomato Matters: As I discovered in my experiments with hourglasses, the physical nature of your timing signal matters. This is conditioning. You don’t condition your behaviors using abstractions. You need physical stimuli that you use repeatedly. So choose your clock carefully for both convenience and psychological value. Your default clock/timer (on your cellphone for instance) may not be a good one to use, at least initially, if it is too firmly associated with signals for conflicting behaviors.
- Maker/Manager Time: I’ve talked about Paul Graham’s Maker Time/Manager Time distinction quite a bit on this blog, and also mentioned it in the book (in brief, makers work in 4-hour solo sessions, managers in 1-hour meetings and collaborative work behaviors should be built around that). I think the pomodoro technique works beautifully with maker time, but not as well with manager time. I think meetings run using pomodoro techniques will feel too artificially procedural. A more socially natural hack is needed to apply pomodoro type conditioning psychology to work done in meetings.
- Probably better for introverts: Introverts, in my experience, enjoy solitary, uninterrupted work and hate interruptions. Extroverts love interruptions because it usually signals the start of some social interaction. This makes me suspect that the technique is probably fundamentally better suited to introverts. For introverts, it is a matter of chopping down unhealthily long chunks of time into smaller pieces. For extroverts, it is the harder task of building up solitary “attention endurance” capacity from a default of a few minutes.
- Useful for phobias: I have a morbid fear of paperwork that has only grown as I’ve slowly managed to reduce the amount of paperwork I have in my life. This has gotten to the point where it has turned into unhealthy avoidance behaviors (for example, I can no longer work at my desk at home because what piles up there is phobia-triggering stuff). I think the pomodoro technique is likely to be particularly effective for overcoming such phobic avoidance behaviors. Rather than define tasks and objectives like “bring business accounts up to date” (which are nearly enough to trigger anxiety attacks for me), thinking in terms of an activity (“book-keeping”) that you simply attack one low-anxiety pomodoro at a time works much better.
- Useful for addictions: The flip side is that the technique is good for tempering and moderating your addictive instincts. Writing is one such for me. It is easy for me to get sucked into a 3-4 hour writing session where I barely move, and end up stiff and aching when I finally quit. The writing I produce during such sessions is never as good as what I produce with a more measured pace and frequent breaks.
- Pace-setting: In time management, one of the hardest pieces of advice to follow is probably “pace yourself.” I preach it, but don’t practice it as well as I’d like. But the evidence is irrefutable that pacing yourself leads to better results. Back when I used to swim competitively (not very well), being mindful at the level of individual strokes significantly improved my times. But it was a constant struggle to not do a violent “get it over with” anxiety-fueled and breath-holding burst. You have to keep bringing your mind back to maintaining a technically clean stroke and disciplined breathing. I think of this as a “control tempo.” Most physical activities have a control tempo of seconds to minutes (in swimming, it is a one-and-a-half stroke alternating-sides breathing rhythm, so a two-breaths-for-three-strokes control rhythm). 25-5 seems like a good control tempo for mental work. Long enough to make a serious dent in nearly any kind of mental work, short enough that you stop short of over-extending/holding your breath.
- Mind-vs.-Body: Ideally, you’d transcend the mind-body division and have a physical tempo for “mental” work. But most suggestions for this (usually from very narrow-perspective ergonomics types) seem to be rather superficial. Of the “10 exercises you can do at your desk” variety. I think an integrated mind-body control tempo will necessarily have to couple minute, hour and day level time-scales. I haven’t seen any really thoughtful takes on this subject. Part of the person is that sophisticated physical-culture types simply don’t understand mental work or appreciate its needs.
I’ll share more notes/synthesize further as I think this through and use the pomodoro technique more.