The Pomodoro Technique

by Venkat on November 29, 2011

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

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.

Notes

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

 

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Kyle Mathews November 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm

I tried the Pomodoro Technique for awhile with mixed results. It seemed to work best for unpleasant work, as you mention, because it makes our commitment finite versus seemingly infinite. (“I only have to work one hour on this [unpleasant task] and then I can quit”). As is often said, the hardest part of doing most tasks is starting.

In this aspect, the Pomodoro Technique is very similar to timeboxing – http://www.stevepavlina.com/blog/2004/10/timeboxing/

I didn’t like the technique as much for creative / enjoyable work. I found that my flow didn’t transition well between the break times and I soon got annoyed when I saw the timer reaching zero. My results might of been different however as I was doing a 50-10 split. Perhaps the 10 minute break was too long.

My general maker schedule is to do a 3-4 hour work session in the morning and another starting mid-afternoon after a 1-2 hour break for exercise and lunch. I do notice that near the end of each of these work sessions that I start to get groggy. I’m curious now if shorter 5 minute breaks would be short enough to not interrupt flow but long enough to avoid the groggy feeling that sets in near the end of the work session.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao December 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Yeah. The problem isn’t the 10 minute break, it’s the 50-minute work session. I know people like to adjust it especially if you get into the flow.

Huh, maybe that’s what Venkat meant by the 5 minute break thing. You take the flow with you on the break even though you set it aside. That allows whatever you are working on to cook at the back of your head when you empty your mind and do something physical. Whenever I come back I usually slip right into things. It probably helps that I use two different songs, one marking the end of a work session (something relaxing, like the Final Fantasy harp arpeggio theme) and the beginning of a work session (I used something with a high tempo and jazzy). … Heh, then again I wrote custom scripts to do this. All the pomodoro apps I’ve seen suck because they don’t let you use music to start and end sessions.

Venkat December 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Yes, that’s what I meant. If your flow is so unstable that a 5-minute break will disrupt it, making it more robust is probably a worthwhile idea.

But I have to really think a lot more about situation awareness and context-switching beyond the level I talked about them in the book. Human thinking may be capable of more effective multi-threaded dynamics than we think. Results showing that multi-tasking doesn’t work are obviously about average people with average levels of ADD and non-mindfulness going on.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao December 2, 2011 at 12:02 am

Ohh! I get it. Flow for mental efforts.

So you don’t consider this http://the-programmers-stone.com/about/ thoughtful?

With regards to multi-threading … I’m going to wait-and-see.

I know one person who can truly do this. He’s pretty smart, but his parallel processing results from his non-standard consciousness. Maybe some absurdly high IQ folks can too. The last guy I met with an absurdly high IQ also had a non-standard consciousness. Myself, the only time I can do those are the brief, temporary moments of altered states of consciousness that would be an enormous pain in the ass to figure to train how to trigger them normally.

It’s easier for me to mark a schwerpunkt that simultaneously covers many, many areas and layers. It looks like I’m all over the place, but the truth is that I’m focusing on the schwerpunkt. (So lore from the physical culture: move with your whole body and mind). Even better if I can make a small motion and it does many things at once. I think you mentioned that in your introduction to Calculus of Grit (or something similar) about people mistaking you for being a generalist because they don’t perceive your inertial guidance.

Anthony Panozzo November 29, 2011 at 4:12 pm

I tried this out in the past and found it useful. I blogged about it here: http://22ideastreet.com/blog/2009/02/16/the-pomodoro-technique/

Like pair programming for eight hours a day, doing eight hours of focused pomodoro work is intense. I like the idea of just winding up the clock and getting to work and not worrying how long it takes. The hardest part of most things is getting started. I agree that it worked best for me for things that were somewhat undesirable (dealing with taxes, cleaning, etc.)

Thanks for the post, I think the themes that Cirillo discusses are in line with the thoughts on time and our relationship with it in Tempo.

Ho-Sheng Hsiao December 1, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Yep, you saw a lot of the things I saw when I used it. I’m surprised you didn’t emphasize the mindfulness property of the uninterruptible portion of the session.

Some other points:

– For the work I do (maker time / software engineering) the enforced do-anything-but-mental-work time gets me out of any stuck loops. (Much like getting yourself out of a loop when playing Go).

– Like any mindfulness practice, your body and mind eventually become attuned to estimating exactly how long 25 minutes feel like.

– I’ve found myself sometimes going through a work session like playing a video game with a “Sudden Death” time limit: trying to get something finished before I have the enforced break.

I’m not sure about your comments about the Mind vs. Body take on this. Are you saying that you have not found much material on physical exercises to do as a compendium for using the Pomodoro technique? To me, there’s a wealth of information on that. Maybe it seems like a desert because the physical culture tends pass much of this orally.

That and during the 5 minute break, the last thing you want to do is do much mental exertion. Figuring out the optimal physical thing to do seems counter-productive to me. Even random spontaneously dancing to music will work, as long as you physically get up off the chair — better yet, move out of the room to a different space. I’d sometimes do pushups, squats, play around with sticks or tai chi or mindful walking to get blood flowing through the body again.

Venkat December 1, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Not really physical exercise to augment the pomodoro technique, but a way to understand the technique itself in a way that transcends the mind-body dichotomy.

Mindfulness: I’ve decided to stop using the term until I can figure out a clearer set of ways of talking about it. I find myself tempted too often to use it as a catch-all label for too many things that are useful to distinguish.

dms December 4, 2011 at 3:15 am

Venkat, If I can read only one of these books, which would you recommend?

dms December 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Wrong blog comment. Ignore this.

peedyfizzle December 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm

This is actually a reformulation/regurgitation of another “technique” called Timeboxing. I first heard of timeboxing from Steve Pavlina back in the day (a kooky motherlover) and read more about it on the “alljapaneseallthetime.com” (AJATT) blog (timeboxing trilogy series of posts…much of what I’m about to discuss are his ideas).

Timeboxing is actually based on something called Temporal Motivation Theory. I shall summarize for you and after give links.

Temporal Motivation Equation: U = EV/ΓD

U=Utility (how much fun something is or how much you want to do it)
E=Expectancy (confidence in ability to complete a task)
V=Value (how important and/or sucky something is)
Γ=Distractions
D=Deadline (how long you have to complete a task or stop working)

Timeboxing or “pomodoro” basically limits D (deadline) and up shoots U (fun/motivational factor). The limitations of pomodoro are that in reality…you can manipulate all four of those variables, and the manipulation of the deadline factor in no way needs to be limited to 20 or 25 minutes. In fact, you can use a timer–I often do–to limit yourself all the way down to 1 or 2 minutes. At that level, any task no matter the difficulty feels akin to a video game (high Utility).

AJATT also talks about research regarding”eustress” (good stress) and energy. By cycling repeatedly between eustress in the form of 1-2 minute “pomodoros” and relaxation (for me typically 1-2 minutes of rest), you build energy.

There are many ways to take advantage of this. Typically, I make a plan for an hour or so “cycle” or “epoch” before I begin, and then repeat the cycle/epoch as long as needed/wanted. To be honest…this comment is getting long enough already, but permit me to say that epoch/cycle design is a bit more complex than just the temporal motivation shite.

External deadlines (i.e. not the temporal motivational equationesque self-imposed, but real-world, often harsh bureaucratic, deadlines) are a big factor influencing how much “stress” there is in your epochs/cycles, in my experience. The number and different types of work/activity in each each epoch/cycle influence juxtapositional factors.

Yada yada. This was insanely long. You can see how all of this in the end ultimately blurs the line between work/activity/fun. Does work have to be painful? Do we even have to call it that instead of “fun”? In my opinion, arbitrary bureaucratic or patrimonial deadlines are the only reason for the equation of work with pain.

Btw…got your book Venkat. Leafed through it and can’t wait to read it. Also, bravo on everything you’ve written/blogged. Seriously…your writing sends existential chills down my spine every time I’m high. That gervais shite is seriously radical. Bravo!

peedyfizzle December 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Sorry, that part near the end was a bit unclear. What I mean to say is that each epoch/cycle has something like a “tempo” as perhaps Venkat would call it, and many factors other than temporal motivation shite influence its construction.

A typical example of an hour-long repeated epoch for me at University:

-5 min: school work
-5 min: “fun” (idea) work (e.g. gervais series of posts or other reading)
-5 min: The Office
-5 min: The Office
-5 min: The Office
-5 min: The Office
-5 min: rest
-5 min: school work
-5 min: “fun” work
-5 min: jamming out to music, push ups, random, etc
-5 min: school work
-5 min: “fun” work

Kay December 7, 2011 at 11:07 pm

Self Taylorization … hmm. I see the behavioral therapy value you mentioned but suppose you make a break after 25 minutes and you still work on your problem / your essay, just not at your workplace but in your mind? So it isn’t a true interrupt. I’d rather ask what the actual key skill is you want to exercise and then doing it in a sporty manner. If the stopwatch is an element of your training then yes, why not, but it should be a means to an end.

Tim Nichols December 27, 2011 at 8:50 am

On the last point in your article, you should check out the work of Steven Barnes. He’s a successful professional writer (clearly understands mental work) and a genuinely sophisticated, lifelong devotee of physical culture.

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