Thoughts on the Pomodoro Technique

It looks like I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique for way over 10 years now (that’s how far back I’ve found references to it on my blog)!

Most people learn the basics of the technique and run with it: set a timer for 25 minutes and do some focused work, take a 5-minute break, rinse, and repeat. As I’ve coached a lot of people on the technique over the years, I realize I’ve taken it beyond the basics. I remember back when I first learned about it, I did take the time to go through a short book the technique’s creator had up on his website. While I can’t find that version of the book anymore, there seems to be an updated version available.

Here are my general (and I guess some specific) thoughts about my use of the Pomodoro Technique!

You need to stick with it to see it work

Like with any technique, this one won’t produce any results if you try it once and never actually get to practice it, meaning, make sure to do it right, consistently. How can anybody do it wrong? Easy: set the timer for 25 minutes, start doing the work, and 10 minutes into it, go check out that social network notification that popped up somewhere, get your attention derailed for 10 minutes, go back to the remaining 5 minutes of your “pomodoro”, realize you won’t be able to finish your task and affirm that the technique does not work. That’ll do it. I’ve seen it happen.

Be mindful of what you do in your 5-minute break

When taking the short 5-minute break in between pomodoros, do your best NOT to engage in activities that’d get your mind busy with something completely different from what you’re currently working on. A big context switch would be a longer ramp-up time when we start your next Pomodoro, and that is a problem if you were working on a task that spans multiple sessions.

For example, checking emails in that 5-minute break can be detrimental to your productivity. You may get involved with an email that ends up taking 10 minutes of your time, stealing away all the context for the task you were working on. Instead of checking emails in that 5-minute break, set aside a full Pomodoro session dedicated to processing emails.

In a work-from-home setup, I tend to do things like playing my guitar for those few minutes, go outside and take a couple of deep breaths, practice juggling, etc; some simple activities that allow me to live in the moment, give the brain a little rest, and then get right back at it

Task-sizing in Pomodoros

Whenever possible, I like sizing my tasks in terms of the “number of Pomodoro’s”. For example, if I’m working on a given User Story, I may size it like so:

  • Pairing with QA to discuss test cases for the story = 1 Pomodoro
  • Writing unit tests (only the given-when-thens at this point) = 1 Pomodoro
  • Implementing the tests and the initial test pass = 3 Pomodoros
  • Cleaning up tests and code = 1 Pomodoro
  • Test/Code peer review = 1 Pomodoro
  • Creating Pull Request and updating tracking system = 1 Pomodoro

Total: 8 pomodoros (4 hours)

Such breakdown allows me to better organize my day so to make sure I get the uninterrupted time I need to do the work. If I need to pair up with somebody else on the team, it also allows me to be considerate of the other person’s time and have it on the agenda for the day.

Do I always work like that? No, but whenever possible, yes!

Wait, pairing during a Pomodoro?

Yes, I’ve mentioned above that I do pair during Pomodoros. How does that work? Well, both I and the person I’m pairing with are fully focused on the task at hand. Neither of us is checking emails or looking at our phones. This works great for:

  • Pair programming
  • Design sessions
  • Code review

What if those around you don’t do Pomodoro?

I see people walking out of restrooms without washing their hands; that doesn’t prevent me from washing mine!

I use the Pomodoro Technique because it works well for me. As it always happens, people see my Pomodoro Timer and ask me about it. I always take the time to explain and coach them if they’re interested. Those who aren’t interested at least start to respect my focused time and won’t interrupt me when they see I have my timer running.

Be mindful of abandoned Pomodoros

When you’re interrupted, you MUST abandon your Pomodoro. When you do, keep track of it. Write down why you had to abandon it. At the end of the day, reflect upon it and see if there’s anything that can be done/changed so that such interruption won’t happen again. Maybe you had an internal interruption caused by a Facebook notification you saw in a tab on your browser you’ve left open, so you now decide to close all tabs with content that’s not related to the task at hand. Or maybe you had an external interruption, caused by a co-worker that walked up to your desk and started talking about last night’s game, so you now decide to politely ask that person not to interrupt when you have your “do not disturb” sign up, whatever that sign is.

I talk more about managing interruptions in a previous post.

Working in Pomodoros all-day

People often ask me, “do you work in Pomodoros all day?”. That’d be great, but unlikely. I have different meetings at different times of the day on different days of the week.

I normally look at the schedule for the current day and find the blocks of time where I can work in Pomodoros. Any available half-hour is a Pomodoro where I can do productive work. If I can only do one Pomodoro in a given time window, I’ll use that for tasks that would comfortably fit in (a 1-Pomodoro task, as opposed to 3). Maybe processing emails, for example. If I have a larger window, say two hours, than I plan on 4 pomodoros, which is a nice time for focused, deep-thinking work.

If you do something like that, consider blocking those times in your calendar so people won’t reel you into unplanned meetings (just add something to your calendar such as “Pomodoro slot”, “Focused tasks”, or something like that). Over time, people will learn to respect that. Of course, let people know it’s ok to interrupt you during that time if there’s a real urgent matter that needs your attention.

Do you mute the ticking sound of the timer?

The ticking sound of timers drives some people nuts! If I’m deep in thought, that sound actually helps me stay in the zone. Some people also say the sound helps to stay focused (“the clock is ticking… I need to get this done!”).

I also like being able to see the timer. Let’s say I’ve planned to work on a task for 1 Pomodoro. I’m 20 minutes in and I think I’m done with my task. I look at the timer and see there are 5 minutes left. Instead of either “calling it a Pomodoro” or jumping to the next thing, I use that time to review what I’ve done. At times, it works like my “mini-retro” within a task. Maybe I can identify some quick code cleanup opportunities. Maybe I can identify things that could have been done better, but that can’t be done in 5 minutes, so I just take good notes about it, with enough context, so that should I have the time to come back and address it, I can quickly get my mind and thought process back and get it done.

Do you use an app for that?

Yes, I do. I have considered getting an actual Pomodoro kitchen timer, but I’m sure co-workers wouldn’t like having the tic-tac in the office. So I use either an app or a website such as this one.

Now if you excuse me, I need to start my next Pomodoro. 🙂

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