The Magic Tomato

A new productivity idea has been making the rounds lately, called the “Pomodoro” technique.  I’ve been using it quite a bit at our startup, and it’s been a great help, so I thought I’d share it on the blog.  The name comes from the Italian word for “tomato”, because the inventor (Francesco Cirillo) had a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato that he used when he was coming up with it.

Pomodoro is really helpful for doing focused work on important projects, especially when they require creative or deep thinking.  It’s so easy to get distracted by easier work or email or interesting discussions with co-workers.

I use Pomodoro for projects that

  • Don’t have clear short-term milestones.  For example, I spent a number of weeks diving into the latest techniques in machine learning and figuring out how to apply them to our product.  This project took hundreds of hours and I just had to chew away at it day after day, working through the algorithms and how we can use them most effectively in our application.
  • Are hard.  In most jobs, there are a myriad of useful and productive things to work on.  A few of them are really important … but the others are often a lot easier.  It takes very little intellectual effort to update the feature spreadsheet, or answer some emails, or do a QA pass over the website – all fine and useful things to do.  But they aren’t the projects that are going to yield huge amounts of value.  Often, a project is “hard” because you don’t know what to do.  You just have to bash away at it until you figure out how to get traction (possibly using some of the ideas from the “crack the nut” post).  Or, it might be hard because you are trying to create something new, and that can be scary.

So How Does It Work?

There is a detailed online guide, which is well worth looking through.  I do find that it can be overly prescriptive about how you are supposed to use the technique, and my approach is somewhat simpler.

Say you have a project that you want to focus on.  The basic idea is that you tackle it in blocks of time, choosing the block size that works for you.  The guides recommend numbers like 25 minutes; I have found that 50 minutes tends to work best for me.  You commit to working for that long without stopping – no answering the phone, no getting up, no checking email, no distractionsYou just work.  If anything comes up that you need to attend to, write it down and get right back to work – don’t do anything else about it.  At the end of the block of time, you stop and get a rest period, where you can deal with things that came up, check email, etc.  The rest period might be 10 or 15 minutes, or whatever works for you.  Check off the Pomodoro when you finish it, and it doesn’t count if you didn’t spend the entire time on your project without stopping.

At the start of the day, I might decide that my goal is to do (let’s say) four 50-minute Pomodoros.  Maybe I’ll spend two of them on machine learning, one designing our user profile system, and one on learning about business metrics for SaaS companies.  I find this approach works really well, because it makes it pretty easy to line up my time against the really important priorities.  The chunks of time are big enough that you can make decisions about them pretty easily.

At the end of the day, I’ll look at how I did.  If I didn’t get very many Pomodoros checked off that day, I know that I wasn’t able to focus on the projects that I wanted to.  I got interrupted, or other things came up.  That’s ok .. the point is not to beat yourself up, but it is important to be honest with yourself about whether you are really moving ahead on the things that matter, and if not, figure out what to do about it.  You’ll also be surprised at how few Pomodoros you can really get done.  In a multi-tasking environment with meetings and so forth, you might get zero significant blocks of utterly focused, undistracted time.  In a startup with virtually no meetings, I’m able to get several 50 minute Pomodoros done on a really amazing day, which is an incredibly good feeling.

Why It Works

One of the things I really like about this technique is that it makes an open-ended project quantifiable.  A multi-week or month project that doesn’t have a lot of interim milestones suddenly has a countable milestone every 50 minutes of work.  You can plan in terms of these chunks of time, you can check them off, and you get a feeling of progress even if there isn’t anything else you can really point to.  I think most people find it much easier to work on a project when there are tangible results along the way – I know that I definitely do!

It also makes it much easier to psyche myself up for a big hard task, because I know that I can stop in 50 minutes – it’s a real comfort to know that no matter how bad things get, I only have to push for that long and then I get to stop.  What almost always happens in practice, of course, is that once I get going, the project sucks me in and I pound happily along, annoyed when I’m “forced” to stop at the end of the work period.  But there is a lot of research that you are most productive if you do sustained bursts of work with breaks in between.  It’s also healthy to get up and stretch regularly.

Another good thing is that it gives you permission/”coerces” you into ignoring potential interruptions.  When you are doing something intense or creative or hard, it’s death to be constantly starting and stopping – you don’t get into that flow that is so magical.   When you are in the midst of a Pomodoro and you know that you won’t get to count it if you let yourself get pulled away, you actively resist interruptions.

Tools

You can do a fine job of using the Pomodoro technique with nothing but a piece of paper and a watch or a kitchen timer.  I do use two pieces of software that I find helpful:

  • My Little Pomodoro – a cute little app for the Mac that will time your Pomodoro interval and chime at the end.  There are several apps like this, or you can also use a kitchen timer, or just your watch/smartphone.
  • Omnifocus – a great productivity tool I’ll write about in another post; the key thing for Pomodoro is that any time I want to note something, I just hit a quick key combination, type in a phrase, and hit return.  The window disappears, and I know the note is squirreled away where I can (and will!) deal with it later.  A lower tech solution is a piece of paper that you scribble a note onto.  Anything works if it is a quick and dependable place to jot down an idea or task, so you can forget about it and get back to your Pomodoro work.

Since I work in an open office, I have a bit of a ritual for starting the Pomodoro.  I put on noise cancelling headphones, start up a special playlist of music (my favorites are choral pieces from the 16th and 17th century), start up the Pomodoro app timer, set the program I’m using to full screen so no other software will be visible … and WORK.

When To Use It

Paul Graham wrote a wonderful essay about the difference between a “maker’s” schedule, and a “manager’s” schedule.  When your time is divided up for you, where things are very structured, and you go from meeting to meeting or activity to activity, you don’t need Pomodoro.  But when you are taking on something open-ended and creative, or you have to think really hard about a problem you don’t know how to solve .. give it a try.  Perhaps you will find that it is as magical for you as it has been for me!

Comments

  1. Brian Goldfarb says:

    I’ll have to test this out. Thx Oliver for the great summary!

  2. Guy Brown says:

    Thanks for the Pomodoro crib notes!

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