The Pomodoro Technique: Boost Personal Productivity with Timeboxing

The Pomodoro Technique can boost your personal productivity with just a simple time management trick.

Read on to see how it works.

The Pomodoro Technique

Remember, time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round.

Baudelaire, from “The Clock”

Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro Technique while at university. Like many of us in our early college years, he was struggling with time management. His first-year exams hadn’t gone so well, and the next round of exams were coming up quick.

The problem was straightforward: high level of distraction and interruption plus a low level of mental focus and concentration. It was a formula for poor results.

One day, Cirillo challenged himself to get back to basics. He asked himself a simple question: Can I focus and study for just 10 minutes? No distractions, no interruptions, no mind wandering?

He used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato (or pomodoro in Italian) to time himself. It worked. The power of focusing for a short period of time, even 10 minutes, convinced him he was onto something.

Through fits and starts and this one central insight, the Pomodoro Technique was born.

The Psychology of the Pomodoro Technique

 

The team at AsapSCIENCE has created an animated video describing the pitfalls of human motivation:

Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent the reward is perceived to be — meaning, the further away the reward is, the more you discount its value. This is often referred to as Present bias, or Hyperbolic discounting

The video suggests the Pomodoro Technique as one of the primary ways to combat this problem.

Every 30-minute session (or “Pomodoro”) is 25 minutes of high-focus, distraction-free work, followed by a 5 minute break.

By “rewarding” yourself with 5 minute breaks at the end of each 25 minute working session, you can overcome procrastination. Scheduling procrastination is a form of productive procrastination because it leads you to greater overall productivity.

Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

You can remember the goals of the Pomodoro Technique with a simple mnemonic: Pomodoro IS A BRIBE.

  • Improve your work process
  • Strengthen perseverance in the face of complexity
  • Alleviate anxiety related to becoming (the habit of measuring yourself against the passage of time)
  • Boost motivation
  • Refine estimation process
  • Increase awareness of your decision-making
  • Bolster determination to achieve your goals
  • Enhance focus by cutting down on interruptions

Pomodoro and Agile Techniques

The Pomodoro Technique has DNA in common with timeboxing and sprints, two ubiquitous concept in Agile, Lean, and Scrum.

Timeboxing overcomes perfectionism by fixing a firm time limit. Timeboxing also overcomes decision paralysis and procrastination by forcing you to start working.

Sprints are most associated with Scrum, where the basic unit of measurement of progress is a “sprint” lasting between one week and one month. Sprints force a steady rhythm of work, breaks, and feedback that is missing from conventional, straight-line work.

Pomodoro combines both timeboxing and sprints for personal time management. Each timeboxed Pomodoro session gets you working (“I can focus for 25 minutes”). Each block of four Pomodoros has within it three 5 minute breaks, and a longer 35 minute Resting Pomodoro (see below) that acts as a mini-sprint retrospective.

Pomodoro is a perfect complement to agile ideas.

The Rules of Pomodoro

What is a Pomodoro?

  1. A Pomodoro is 30 minutes long.

    A single Pomodoro consists of 25 minutes of focused work, and a 5 minute break afterwards. Use a timer (tomato-shaped is optional). I use Focus Booster App, an online timer.

  2. A Pomodoro can’t be interrupted or split up.

    A “half-Pomodoro” isn’t a thing. If a Pomodoro is interrupted for more than a few minutes and it can’t be recovered, then that Pomodoro is nullified. Seriously, it’s 25 minutes of focused, uninterrupted work. No excuses, no exceptions.

  3. You’re not allowed to continue working after the timer rings.

    You have to stop working completely at 25 minutes. This might seem jarring if you’re “on a roll,” but in practice, stopping mid-flow makes it easier to pick up where you left off in your next Pomodoro.

  4. The 5 minute break isn’t for doing other work.

    No answering emails or switching to other work tasks during your 5 minute break. It’s for a real, honest-to-goodness break. Get up, walk around, get a drink of water. Or if you’re like me, you might furiously read items from your RSS feed before the 5 minutes are up. Whatever you do, don’t continue working.

Timing issues

  1. Every fourth Pomodoro is a Resting Pomodoro.

    Work for three Pomodoros, then take the fourth Pomodoro as a full break. In practice, this means that after your third 25 minute session rings, you’ll have a 35 minute period to take a long break (5 minute break + full Resting Pomodoro). Cirillo recommended resting every fifth Pomodoro, but the law of diminishing returns practically guarantees that you can’t be hyper-productive for more than 90 minutes or so at a time.

  2. If you complete your task within the first 10 minutes of Pomodoro …

    Assuming the task-switching costs aren’t too high, feel free to move onto the next project on your to-do list if you finish your task early. Don’t let a Pomodoro go to waste if you can help it.

  3. If you complete your task 15 minutes or later into your Pomodoro …

    Review your work, reflect, or just take an extra-long break.

  4. Between 10 and 15 minutes on the clock, it’s totally up to you.

    If you noticed there’s a gap of what to do if you finish between 10 and 15 minutes, you should go get yourself a cookie for being observant. Do whatever feels right.

What do you work on?

  1. Use the Rule of 3 to set your three most important outcomes for the day.

    Borrowing a technique from J.D. Meier’s book Getting Results the Agile Way, I combine the Pomodoro Technique with the Rule of 3 outcomes for each day. Choose the 3 most important outcomes you can achieve at the beginning of each work day. Select one and keep working Pomodoros until you finish. Then move onto the next one until you complete all 3.

  2. You have 8-10 usable Pomodoros each day. Use them wisely.

    Assuming an 8-hour workday (nine to five myth aside) and a ratio of 3:1 Working Pomodoros to Resting Pomodoros, you have 12 Pomodoros max each day to accomplish your tasks. Because of interruptions and administrative B.S., you’ll really only have 8 to 10 usable Pomodoros a day. See why it’s so important to limit your to-do list with the Rule of 3? Only 2 to 4 Pomodoros are available for each of your three outcomes for the day. A to-do list with seven important things on it is simply not doable.

  3. Track how many Pomodoros it takes to complete each of your 3 outcomes for the day.

    In time, this will become second nature, but when you’re just starting out it may surprise you how long (or short) certain tasks actually take. Accurate tracking leads to accurate predicting. When you start to develop a sixth sense for Pomodoro (“This project will take 6 Pomodoros split over two days.”), you will be a black belt Pomodoro user.

How You Can Apply the Pomodoro Technique

The obvious application for the Pomodoro Technique is at work. And it’s true that the power of the Pomodoro can revolutionize your personal productivity and turn you into an office superstar. But there are other ways to apply the technique that extend beyond the office.

Jim Benson has applied the Pomodoro Technique with Kanban to increase throughput on household chores.

Archaeologist and author Bill White, writing for YoungPrePro, describes using the 5 minute break in each Pomodoro to create a habit of meditation. Meditating to decrease stress also improves productivity.

The flexibility and adaptability of the Pomodoro Technique makes it an excellent personal productivity for the agile-minded. Pomodoro doesn’t require special systems or fancy apps for capturing inputs and outputs.

You need only a timer and something to track your to-dos (pen and paper will do) to get started.

How have you used the Pomodoro Technique in your day-to-day productivity? Did you stick with it?

Top image by mfilej.

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