About six months ago, I started to experiment with the Pomodoro technique. For those that don’t know, Pomodoro is a system for dividing time between focussed work and short breaks. The traditional split is 25-minutes of focus, followed by a 5-minute pause (this pairing is known as a tomato). After four tomatoes, the break extends to 15-minutes, and a full round is complete. The name Pomodoro comes from the technique’s developer Francesco Cirillo and his tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
As soon as I started using tomato-time, I got hooked. I found the cadence of focussed effort and short breaks melded nicely with my natural attention span. It was easy for me to click start on my timer and zone the world out, diving deep into the task at hand. The comprehension of my work expanded, my throughput accelerated; as a result, my job satisfaction went up, and my happiness elevated. I was crushing it.
Soon though, the process started to go sour. A meeting would slide into my diary, and I’d have to disrupt my carefully harvested focus to go work with others! My list of YouTube videos under 15-minutes found wanting; I’d push my long break up to 20-minutes. I’d find myself out of sync with my time, and think I was heading for a break when I was to be focussing. My pace dropped, and after a while, I was going through the motions of clicking ‘start focussing’ and ‘start short break’ on the tool I used. I was no longer using the tool to assist me; the tool was using me.
Developing focus and, more importantly, maintaining it isn’t easy. Like an engine, it needs a service once in a while. Processes should be evaluated and re-evaluated to make sure they’re sharp and honed.
In 2020 I hit the reset button and looked at how I could use the technique better, and reach that focus I sought. After the tune-up, my focus engine feels like it’s singing.
Here are five things I’ve learned; perhaps you’ll find them useful.
One – Time Box your Work
Timeboxing is defining an amount of time you spend working on a single activity. I know what you’re thinking, isn’t the 25:5 minute split the process of timeboxing? Well yes and no. A tomato puts a timebox on the attention, which links to the activity; it’s not a timebox on the work itself.
I’m a software engineer, and while my main goal is to spend time writing code, at times, there is other work I’m accountable for too. This situation isn’t unique; all of us have multiple responsibilities in our jobs and different people looking to collaborate (read: have our time). What’s important is balance and steady throughput.
Let’s say I’ve got three tasks to do today:
- A code review for a colleague’s work.
- An automation test to write for some of my code.
- A document to write for the delivery team to support installation.
I’ve also got some professional development I want to do; so it’s a chunky day.
Starting with the highest priority item (prioritising is out of scope for this article, see future unwritten post) I’ll do a rough estimation of time to spend on it today, i.e. time box it.
I divide this estimate into 30-minute chunks, which gives me my timeboxed activity split into tomatoes. I’m a journaler, so I draw tomatoes in my notebook next to the task, and after each cycle, I score one out.
This process keeps my focus on a single task, makes it easy for me to know how much time I’ve spent on work, how much time I have left, and gives me credence to ask “okay, time’s up, should I move onto my next activity?” If I decide to keep working beyond my original estimate, I’ll start drawing blue tomatoes. Blue tomatoes allow me to see underestimates.
This process frees my mind from the background load of time management. Importantly, this approach allows me to easily record how much time I spent on a given task vs how much time I estimated. This data facilitates better discussions on work status with colleagues and elevates my ability to make estimates in the future.
Two – Use it in Meetings
Meetings have their place, but they can stifle an individual’s ability to enter a flow state and reach that point where progress rolls on effortlessly. Where I work — and I’m sure this isn’t unique — meetings tend to last an hour and they mostly overrun by 10–15 minutes.
There’s an appreciation that this isn’t great, especially if a day has multiple meetings. I’ve found that the Pomodoro technique can keep collaborative sessions focussed in a couple of ways.
The first links back to the previous lesson, it timeboxes the meeting. I know, a meeting is itself a timebox. But if you’re keeping an eye on the clock, are you giving it your all during the session? A Pomodoro app will tell you when 25-minutes have passed. This reminder gives you a pause point to see how progress is, and say “this is great, let’s keep going” or “we’re halfway through, and I’m not confident with this yet.”
Additionally, this pause point gives you a standing opportunity. I mean a trigger in the meeting for you to physically stand and stretch your legs. Sitting and retaining focus for an hour is hard! Attention is like custard: if it sits too long a skin forms over it trapping the delicious stuff. Standing up cleans the film from your focus and improves your physical wellbeing — double win!
Three – Keep going if you’re in flow
Last year when I had started to struggle with my tomato cycles, part of it was frustration at the breaks. I didn’t want to stop working but felt I had to if wishing to use the tool correctly. Taking a break meant disrupting my flow, breaking focus, the exact opposite of what I was trying to achieve!
In short, the breaks are optional. If you’ve hit a good groove, you can keep going, start a new 25-minute cycle and retain flow.
I’ll pause here to call out the primary tool I use Marinara: Pomodoro® Assistant, by Chris Schmich. It’s a chrome extension that allows for easy starting, pausing, and restarting of tomatoes; and additionally tracks your cycle history.
Four – Tell others about it
Building allies is massively useful.
I used to get frustrated when a colleague would come to ask me for something. Not frustrated because they wanted help, but because they asked when I was 17-minutes into a cycle.
One day I wrote about my use of the tool in our team Slack and spoke with a few colleagues about it. We’re a supportive bunch, and we like to experiment with new tools. Letting others know what I was doing meant they considered when to speak with me. One colleague even started with “you’re not in the middle of a cycle, are you?”
Sharing my method of working has given me the authority to respectfully say “Of course I can help, can you hold on 10-minutes? I’ll get to a good stopping point.” It allows for smoother context switches.
It creates accountability partners too, my colleagues and I are now better at seeing when we’re concentrating. We’re more likely to reflect on our ask to determine if it’s high enough priority to cause disruption. If it’s not worth it, we’ll wait until later or ask someone else. Communication of good work practice elevates the whole team.
Five – Get away from your desk
For me, sitting at my desk all day is draining. If I don’t get up now and then, by mid-afternoon lethargy takes hold.
When that 5-minute break comes around, if you’re not rooted in a flow state, get away from your desk.
Getting the blood flowing to the rest of your body and changing your scenery is good to keep the day fresh, even if just for a few minutes. It’s an opportunity to reflect on work you’re doing without looking directly at it.
The 5-minute short break is an excellent trigger to get up. It’s the right amount of time to make a cup of tea, stare out of a window, and let the mind rest. Get away from your desk, let your eyes rest from focussing on screens, and reflect a little.
Do remember, it’s 5-minutes, it’s not a lot of time.
Developing focus is a skill that needs work. Unless you’re a born natural, focus requires evaluation and frequent adjustment.
Tools do help, but they need to be the right one for the job, and you need to know how to use it. I wasn’t using Pomodoro properly, at least not for how my brain works.
These five lessons have helped increase my productivity, elevate the quality of my work, and contributed to increased job satisfaction. I hope they help you too.