Increase your productivity with the Pomodoro technique

It’s easy to get into the infinite loop of procrastination when the project at hand is not too exciting (writing a paper with meh results, a grant, etc.). I’ve been happily experimenting with the Pomodoro technique and it’s been working great.

It’s free to implement* and incredibly simple. You get a 25 minute timer (I’m using Pomodroid on my smart phone). Once you start the timer, you can’t do anything else but do real work. No email, texting, Facebook, bathroom breaks, fetching water, talking to coworkers, blogging (eheh), etc. You do real work. Then once the 25-minute period (a Pomodoro) is done, you can take a 5 minute break and start another.

When you start a Pomodoro you may have the urge after, say, 10 minutes, to check your phone or something. Whenever that happens, you just monitor the thought and let it pass. Kind of like meditation. If the thought lingers, you can write it down on a piece of paper. It’s only 25 minutes, after all, so what’s the worst that could happen that can’t wait that long?

I also implemented a rule about multitasking during a Pomodoro**. Only one work thread per Pomodoro (unless a thread is finished). So if I start a Matlab script that takes, say, 2 minutes to complete, I might normally go into Google Reader and check my favorite blogs. But once you’re in a Pomodoro, you can’t. You just watch the script do its thing and wait.

You can think about anything related to the current work you’re doing. You can write down the next step of the analysis. You can start programming the next piece of analysis. But you can’t do anything not directly related to the stuff that you’re doing. That includes doing something nominally productive like reading papers or fixing the backup server, etc.

That accomplishes a few things:

  • Unitasking is less stressful and more productive than multitasking
  • It’s easier to get into the zone by focusing on one thing at a time – in my case, it usually takes only 1 or 2 Pomodoros at the start of the day to ramp up to fully productive
  • You work faster on a deadline
  • You work better without distractions
  • The fact that a Pomodoro is only 25 minutes means it only takes a little effort to complete it
  • Keeping track of your productive work hours can help you increase them – knowledge is power
  • Having (admitedly arbitrary) rules means you don’t have to take decisions. Taking decisions sap willpower. You need willpower to persevere in boring projects. Willpower is a well-studied psychological phenomenon – take a look at this layman’s intro in the NY Times magazine. Should I reply to this email now or later? Ah, I can’t. Problem solved.
  • The zone is good, but it can be a dangerous place. Ever spent an evening programming an analysis that was irrelevant but you just had to continue? The 25 minute limit will fix that.

Try it out for a few days and see if you like it.

* They sell books and seminars and stuff on the website, and the pro versions of timer apps might cost you a couple bucks. But it’s so simple you don’t need any of that stuff.

**There’s no specific thing in the Pomodoro technique, that I know of, that states you have to implement the unitasking rule. However, my suckitude at multitasking is legendary***. That’s one reason I will never have kids.

***That got me out of TAing Chris’ Computational Neuroscience class, so it’s a blessing and a curse


9 thoughts on “Increase your productivity with the Pomodoro technique

  1. @virens, @Joe Mudge: either side of the spectrum is bad. When you’re too concentrated you get stuck in the K-hole: you become very efficient at solving an irrelevant problem. On the other hand, when you’re not concentrated enough, then you get into ADHD mode. It’s even possible to have both problems at the same time: you ever been on a TV or wikipedia binge?

    Pomodoro tries to strike a balance between the two extremes, which is what I like about it. I focused on its ability to increase your concentration because that’s the problem I most recently experienced, but I’ve been at the over-concentrated end of the spectrum; some of the stuff on this blog is the result of me spending an inordinate amount of time solving a problem I didn’t have.

    1. So do you feel that overconcentration and inability to concentrate are equally frequent (or equally serious) problems faced by people in our society? (Sorry, I know I’m going off topic from your original post here, but I just find this is leading to an interesting place.)

      1. I think people tend to complain more about their inability to concentrate. The world that we inhabit is very stimulating; I mean, when’s the last time that you’ve been bored? David Foster Wallace tried to make that point in his last book, The Pale King, which he never finished. As written in this New Yorker article (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/03/09/090309fa_fact_max?currentPage=all):

        “From 1997 on, Wallace worked on a third novel, which he never finished—the “Long Thing,” as he referred to it with Michael Pietsch. His drafts, which his wife found in their garage after his death, amount to several hundred thousand words, and tell of a group of employees at an Internal Revenue Service center in Illinois, and how they deal with the tediousness of their work. The partial manuscript—which Little, Brown plans to publish next year—expands on the virtues of mindfulness and sustained concentration. Properly handled, boredom can be an antidote to our national dependence on entertainment, the book suggests.”

        Overconcentration is a (slightly maladaptive) way of dealing with overstimulation. “The zone”, or the state of flow, as it’s referred this in the psych literature, has been argued to be one element of happiness, independent of either hedonism or eudemonia (Peterson, Park & Seligma, 2005; also see this TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/mihaly_csikszentmihalyi_on_flow.html ). So if flow is inherently pleasing, then it’s natural to want to seek it. But if it’s very difficult to achieve, because it’s impossible to concentrate, then we’ll seek flow wherever it’s easiest to achieve. But things that allow us to achieve flow easily tend to be things that offer small, consistent, periodic rewards; videogames, gambling, TV, wikipedia link hopping, programming, etc.

  2. I use Pomodoro for about a year, and this year was the most productive one. I’m less tired at the end of the day, and can predict more accurately how much I can really do.

    I have small survey of programs for Pomodoro (Linux mostly) here (at the bottom).

    @Joe Mudge said:
    The fact that techniques like this are becoming popular (maybe even necessary for some?) speaks to the extent to which our brains are being re-wired by the constant distractions presented to us through internet access.

    Joe, I disagree. The Pomodoro technique is useful becasue it forces you to back off for a while and re-think of what are you actually doing. I can’t say how many times I’ve got that thought: “wait, Mike, you are doing something wrong”. I tend to plunge too deep and often found myself exhausted and stuck in a dead-end. Pomodoro helps me to prevent that.

    1. @virens: So you feel that people primarily use (or should use) the Pomodoro technique to keep from being ‘too focused’ rather than to keep from being ‘too distracted’? My guess would be that the main advantage of Pomodoro for most people is as a means to keep them more focused and on task than they would otherwise be without it. While being too engrossed in something is possible, and it can lead to dead-end thinking, the benefit that Pomodoro provides by giving us the opportunity to step-away, take a break, and then come back and refocus is by far a secondary benefit compared to the ability for it to keep us on a single train of thought for 25 minutes. The original post primarily focused on the utility of the Pomodoro technique for prevention of procrastination and distractions, and I think the author was right to focus on this. The internet provides a constant stream of potential distractions (e.g. this reply that I’m writing, and you’re reading). Most of us could use some help managing our time spent focusing on them.

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