Task management is the bane of my existence. I’m easily distracted by shiny objects, prone to flights of fancy, and generally unreliable about estimating the time required to complete a project. In this, I don’t think I’m much different from the average software developer; we tend to be overly-optimistic about how easy a job will be, forgetting how many blind alleys we wander down before finding the “easy” road to success.
The Pomodoro Technique (named after the whimsical tomato-shaped kitchen timer with which Francesco Cirillo perfected it) boils down to a very simple strategy:
- Make a list of the things you need to finish.
- Set your timer for 25 minutes and do one thing–only one thing, and only that thing–until the timer rings.
- Take a 5 minute break.
- After four of these 25-minute sessions (the unit is called a “pomodoro”), take a 15 minute break.
Simple, but surprisingly hard to do.
Multitasking has become the standard mode for most of us in this technologically-connected, ever-accelerating world. If we’re not doing two or more things at once, we feel like we’re not getting anything done. But a great deal of new research suggests that multitasking doesn’t really make us more productive; indeed, it can make us less productive.
Humans, it turns out, don’t run multi-core processors. We’re more like the old Windows 3.1 “multitasking” model: fast at switching between tasks, but really not capable of truly doing more than one thing at a time. As a result, the multiple things that we do suffer when we switch contexts, and we end up doing several things poorly instead of one thing well.
The Pomodoro Technique is explicitly anti-multitasking. During the “pomodoro” period, you just work on your task list: no checking e-mail, taking calls, surfing the web, talking to co-workers. It’s a heads-down, fully-focused sprint to the end of the task, with a much deserved rest at the end. And for someone who’s used to “busy-ness,” it’s exhausting.
My first few days trying the technique were frustrating and tiring. I felt the oppression of the ticking clock, the twitching desire to check my e-mail once or twice just in case, and an exhausted relief at the end of a session. But then I started to internalize the “pomodoro” time unit; I found myself adapting to the rhythm quite naturally, and the time allotted to a task seemed to expand into an ample amount. Indeed, I’ve begun to feel time slow down in a surprising way: if I glance at my timer now and see that I still have five minutes left, I know that I can still get quite a bit done.
The technique also helps me be a little smarter in how I do my job. Before, when I wasn’t letting the timer set my pace, I was prone to investigate many more blind alleys. I might end up losing an entire day to one bad decision, backing out hours of effort. But knowing that I have a limited amount of time in which to finish my task, I now opt for the simpler approach. Rather than re-architect a huge chunk of code, I’ll stop and think things through, and usually find that a simple, elegant, and easily-implemented solution is available.
That five-minute break at the end is just as important as the twenty-five minutes before. It’s the time to take care of the coffee cup and the restroom, to stretch and crack knuckles and read the news, but it’s also time to switch off the task-oriented part of the brain and let the unconscious burble up a bit. If a “pomodoro” ended in frustration, with a task unfinished and more tasks piling up, I’ll often find this five-minute break from the project lets me come back refreshed and more likely to see my way out.
The Pomodoro Technique works very well in some phases of software development, and is easily incorporated into Agile and other iterative methodologies. When I have a nice collection of features to implement with clear requirements, or when I’ve got a set of bugs that the testing team has sent my way, the Pomodoro Technique excels: my tasks are clearly defined, easy to organize, and I can put my head down and get to work. And I could imagine a development team adopting the technique very effectively (especially if they use a timer in meetings: meetings that end when the buzzer goes off! There’s a concept worth implementing … ).
I’m not sure, though, that it’s as easy to apply to every technology job. I’ve had positions in the past that were much more reactive, where my daily work was largely driven by incoming requests and messages from customers and co-workers. In a culture that insists on “urgency” as a core value, the Pomodoro Technique’s managing of interruptions and “protection” of the “pomodoro” could be problematic. Of course, there are more problems than just task management in a culture like that …
I’m also unsure that it is as easy to apply in the more nebulous “design” phases of a project. There’s a good deal of exploration, guess-work, and fiddling about that goes into discovering an architecture for a reasonably-sized application. When I’m developing something from scratch, with sketchy requirements and an unfamiliar environment, it’s difficult to identify the kinds of clear-cut tasks that the Pomodoro Technique demands. And fuzzy, indeterminate tasks are exactly the kind of thing that lead one down the rabbit hole of multitasking chaos.
The other trap that I find myself trying to avoid is biting off less than I can chew. Given the time constraints, and the focus on completing a task (or set of clearly-defined tasks) before moving on, I sometimes defer larger jobs that might span multiple “pomodoros.” I feel a bit like a member of a millenarian cult, unsure if I start darning my socks because the Lord might return while I’m in the middle of it.
All in all, though, I’ve found it to be a productive technique. By turning off the multitasking trap and setting boundaries around my work, I’ve managed to become far more productive in a few weeks than I would have expected. I only hope that no one notices and starts to expect it to continue …
I should note a few of the tools I’ve found useful in exploring the Pomodoro Technique:
- Task list worksheets (and a free download of the book) are available at the official Pomodoro Technique website; I use the paper worksheets and a pen rather than any fancy-schmancy technology, though there are quite a few programs based on the method (even an iPhone app or two if that’s your thing).
- A simple timer program, Egg Timer Plus 3.12, from Sardine Software. Though available in a free version, I recommend spending the $5 to get the license: I created three pre-set timers (25, 5, and 15 minutes), and set different sounds to go off at the end of each. It was about the same price as a real egg timer, and less likely to get lost.
- This whimsical introductory slideshare from Staffan Nöteberg makes the case for the technique, and offers a good thumbnail sketch of its methods.
All in all, a pretty cheap investment for some very good initial returns.
1I highly recommend the Martini Shot podcast to anyone who works in a technical or creative role. Mr. Long is a veteran sitcom writer who made his mark with “Cheers”; his brief spots are largely about the plight of Hollywood writers, which may seem a far cry from the life of the code monkey but is actually quite applicable. Sitcom writers get “notes,” we get bug reports; they have producers, we have project managers; they produce their work in lonely seclusion only to face the ignorant and capricious criticism of the suits in the corner office, and we … well, we do the same thing. Almost every week I find some little nugget of wisdom and insight that, if it doesn’t improve my work, at least gives me a wry and knowing chuckle.