In this post I’ll share a popular productivity hack that I have greatly benefited from called the Pomodoro technique. I started off using this tool for managing my time more effectively as a software engineer, but I have been able to incorporate it into other areas of my life to increase the number of tasks I’m able to get done in a shorter period of time. It can also be a great way to plan and organize your week, as well as improve your estimations of how long projects will take to complete. It shines exceptionally well when working remotely where communication tasks like email and Slack can be batched in chunks twice per hour and physical disruptions are minimum.
What Is the Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro technique looks something like this: work distraction free on a singular task for 25 minutes, then take a short five minute break. This counts as one Pomodoro. After four Pomodoros are completed, take a longer 20 minute break. Repeat this cycle for as many iterations as you can in the work day. During the breaks, do whatever you like - browse your favorite website, use the restroom, brew some coffee, etc. The key is that when you are working on a task, you are solely focused on completing it and save any interruptions for your planned breaks.
It may seem odd at first to take a five minute break twice per hour, but it’s highly likely you are already wasting significantly more time without realizing it. Breaks punctuate tasks and allow your mind to reset before focusing on something new. By using constraints to your advantage, habitual tasks like checking email or Slack, browsing Reddit, or just getting up and walking around are limited to a fixed set of time.
Traditonally a physical kitchen timer is used to track the 25/5/20 minute intervals, but setting one on your phone or using one of the many popular apps or websites work just as well (I personally recommend Tomato Timer). If a task is completed before the timer goes off, you can either use the remaining time to start on the next task or improve on your work in some way. This could come in the form of documentation, testing, or just mentally reviewing what was done.
Why Does It Work?
Think about the conditions under which you complete your best work. Chances are it’s when you have few distractions, your tasks are clearly defined, and you have momentum carrying you through difficult problems and procrastination. The Pomodoro technique provides a framework for eliminating these hurdles to accomplish more.
When coding, a software engineer performs her best while “in the zone”. This hyperfocused state of furious keyboard pecking and light perspiration produces terrific results, but requires absolute concentration. Being interrupted by responding to a notification or Slack message requires a context switch that consumes time and energy to get into deep focus again. Obviously you can’t ignore urgent situations, but most communication can be batched and addressed at most every 25 minutes.
Clearly Defined Tasks
In order for tasks to be broken down into 25 minute chunks, the task has to be clearly defined with a clear success state. If you have been given a large project that doesn’t have many requirements, a good first Pomodoro is to clarify and research what actually needs to be accomplished. From there, do your best to estimate and divide the work for Pomodoros. You may be off at first, but over time you will be able to be more realistic about what can be accomplished in a single Pomodoro, and eventually scale your estimation skills out to the day and week.
Parkinson’s law that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” explains why the 25 minute work window is so effective. If we give ourselves a day to complete a poorly defined monolithic task, we might finish it tomorrow. However, if you analyze and break a problem into its smallest workable parts, your plan of attack will be much more successful.
Checking items off a list feels good. If you’re having trouble getting started or feel overwhelmed, completing some low hanging fruit will get your mind moving in the right direction. Progress snowballs quickly with quick wins, and with two tasks being completed an hour, the feeling of forward movement will propel you into action quickly.
If you want to get more done, I highly recommend at least giving the Pomodoro technique a try. For one week, plan the tasks you wish to accomplish each day and iterate through Pomodoros. You will be surprised what you can complete by adding some simple structure to your workflow, breaking down tasks into clearly defined components, and limiting distractions.