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The Power of Pomodoros

47 Post author: elharo 14 May 2013 10:36AM

Until recently, I hadn't paid much attention to Pomodoro, though I've heard of it for a few years now. "Uncle Bob" Martin seemed to like it, and he's usually worth paying attention to in such matters. However, it mostly seemed to me like a way of organizing a variety of tasks and avoiding procrastination, and I've never had much trouble with that.

However after the January CFAR workshop suggested it in passing, I decided to give it a try; and I realized I had it all wrong. Pomodoros aren't (for me) a means of avoiding procrastination or dividing time among projects. They're a way of blasting through Ugh fields.

The Pomodoro technique is really simple compared to more involved systems like Getting Things Done (GTD). Here it is:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  2. Work on one thing for that 25 minutes, nothing else. No email, no phone calls, no snack breaks, no Twitter, no IM, etc.
  3. Take a five minute break
  4. Pick a new project, or the same project, if you prefer.
  5. Repeat

That's pretty much it. You can buy a book or a special timer for this; but there's really nothing else to it. It takes longer to explain the name than the technique. (When Francesco Cirillo invented this technique in the 1980s, he was using an Italian kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato.)

I got interested in Pomodoro when I realized I could use it to clean my office/desk/apartment. David Allen's GTD system appealed to me, but I could never maintain it, and the 2+ days it needed to get all the way to a clean desk was always a big hurdle to vault. However, spending 25 minutes at a time, followed by a break and another project seemed a lot more manageable.

I tried it, and it worked. My desk stack quickly shrunk, not to empty, but at least to a place where an accidental elbow swing no longer launched avalanches of paper onto the floor as I typed.

So I decided to try Pomodoro on my upcoming book. The publisher was using a new authoring system and template that I was unfamiliar with. There were a dozen little details to figure out about the new system--how to check out files in git, how to create a section break, whether to use hard or soft wrapping, etc.--and I just worked through them one by one. 25 minutes later I'd knocked them all out, and was familiar enough with the new system to begin writing in earnest. I didn't know everything about the software, but I knew enough that it was no longer averting. Next I used 25 minutes on a chapter that was challenging me, and Pomodoro got me to the point where I was in the flow.

That's when I realized that Pomodoro is not a system for organizing time or avoiding procrastination (at least not for me). What it is, is an incredibly effective way to break through tasks that look too hard: code you're not familiar with, an office that's too cluttered, a chapter you don't know how to begin.

The key is that a Pomodoro forces you to focus on the unfamiliar, difficult, aversive task for 25 minutes. 25 minutes of focused attention without distractions from other, easier tasks is enough to figure out many complex situations or at least get far enough along that the next step is obvious.

Here's another example. I had a task to design a GWT widget and plug it into an existing application, and I have never done any work with GWT. Every time I looked at the frontend application code, it seemed like a big mess of confused, convoluted, dependency injected, late bound, spooky-action-at-a-distance spaghetti. Now doubtless there wasn't anything fundamentally more difficult about this code than the server side code I have been writing; and if my career had taken just a slightly different path over the last six years, frontend GWT code might be my bread and butter. But my career didn't take that path, and this code was a big Ugh field for me. So I set the Pomodoro timer on my smartphone and started working. Did I finish? No, but I got started, made progress, and proved to myself that GWT wasn't all that challenging after all. The widget is still difficult enough and GWT complex enough that I may need several more Pomodoros to finish the job, but I did get way further and learn more in 25 minutes of intense focus than I would have done in a day or even a week without it.

I don't use the Pomodoro technique exclusively. Once I get going on a project or a chapter, I don't need the help; and five minute breaks once I'm in the flow just distract me. So some days I just do 1 or 2 or 0 Pomodoros, whatever it takes to get me rolling again and past the blocker.

I also don't know if this works for genuinely difficult problems. For instance, I don't know if it will help with a difficult mathematical proof I've been struggling with for months (though I intend to find out). But for subjects that I know I can do, but can't quite figure out how to do, or where to start, the power of focusing 25 minutes of real attention on just that one problem is astonishing.

Comments (44)

Comment author: gokfar 17 February 2013 02:26:38PM *  14 points [-]

What you do during the break matters a lot. It should be rewarding and energizing or relaxing. Which reminds me, I'm on a break and shouldn't be visiting LW.

Anyway, I've had success reducing an Ugh Field (around studying) by celebrating like a madman when the timer ended and then doing a few dishes (which I usually abhor, but is both relaxing and rewarding as a break). Once the Ughly Beast was down on its knees, I was able to abandon the timer and go over 25 minutes and I have been kicking its ass ever since.

Some suggestions for break activities:

  • dancing, jumping, throwing air punches
  • playing with a musical instrument
  • scribbling on a piece of paper
  • small housekeeping tasks

Avoid:

  • browsing, esp. reddit
  • anything that can't be interrupted instantly e.g. reading or watching a video
  • anything that may cause an interruption later on or will occupy your mind e.g. beginning to cook
  • reddit

If the mere thought of a task is painful, you need preliminary taming of the Ugh field before considering pomodoro. But as always, beware of other-optimizing.

Comment author: pinyaka 19 February 2013 01:43:10AM *  6 points [-]

For reddit, I use leechblock with reddit.com on the blacklist but reddit.com/r on the whitelist. That way I can still check individual subreddits if they're relevant to something, but can't just constantly refresh the homepage and kill my day.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 17 February 2013 12:02:12PM *  35 points [-]

In a truly perverted twist, I now start doing things I'm supposed to as a means of avoiding setting a pomodoro.

Comment author: gwern 17 February 2013 07:56:43PM 15 points [-]
Comment author: buybuydandavis 18 February 2013 06:45:16AM 14 points [-]

How do you identify which PhD candidate who is closest to his defense?

See who has the cleanest toilet.

Comment author: niceguyanon 19 February 2013 09:54:20PM 0 points [-]

I just purchased this book after reading the link and I find it enjoyable to read. I was supposed to be doing something else important.

Comment author: gwern 19 February 2013 10:43:19PM 0 points [-]

Your revealed preferences say otherwise!

Comment author: fubarobfusco 17 February 2013 06:47:28PM 20 points [-]
Comment author: Risto_Saarelma 17 February 2013 04:26:09PM *  7 points [-]

I've been doing a 30 minute cycle that's fixed to the wall clock, the breaks always starts at **:00 and **:30. I have vague notions about training my brain to follow some sort of attention cycle with the fixed timepoints.

It's not possible for me to browse the web for five minutes and then stop, so I just generally stand up, stretch, and go get some water for the break. The half-hour breaks do double duty as ergonomic stretching reminders.

I've known about the Pomodoro technique for some years, but haven't found it consistently awesome. When my productivity was sufficiently bad, the tasks I procrastinated on felt too unpleasant to spend even the 25 minutes on. When productivity is good, I tend to just power through things and ignore the breaks. Enforcing the breaks might serve to sustain long-term performance during a good productivity run.

Someone on Hacker News had the interesting idea that working in 25 minute chunks with breaks in between could serve as training for entering flow quickly and on demand, since you can't futz around setting the mood for 40 minutes before getting into the actual work.

Comment author: David_Gerard 17 February 2013 09:49:25PM 3 points [-]

Someone on Hacker News had the interesting idea that working in 25 minute chunks with breaks in between could serve as training for entering flow quickly and on demand, since you can't futz around setting the mood for 40 minutes before getting into the actual work.

Yes, this is something I was wondering about. Has anyone else relevant experience re: Pomodoro and getting into flow?

Comment author: gwern 17 February 2013 05:05:17PM 26 points [-]

However after the January CFAR workshop suggested it in passing, I decided to give it a try; and I realized I had it all wrong.

So in other words, you've been using it for less than 2 months and are still in your honey moon period.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 20 February 2013 01:02:24AM *  4 points [-]

If "honey moon periods" happen, what's the best way to explain them? Is it a mean-time-to-failure type thing, where during any time interval of a certain length, there's a certain chance that something will break and the technique will stop working? Is it an attentional control thing, where techniques that you've used for a while, you pay less attention to, and the lack of attention paid leads to them no longer working? (See also.) Diminishing enthusiasm? Some other thing?

One pattern I think I might have noticed: sometimes when I stop using a technique for a while, or become less careful/rigorous in my usage, I continue to have an easy time doing whatever it enabled me to do for a few days afterwards. Maybe if it weren't for this deceptive "coasting" period, I would stick with techniques that seem to work more carefully.

Comment author: gwern 20 February 2013 02:16:37AM 14 points [-]

I think asking "what's the best way" is assuming it's just one thing. I see no reason it can't be the combination of a whole laundry list of things, just like "placebo effect" can be multiple things:

  1. motivational effect ("I have an awesome new strategy! THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING")
  2. regression to the mean ("I had an awful period, cast about for a new strategy, and simultaneously, things seem to be getting better! And of course correlation=causation")
  3. survivorship bias (if 10 people start a useless thing simultaneously, after a few weeks a good chunk of them probably still think it's working; a few months later, there will be many fewer survivors...)
  4. wishful thinking ("I had a bad few days - but they were exceptions and have a perfectly reasonable explanation X, Y, and Z, so I still have faith in this thing.")
  5. time delay before meta-akrasia kicks in ("That part of me hasn't figured out the right excuses and tactics to defeat the new system, so it's working - temporarily.")

I'm sure you could suggest some more.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 23 March 2013 06:13:34AM *  0 points [-]

It seems some of your ideas basically amount to "no techniques really work, and people only think they work because of random variation and measurement error and stuff". Not sure how plausible this is.

Comment author: gwern 23 March 2013 03:43:26PM 5 points [-]

It seems some of your ideas basically amount to "no techniques really work, and people only think they work because of random variation and measurement error and stuff". Not sure how plausible this is.

Currently, it's pretty darn plausible.

Comment author: moridinamael 22 February 2013 05:54:48AM 4 points [-]

When I started using Pomodoros, I quickly got the sense that I had never before actually understood what it meant to focus. For example, I learned that I don't actually focus on the task at hand when I'm listening to music. When my "honeymoon period" ended, I had learned what focusing felt like, and learned to turn "focus" on and off without the need of the timer.

So it may just be that Pomodoros serve a transient purpose - they are a process you go through, not a tool you keep using. At least this is how it feels for me.

Comment author: Mimosa 22 February 2013 09:25:48PM 1 point [-]

I can't focus with music on at all. I'm not sure if that's common or not. I know plenty of people who watch tv/listen to music while working, and they're fine.

Comment author: [deleted] 18 February 2013 01:14:58PM 1 point [-]

It took me much less than that from when I independently reinvented the technique to when I realized it worked.

Comment author: GDC3 15 May 2013 07:37:49AM 5 points [-]

I feel like this comes close to the definite proof that I should stop paying attention to articles about procrastination on less wrong, because you are all talking about a completely different problem than I have. (Plausible because I'm definitely neurologically weird.)

But just in case: can somebody explain to me how this isn't completely circular? If I knew how to implement the instruction "Work on one thing for that 25 minutes, nothing else." as an atomic action, I wouldn't have a procrastination problem. I notice that I'm confused and I'm not sure that I know what the word "procrastination" commonly refers to anymore.

Comment author: stillyslalom 16 May 2013 11:01:28PM 2 points [-]

For me, pomodoros help to overcome the initial feeling of "This task is too nebulous-what am I even doing?", or "A few more minutes of browsing won't matter". The technique seems to lower my activation energy by providing a visible short-term goal, along with positive reinforcement when the timer rings. I've been forcing the issue by making a Beeminder goal for daily Pomodoros, with a $5 sword hanging over my head should I fail.

Comment author: GDC3 19 May 2013 08:43:44AM *  1 point [-]

Interesting. I'm familiar with the "This taks is too nebulous-what am I even doing?" but it isn't a source of procrastination for me exactly. Usually it's a cause of spending well over 25 minutes stuck in thought loops trying to figure out what to do, and what I actually need to do is talk it through with somebody or at least think out loud.

"A few minutes of browsing won't matter" matches procrastination for me, but even your short comment suggests a different context for the quoted phrase than I experience. For me "A few minutes of browsing won't matter," isn't part of the problem, it's a symptom of it, or even an instinctive attempt to solve it. You are implying that thinking such things causes you to browse instead of starting the task. For me I say that in order to guilt myself into not starting a longer-more immersive fun activity, thus giving up on the task.

For me procrastination consists of cycles of (look at website-try to start task-attempt fails-stare at nothing until boredom requires me to seek a stimulus-seek stimulus in something like browsing where the attention chunks are smaller so I'll be able to try again sooner-look at website...)

Is this not the usual phenomenon? To clarify "attempt fails", what failing looks like is this, my mind seeks to give the command to do the first step of the task, but afterward I notice my muscles have not moved.

Comment author: Morendil 17 February 2013 05:19:13PM 5 points [-]

proved to myself that GWT wasn't all that challenging

Beware Stockhom syndrome, now. In such matters, trusting your first impression isn't always wrong.

Comment author: shminux 17 February 2013 07:30:26PM 9 points [-]

I stopped using Pomodoro after a couple of months because I came to hate the structure. I am now again less productive but happier.

Comment author: diegocaleiro 19 February 2013 07:50:59PM *  2 points [-]

Every now and then my "getting things done" mechanism fades away gradually. Then while doing something I shouldn't (such as reading this post) I get a signal telling me "hey, go back to pomodoros". I go back, productive again. And after a while it fades away again.

Seems like to people like me, the best solution is to set random dates in our electronic calendars (cellphone for instance), far ahead in the future, with strong reminders that we shuould be using *productivity thing of your choice here"... so we don't need charitable people like Elharo to tell us what we should have been doing :)

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 19 February 2013 07:58:52PM *  3 points [-]

I was worried this would happen to me, so I started Beemindering my RTM tasks (and also pinning both an RTM tab and a Beeminder tab in Chrome). I have $5 riding on completing an average of 6 tasks a day. (You might object that this incentivizes me to break up my tasks into smaller tasks, which it totally does, and that is great.)

Comment author: Rubix 09 March 2013 07:19:44AM 5 points [-]

The top item in my to-do list reads: "If confused, make list! If confusion persists, make lists for lists!"

Point being, I think taskifying in order to avoid counting difficult, unpleasant tasks as one item is useful because it better mirrors reality. For (very ground-level) instance, eating enough meals in a day is hard for me to do consistently because "eat a meal" has a ton of steps: decide what to eat, find ingredients, assemble, and so on. So if I lie to myself and say it's only one step, I feel bad about being so stupid for having trouble with Just One Step, and subsequently don't do anything because I'm in an Ugh Field. If I acknowledge that if I am having trouble accomplishing something, that means it has multiple steps... well, I still do less than my fictional idealized self would do, but I still do more than otherwise.

I find that a lot of my friends have trouble grokking this because the rationalist/perfectionist ideacluster is heavily grouped. For some reason it's hard to think about what a perfect rational agent would do without, at least somewhat and unconsciously, comparing oneself to that agent.

Comment author: [deleted] 19 February 2013 11:44:50PM 1 point [-]

And after a while it fades away again.

How long is "a while"? Hours? Weeks?

Comment author: diegocaleiro 20 February 2013 08:01:54AM 1 point [-]

Weeks or Months, depending on so many factors it is not worth noting.

Comment author: ancientcampus 18 February 2013 06:05:50PM *  2 points [-]

My data point: Tentative "+1" for Pomodoro.

I use Pomodoro, but I don't take breaks (I have a lot of trouble returning to work if I do) - I use the 5 minutes to handle email, etc. The main advantage is it keeps me aware of the passage of time, and helps me pace myself. I am a student who spends most hours of my day studying lecture notes.

I've seen Pomodoro brought up a number of times. Should we put together a survey to tally how many have tried it, and how many have benefited?

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 18 February 2013 06:28:35AM 2 points [-]

One huge benefit I've found from doing pomodoros even when there are no ugh fields and when I'm sufficiently motivated is that it forces me to stop and take stock of what I'm doing. I'll suddenly notice that I'm hungry, or that I have to go to the bathroom, or that pandora stopped, etc. All of these seemingly minor things often have a huge effect on my productivity. In addition, during the break I occasionally realize that the approach I'm taking to a given problem is all wrong. Breaks allow me to catch these mistakes often hours earlier than otherwise.

Comment author: jsteinhardt 17 February 2013 05:13:44PM 2 points [-]

For math proofs I find 45 minutes works better than 25, and I usually need some time before starting to get mentally prepared, but the principle at least works.

Comment author: Matt_Simpson 18 February 2013 06:21:49AM 1 point [-]

Agree. When I'm doing math I routinely do two 25 minute blocks before I take a break. Same for programming, often.

Comment author: cadac 17 February 2013 01:12:56PM 2 points [-]

GTD and the Pomodoro technique have different aims, I think, and are not mutually exclusive – you could use GTD for keeping track of what to do when, and Pomodoros for actually doing (some) tasks.

Many people also write down the task they want to do next, and put a checkmark next to it after they successfully finished the task. This might be important because it helps to build a chain of successes: http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret

Comment author: elharo 17 February 2013 02:38:33PM 1 point [-]

Yes, I do in fact use GTD for keeping track of my TODO list and calendar. The part of GTD that I had trouble with, though, was the paper organizing part. I could never manage to keep all my papers properly filed as they came in, nor could I manage to work my way down to a clean desk as Allen recommends. That's where Pomodoro really helped me. 25 minutes at a time, once a day, is enough to keep the stack under control.

Comment author: kilobug 19 February 2013 12:41:25PM 3 points [-]

Interesting, but that doesn't solve one of the main problem I tend to have at work : handling waiting delays. Things like compiling, running tests, restarting an heavy application stack, waiting for workmate answer in an IRC/IM channel, ... that can take a few minutes.

I tend to do "other stuff" (either work related or non-work related) while those delays are running (reading email, checking websites, ...), to avoid wasting the time (and because waiting without doing anything is something I loath). But of course, I start reading email to fill a 1 minute gap, and end up reading/replying email for 5 minutes. And then I check LW to fill a 2 minutes gap, and end up writing a comment for 10 minutes.

So I'm not fully happy with my actual way of doing, but I fear using a method like Pomodoro will be less efficient (because of the wasted "waiting times") and much more frustrating (because not doing anything is really frustrating to me). Anyone has feedback or ideas on how to handle them ?

Comment author: JayDee 20 February 2013 10:52:20AM 3 points [-]

You could try recursion. Call the function SetPomodoro(task, time) from within a Pomodoro, if that is needed.

When you get to a point where you have to wait for a response (from the tests, or the compiler, or IRC) set a new timer and start a new sub-Pomodoro. 25 minutes might not be the appropriate time frame, but estimate how long you have to wait and set a timer for that long. Until this second timer goes off you can check emails or do "other stuff" and be confident you are spending your time wisely.

The idea is to minimize the time spent choosing what to do, or worrying about what you are doing. Decide, set the timer, get stuck in. Use your own judgement to determine what timeframes and levels of recusion are appropriate to your workflow.

Comment author: lukstafi 14 May 2013 03:45:08PM 0 points [-]

Personally I log work but without imposing minimal time spans. In cases like these I log out or switch tasks, unless I continue thinking about the project. I use Emacs' org-mode. You can switch tasks without resetting the clock. Recursive pomodoros sound like an overkill and don't make sense if the point of chunking time is to adjust to natural "concentrated effort cycle" of a person.

Comment author: bramflakes 14 May 2013 11:59:46AM 1 point [-]

After reading an earlier LW post on Pomodoro I downloaded the "Pomodroido" app for my phone a few days ago. I'll have to wait a few months using it to see whether it helps over my previous method (or lack thereof). So far I seem to be adjusting well to it - the standard 25/5 schedule suits me nicely.

Comment author: phoenixreborn 17 February 2013 02:21:05PM 1 point [-]

When, pray tell, am I supposed to catch up on my correspondence?

Comment author: dbaupp 17 February 2013 05:28:20PM 1 point [-]

In the break, or as a 25 minute project ("reply to/categorise all new emails").

Comment author: David_Gerard 17 February 2013 09:50:13PM 0 points [-]

Definitely a technique suitable for Inbox Zero.

Comment author: John_D 17 May 2013 12:53:14AM *  0 points [-]

I can imagine some abusing this technique for things that add little value to their lives but many feel have to get done, such as dusting their fan blades or making their office as neat (as opposed to efficient) as possible. Also, people who are already lazy may choose simpler tasks when applying this technique, as opposed to mentally draining tasks such as studying or improving set skills. Perhaps their should be an addendum to prioritizing goals that provide value (monetary, personal growth, etc.) within the 25 minute mark.

Comment author: Tenoke 15 May 2013 07:28:28AM 0 points [-]

Downvoted because this post brings pretty much no new information on a technique that has been discussed many times (including in really recent posts). Bad use of Main in my opinion.

Comment author: Tenoke 15 May 2013 07:42:01AM 4 points [-]

Hm, it seems that this is actually an old Discussion post that was moved to Main which changed the timestamps? If this is what happened it might be reasonable to add a disclaimer within the post.