One finger

Focus on just one thing for a 25 minute interval.

Over the years, I have experimented and tweaked how I manage the laundry list of activities that I want or have to get done. At some point along the way, I learned that the more activities I had in progress the fewer that actually got done. Lean practitioners understand the need to limit work-in-progress in order to get work done effectively. Techniques such as Kanban are often used, in part to control work-in-progress for manufacturing and software development processes. I have recently begun experimenting with Pomodoro as an adjunct to my personal productivity pallet. Pomodoro is a technique that is useful for attacking the productivity killers: procrastination and multitasking. The technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s that combines strategies of fixed blocks of time, cadence and focus which limit work-in-progress to get work done.

The basic Pomodoro process is fairly simple and straightforward:

  1. Decide on the task or batch of tasks to be done
  2. Set a timer to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the timer goes off
  4. Take 5-minute break
  5. Repeat for four pomodoros then take a 20-minute break
  6. Repeat until the end of the day

As I have implemented the Pomodoro Technique, I have had to surmount a few hurdles.

The first hurdle in my use of the technique is deciding on a task or a batch or related tasks to be done. I leverage a Kanban approach to my backlog of work; segregating work, podcast/blog, and personal activities into different to-do lists. Each of these lists is prioritized. In my case, the first two or three pomodoros each day are focused on podcast and blog activities (a run and breakfast are layered into the time also – I get up early). Once the work day starts I shift to the work backlog selecting tasks in their prioritized order. The backlog has to be groomed and prioritized. Grooming in this case typically means either breaking work down into manageable chunks or putting related small pieces of work together so that it can fit into a Pomodoro. Unlike an Agile sprint, work does not need to be completed during a pomodoro.

The second hurdle I have had to wrestle with revolves around working on a task for 25 minutes without being distracted. This is where turning off email, shutting down chat windows, putting the phone in do-not-disturb mode and putting headphones on are important tactics. There are tools to cut you off from specific internet sites (typically social media), however I do not feel the need to use tools. Distractions siphon off time and focus and, therefore, are to be avoided if at all possible. Depending on your work environment this step can be nearly impossible. For example, just try cutting yourself off from distractions in an airport waiting area. Overall the 25-minute structure is a bit arbitrary. I have experimented with longer pomodoros (generally I lose focus after 30 minutes) and shorter (useful for some tasks that are very intense and less useful for tasks like writing). I am considering trying longer pomodoros in the morning and shorter in the afternoon when I know my attention span tends to wane.

The short break after every pomodoro is useful to take care of basic human needs and to select the next task. I have found it very useful to get up and move around a bit during the break. When I am working from home I generally play a bit with my dog during the longer break. Breaks generally represent two hurdles. The first is taking the break. I have had to train myself to stop when the timer on my phone goes off. Stopping is difficult if you are on a roll; however, I have found that taking a break generally provides more value than pressing on for any length of time. The second is not getting side tracked, during the breaks. I have found that the siren call of email can’t be resisted, perhaps is the fear of being overwhelmed when I final check email. Email, unfortunately, is a lot like potato chips (crisps for our UK readers), you can eat or read just one. Suddenly an hour is gone and while the email stack might be smaller the work someone expects to be delivered isn’t more complete. I have dealt this problem by assigning two pomordos to email during the day.

The Pomodoro Technique has been a great addition to my bag of tricks that I use to manage my time AND attention. Pomodoro is not a silver bullet and it does not work for all scenarios. Here we explore scenarios where the technique does not work and steps I have taken to hybridize the technique to fit my particular work environment.