Over the years I’ve tried many different productivity systems—I am a sucker for them just as I’m a sucker for any piece of software that promises to increase the number of words I get done daily. Recently I have been experimenting with the Pomodoro Technique. This was originally developed by Francisco Cirillo back in the 1980’s and is essentially very simple.
The basic idea behind the method is that you productivity increases if you include small breaks between your work sessions. These should be interspersed with longer breaks whenever you have done a certain number of sessions.
The basic unit of work in this system is the pomodoro. (Yes, that is Italian for tomato—the system takes its name from the mechanical kitchen timer that its creator originally used to measure is work time.) In my case a pomodoro is 25 minutes. Each pomodoro is separated by a five-minute break. Once I have done a complete set of four pomodoros, I take a 25 minute break and then I repeat the process throughout the working day. During each break, you step away from the task and go and do something else—make a tea, do some stretching exercises, chat, whatever, as long as you break from the task you were doing.
Basically all you need is a notebook, a pen and a timer of some sort. I find the stopwatch on my Android phone does very well but I have also invested in Tomato Timer for my MacBook. At the start of each day, I spend some time planning, estimating roughly how long I think each task I intend to do that they will take me. I write this down and allocate a number of pomodoros to each task. If I think that a task will take me less time than one pomodoro, I can allocate a group of such tasks to a single pomodoro. For example if I know that writing a couple of emails will take me roughly 10 minutes, I will do that and some planning and then maybe write for the remainder of that pomodoro.
At the end of each pomodoro I take a few moments to write down what I achieved in the notebook.
I know, I know—it just sounds ludicrously simple doesn’t it? That’s one of the reasons it works. I find it very easy to work in 25 minute segments. I used to work in units of one hour but my repetitive strain injuries would flare up so I switched to working in units of half an hour. I’ve always been pretty good at maintaining concentration over that period.
My problem was that once the period was over I would take what I thought was a short break. Inevitably the short break would turn into half an hour or an hour of surfing the web or responding to emails or basically just frittering away my time in some other way.
The Pomodoro Technique gives me a structure that avoids that. It allows me to have a definite break at the end of each work period but it also lets me know that I should be returning to work within the next five minutes. The slacker in me is reassured by the fact that I will be getting a full 25 minute break at the end of the two hour period. This means that I feel that I am not being too imposed upon by my system.
I think having a basic structure and keeping to it is central to using this system. But that’s not all there is to it. The devil is in the detail with all these sort of systems and here are some more details. A pomodoro is treated as an indivisible unit of time. If you’re interrupted for more than a very short time then you need to reset your timer and begin your pomodoro all over again. But what if I have to take an urgent phone call 24 minutes into my pomodoro you’re thinking—well that’s too bad! You can either choose to answer your phone or you can reset the timer.
Or, alternatively and more sensibly, you can choose to respond to the phone call and tell the person calling you that you are in the middle of something and will get back to them soon. The system allows you to do that but very little more than that. When you are doing something during the course of a pomodoro then you should be really doing it. You need to train yourself to ignore such distractions and set aside some time to deal with them later either during one of your breaks or in a pomodoro would you have scheduled specifically for dealing with these things.
I think the Pomodoro Technique works in part because it forces you to focus on exactly what you are doing at the time you are doing it. It also tends to focus your attention on exactly what you can do within that 25 minute period. I don’t stop and daydream about what I am going to be doing in half an hour’s time—I keep my mind focused on the writing that I am doing at the time. I don’t need to worry about problems that might arise later in the book I’m currently working on. I just need to keep focused on writing one word after another and then one sentence after another and then one paragraph after another.
When it comes to editing, I have found that the Pomodoro Technique has certain advantages as well and I strongly suspect that these advantages are only going to become more obvious the more I use the system.
Because one pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time, you can actually measure what you have done in one pomodoro against what you have done in another. For example, I have always suspected that when I am editing I do so at roughly 6 times the speed that I write first draft prose. I have found that my editing speed actually varies considerably depending on the density of editing required. If I am basically just checking spelling and the sense of sentences and making a few late corrections, I can edit up to 7000 words in a pomodoro. This becomes considerably slower when heavier rewrites are required. Because I log what happens in each pomodoro I have some idea of how long each process takes me. Believe me, when you’re writing a book this can prove invaluable.
The Pomodoro Technique naturally generates a good deal of information about how productive you are at various times and when doing various things. When you check your records, you’ll have a very good idea about how long it took you to complete the process. The utility of this information will only increase over time as you gather more of it.
Also on record as a number of pomodoros you estimated that each task would take at the start of the day, compared to the number of pomodoros the task actually took. This means that you have a tool available that should, hopefully, over time allow you to become more accurate in your assessment of exactly how long a given task is going to take you. The Pomodoro Technique is one of those systems that helps you to become more productive the longer you use it.