Management Resource: The Pomodoro Technique

Sometimes it's the most basic things that help move us forward when we're stuck.  In my case, one of the tools I keep coming back to is ridiculously easy to implement, and it can make the difference on a day when I feel like I am too scattered to make any meaningful progress.  Fancy project management and task tracking tools have their place, but sometimes all you need is a kitchen timer and a modicum of self-discipline to get some serious momentum going.

What it is

The Pomodoro Technique is a fancy name for using a timer to help you focus on a single task for a short period of time followed by a break.  Each focus period plus break is referred to as a single pomodoro, and practitioners sometimes set goals for a certain number per day or per week (for example, Chris Winfield's 40 per week).

When to use it

This is a focus/productivity method you can use:

  • Any time you absolutely, positively have to complete a mentally-demanding task that day
  • When you're feeling overwhelmed by a large project and want to get started on it
  • On days when you just can't seem to focus

When not to use it

It's probably not worth trying this when:

  • You have to be available for immediate questions or requests
  • The task is ill-defined (although you could use a pomodoro to brainstorm details and get to better definition)

How it works

The idea behind the Pomodoro method is simple:

  1. Decide what task you want to focus on.  Make it specific and small - something you can realistically do in a short period of time.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Focus on your task, and only that task.  If other things pop up, either internally or externally, jot them down and then get back on task.
  4. When the timer goes off, take a five minute break.
  5. Repeat, if desired.  

Tips and variations

Even though this is really simple, there are a few keys to making it work:

  • Prepare by getting whatever you will need to be able to complete the task.  If you need information from e-mail or the web, get the information and then close those programs.  (For example, if you need to reply to a complicated e-mail, copy and paste it into a Word doc so that you aren't at risk of new e-mail notifications taking you off track.)
  • Close off ALL potential sources of distraction.  Shut your door if you can, turn your phone to silent, close your e-mail program, log out of chat, put a "do not disturb" sign on your door - whatever it takes.
  • Take the break even if you aren't at a good stopping point.  I have found that stopping mid-sentence actually makes it easier to get back into a groove when the break's over.
  • Take a real break, too.  Don't check e-mail or anything else on your computer if you can help it.  The best breaks involve walking around a bit, perhaps even going outside or at least looking out a window.  It will be easier to focus during your next pomodoro if you rejuvenate during your break.
  • Write down the specific task you're focusing on.  I do this even if the task is "process e-mail," because that reminds me what the core goal is and helps me to not get sidetracked.  It's also nice to have a list of pomodoros at the end of the day to see what I accomplished.

How to implement the Pomodoro Technique

Option 1:  Phone/Watch

The easiest way is to use your phone or a digital watch as a timer.  Nothing to buy, no learning curve, no excuses for not implementing it right away.

Option 2: Apps

There are also apps, some free and some paid.  I like Pomodoro Time Pro (paid)  because the interface is nice and I can track how many pomodoros I spend on a particular task, which is helpful for future planning.  That's not necessary, though, especially if you just use this technique as an occasional strategy rather than for your daily work.

Option 3: Kitchen timer

The name of this technique comes from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the "inventor" used when he implemented this technique, and some people find the ticking of a kitchen timer to be a helpful reminder to stay on task.  

If you have a competitive and/or quantitative streak, this method will be particularly appealing to you because it will help quantify the amount of focused work you're getting done.  If you have trouble with distractions, make sure you design particularly rewarding breaks so that you're more likely to stick with it. 

Website with more information, tips, and even a book: http://pomodorotechnique.com/

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