Using the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, you work in focused sprints throughout the day. Matthias Günther delivers Pomodoro wisdom in short sprints on this series.
This article series describes one developer’s steps on the road to becoming a “Self-Certified Pomodoro Master.” (Since the Pomodoro Technique is a self-driven approach to becoming the master of your time, why shouldn’t you be able to self-certify as a Pomodoro Master?) Each article in the series is a small step in mastering the technique, just as the technique emphasizes small steps. This article describes two kinds of interruptions that prevent you from working productively, because until you can recognize and distinguish them you can’t do anything about them.
Editor’s note: If this series piques your interest in this productivity technique, you should know that the Pragmatic Bookshelf recently released its first audio book, the audio version of Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Nöteberg.
The Root of All Interruptions
Do you look at Twitter when you should be working, or check the news on Hacker News, or surf the web to find the newest hardware you can hack on? Do you find yourself constantly confronted with unintended meetings and calls? If you are nodding your head, you have an interrupt problem. But interruptions are not all alike.
When you were a child, you behaved as a child. You shouted like a banshee when you messed your pants. You cried when you were hungry. You pounded the ground when you didn’t get what you wanted.
Now, of course, you are an adult and... nothing has changed. When you have to go to the bathroom, you take a bathroom break. When you are hungry, you go to the break room or the kitchen or the corner deli to get something to eat. If you want a new toy to play with, you take a browsing break and go to Amazon and order your Raspberry Pi. The difference between then and now is that then you were helpless, and now when your mind tells you what to do, you know how to do it. The crying baby, really a bunch of babies, are still in you, and it’s hard to ignore them. And when they cause you to take an unplanned break, they break your concentration and break your productivity.
These are internal interruptions. Surrendering your focus to your internal desire is, “often associated with having little ability to concentrate” according to Francesco Cirillo, the creator of the Pomodoro Technique. You have to develop a strong will to master those inner babies. The first step to tame your internal monsters is to know who they are and where they came from.
External interruptions are different. They are not your fault. They occur when the telephone rings, or whatever noise your phone makes, or when the “out-of-nowhere” meeting about the architecture of your new system pops up, or some innocuous new feature you just installed causes users to storm your platform like Luke Skywalker on the Death Star.
We’ve all had those days when every fifteen minutes some external interruption knocks us off our normal superhero pace of problem solving. The bad days, the days when you end up feeling like you didn’t achieve anything. Like the people around you or the world just wouldn’t let you get your work done.
External interruptions don’t come from our basic human needs, they come from the environment in which we are working.
The Pomodoro Technique won’t eliminate interruptions from your life, either internal or external interruptions. But it will help you to recognize them as they are happening, and it will give you the tools for reducing the frequency of interruptions and for minimizing the damage they cause.
Taming Internal Interruptions
In the Pomodoro Technique you work in 25-minute sprints called Pomodoros, timed by a kitchen timer, with five-minute breaks between, and a longer break after three Pomodoros. This plan helps you to manage your inner child.
Let’s say that during one Pomodoro you have the desire to consume your favorite sweet (for me it’s the German Zetti Knusperflocken). Your inner child is shouting that you have to eat something. Stop listening to it! If you yield to temptation you will lose your context and have to regain it. You lose time and productivity. But you are strong. You are capable of showing the willpower to master your desire. For a few minutes, anyway.
And that’s the trick: you only have to hold off these internal pressures until the timer dings. Then you gracefully end the current thought or line of code, save your mental context, and take your break. You can yield to temptation now and not kill your productivity. And by following this discipline, you will be training yourself for better concentration and behavior.
Internal Interruptions (Picture taken by Cyril Fakiri and reprinted with permission.)
As you work in these short sprints and hold off your creature needs, you will actually become more, not less, aware of them. That’s good: learn to know your body. If you know your times when you get hungry or thirsty, you can try to eat or drink something before starting your Pomodoro. The noise of your stomach may be louder than the ticking of your kitchen timer. So acknowledge your needs and prepare yourself for concentrated working.
But you can’t always prepare. When you are in a Pomodoro you may have to deal with something you totally forgot. For me, it once happened that I remembered that I had to buy concert tickets for my girlfriend during a Pomodoro. I broke the Pomodoro to buy the ticket and I lost nearly 30 minutes getting back on the task. There will be times when you break the Pomodoro. If so, fine, it happened. Acknowledge it, deal with the interruption, and start a new Pomodoro. But if this seemingly urgent thing can just wait for 25 minutes, then delay it.
As I get more familiar with the Pomodoro Technique I find that the easiest way for me to cut down on internal interruptions is to get to know when and why they occur. In the case of my ticket problem, perhaps I could have postponed the task for my lunch break or done it later at home. If you do this, you will find yourself setting aside time at home for these kinds of tasks.
Taming External Interruptions
External interruptions are the things you cannot control, like a fire alarm, some issue with your deployed code (caused be forgetting to set up a cache-ID, zosh), or a broken keyboard. In each case, you have to destroy the Pomodoro. It didn’t count. Just deal with the external interruption and start a new Pomodoro when you have the time for it.
External Interruptions (Picture taken by Priska and reprinted with permission.)
Confession time. I’m still learning the Pomodoro Technique, and I have found only limited ways of dealing with external interruptions like these. You have to decide on your own if you should break your Pomodoro and focus on the new event.
But sometimes what’s external is another person. It’s important—and empowering—to understand that it’s not a big deal to say no when somebody wants something from you. Just be polite and say that you will be available after your Pomodoro. Hang a sign on your door. Train your workmates to time their visits to when they hear the ding of your timer. Keep some brief but polite phrases in stock that you can use to get rid of the interruption before it completely breaks your concentration. A phrase to reschedule the conversation. A phrase to delegate the task to another person. But be polite, be considerate: remember the Golden Rule.
Internal interruptions are typically something you can deal with later. You want to finish your job on time and not miss the delicious BBQ with friends during the summer. Cutting down internal interruptions is your first step. They are independent from the environment you are in, and you are just communicating with your mind and no people are interfering. These interruptions are within your control.
External interruptions are harder to handle because they appear without any warning. Find your own way to manage them. If you are using the Pomodoro Technique or any time-boxing technique, make sure your workmates understand this. If your workmates know what you are doing, they will respect you when you say that you will have time for them after your Pomodoro. And make sure that you are never the bad guy interrupting your workmate during his or her Pomodoro.
Matthias is an Open Sourcer by heart, loves giving presentations about Vim, and writes a book about Padrino. When Günther is not working as a developer at MyHammer, he spends his free time visiting hacking events, painting small figures, running for his health, organizing Ruby conferences like eurucamp 2013, and experimenting with making delicious cakes. He lives in Berlin and is blogging under wikimatze.de