In the last few months a technique based on a kitchen timer has caught on worldwide.
It all started when a student in Italy, frustrated with his lack of focus in his studies, challenged himself: can I study, and only study, for just ten minutes? Looking around, Francesco Cirillo’s eyes fell on a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. To him, it symbolized those ten minutes of uninterrupted effort. In Italian, tomato is Pomodoro.
In the Pomodoro Technique as it has developed since then, the usual unit of uninterrupted effort has become 25 minutes and is called one Pomodoro. The genius of the Pomodoro Technique is the way that this commitment to a fixed unit of work time, no matter how many lines of code or artifacts you produce, turns the notion of time upside-down, and rather than time being the enemy who always wins in the end, time becomes your ally.
The genesis of the Pomodoro Technique happened ages ago, in Agile years. Scrum was presented at OOPSLA 1995 and Kent Beck’s first book on XP was published in 1999, but Francesco defined the basic rules of the Pomodoro Technique in the early 1990s. He has now been teaching Pomodoro Technique for over a decade, and in the last few months Pomodoro has become really big in Europe, North America, and East Asia.
As I’ll try to make clear in this article, the Pomodoro process is similar to Agile software development processes, but downscaled to one person. Iterations, PDCA-cycles with retrospectives, signboards showing the current state, timeboxing, commit-reward, value pull over push—all these concepts also have their place in the Pomodoro Technique.
And all you need to implement it is three simple sheets of paper and a mechanical kitchen timer.
A Pomodoro Iteration
Consider how a Scrum team operates. The team follows a recurring pattern every day. At the morning meeting, the team prioritizes what in the Sprint Backlog is to be done today. Then they focus on those, and only those, tasks. When the day is over, everybody goes home and has guilt-free play.
It’s a rhythm, and deliberately so. Rhythms make us feel safe: we breathe every second, we sleep every day, we celebrate holidays in the same seasons every year. The daily cycle in the Scrum-rhythm is: prioritize-focus-rest.
The same pattern applies to the rhythm of the Pomodoro Technique, but a cycle is only half an hour.
First, you prioritize the activities that you selected in the morning. Choose the one that creates the most value.
Second, you wind up the kitchen timer for 25 minutes and focus only on that activity. When the clock rings you stop immediately.
Third, you have guilt-free play for 3-5 minutes.
When you return after the break, you choose whether you should continue with the same activity or switch to something else. One Pomodoro Technique iteration of 25-minute effort is called a Pomodoro.
A Pomodoro Technique Day
In the 1950s, Edwards Deming popularized Walter Shewhart’s PDCA cycle. Many companies in the manufacturing industry subsequently started to practice it to improve their business processes iteratively. PDCA is present in Agile software development processes as well. A Sprint in Scrum, ending up in a retrospective meeting, is an example of a PDCA cycle.
PCDA cycles are present in the Pomodoro Technique, too, but here a cycle takes just one day:
P stands for planning. You start your Pomodoro Technique day with planning. You select the activities that you want to have completed during the day. There should be a reasonable amount, so that you know that you have a commitment.
D is Do. You seamlessly track statistical data while you work on the selected activities.
C means Check. At the end of each Pomodoro Technique day, you summarize your tracked data. Then you compare it with your expectations in order to find discrepancies.
A is the Act. You analyze the discrepancies and try to understand the root causes. Sometimes you decide that you want to customize your personal process based on that analysis.
As should be clear, Pomodoro Technique is an adaptive process. At the end of each day you have the ability to customize how you want to work tomorrow. This adaptation is based on empirical knowledge.
In Scrum, the Product Backlog keeps track of all possible future features. Before the start of each Sprint, a subset of the Product Backlog is selected. This subset is called the Sprint Backlog. These are the activities that the team will focus on during the upcoming Sprint.
In the Pomodoro Technique, the coarse-grained backlog is called the Activity Inventory sheet. It is one of the three sheets of paper that I mentioned before. Every time you realize a new activity, you add it here. The Activity Inventory becomes an unprioritized list of activities. Every morning, you select a realistic number of activities from your Activity Inventory sheet and write them on your To Do Today sheet—the second sheet.
“Realistic” means as much as it is reasonable to expect that you can complete in one day. This is your commitment. You want to make a commitment that you have a good chance of meeting. To meet a commitment, i.e. to deliver what you have planned, creates a positive feeling, and makes you more effective, better equipped to meet future commitments.
Do you get distracted by all the interruptions in your work life? Edward Hallowell coined the term Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) to describe a stress state created by modern office life. People aren’t born with ADT. It is caused when we become extremely busy attending to many, many inputs and outputs. We become increasingly distracted, short-tempered, impulsive, impatient, and, over the long term, underachieving.
When you practice the Pomodoro Technique, you accept the interruptions, you visualize them, you have a process to deal with them, and you work consciously to reduce them over time.
Here’s an example: In the middle of a Pomodoro iteration, you remember that you must call your sister. Instead of calling her immediately, you note it as “Call sister” in your backlog. Then, you intensify your effort to complete the task that you focused on before this thought intruded. To call your sister is an activity just like any other. You shouldn’t do it just because you got a sudden impulse. It will be planned and prioritized like any other activity.
Pomodoro Technique emphasizes the difference between internal and external interruptions. Internal interruptions are caused by instincts or other internal motives: I have to read e-mail, I want to drink coffee, or I must make a call. External interruptions are initiated by other people or systems. My email client beeps, my phone rings, someone comes into my room and asks a question. (See Brian Tarbox’s essay in this issue for another take on external interruptions.) You have to try to protect your Pomodoro. When someone is calling, ask if you can call back later—a promise that you obviously need to keep. Then add that activity to your inventory. Context switching is expensive and you can only afford it if the interruption is caused by something very important.
Throughout the day, you track events seamlessly. You may write an X on your To Do Today sheet every time the kitchen timer rings and you have completed one Pomodoro. You may write an apostrophe every time you have an internal interruption, and a dash each time you have an external interruption. You choose what you want to measure.
At the end of the day you transfer your tracked data to your Records sheet—the third sheet. There you can compare it with the tracked data that you gathered yesterday, the day before that, last week, etc. This is also the time when you can see whether it meets your expectations. If it doesn’t, you may want to tweak your process a little bit for tomorrow, in order to make you even more effective and efficient.
There is much more depth to the Pomodoro Technique than this brief sketch has shown. But if you implemented just these basics of the technique, you would find that time can become your ally and not your enemy.
Staffan Nöteberg is the author of Pomodoro Technique Illustrated. He has 20 years of experience as a freelance software developer, Agile coach, and conference speaker. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden and Istanbul, Turkey. And he’s not only focused on his own productivity; he’s also passionate about helping all kinds of office people to improve their personal time management.