Do you ever feel like you’re working a lot, but not getting much done? I’ve had that feeling a lot. I’ve looked at various systems of time management, but they all seemed too complicated – making complex to-do lists, carrying a day planner around, forcing myself to eat and exercise on a schedule, and so forth. I'm just not a schedule person.
I’ve been experimenting with something called the Pomodoro Technique, and I’d like to tell you about it. The Pomodoro Technique (let’s call it PT for short) is a method of personal time management. PT helps you work more effectively, and get more done in less time. But unlike other such systems, PT is quite simple. It’s easy to start, and doesn’t require a big ideological commitment up front. You don't have to buy anything. You can just jump in and try it out, and build up to more serious use as you desire.
Developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, an Italian university student, PT is named after a particular kitchen timer which looks like a tomato – a pomodoro in Italian. Using PT, you train yourself to do what you say you’re going to do, in small chunks of time devoted exclusively to particular tasks. Over time, you improve your ability to accomplish things by gaining insight into your own particular work processes. This isn’t hard work. Rather, it’s focused work, without interruptions, without the myriad lapses in concentration that we allow to happen when we work by ourselves.
The Basics of the Pomodoro Technique
It’s simple. You decide to do something. Then you set a timer for 25 minutes. You do that thing you chose to do – and nothing else – until the timer rings. Then you stop what you’re doing and relax for five minutes. Then you start again.
Each half-hour period is called a pomodoro. Every four pomodoros, you give yourself a half hour off, to do things like check your voice mail and email, get some coffee, or whatever.
You don’t have to make a long-term commitment to the system. Everybody starts by doing just one pomodoro. And most people have trouble doing it the first time. They suddenly get the urge to get a snack, make a phone call, or work on something else. The main idea in PT is to develop the discipline not to do those things, to focus on doing one task, and nothing else. Just do it.
Some of us pride ourselves on our availability. People can reach us by phone any time there’s something on their minds. There are times when this is a good thing. But most of the time, this is detrimental to our really applying ourselves to our work. After all, we all have answering machines and email. How much does our total availability cost us in terms of our efficiency?
The Pomodoro Technique suggests that you can have it both ways. You can explore new ideas in an unstructured fashion when that’s beneficial. You can talk on the phone and answer email when that’s beneficial. You can also work in a determined manner, without distractions, without the desire to get up and do something else, when you declare that it’s time to do so. You decide how you’re going to work. Most of us don’t make that decision, though – we let circumstances make it for us. In PT, all you have to do is declare how you’re going to work for the next half hour. And stick to it.
People generally start noticing an improvement in their work habits after a day or two. Mastering the technique takes two or three weeks.
Understand Your Own Work Process
Another main idea in PT is to break complex activities down into specific tasks. For example, preparing for this speech involved 1) on-line research, 2) choosing a topic, 3) writing a rough draft, 4) refining that rough draft, and 5) creating PowerPoint slides.
Trying to tackle the whole thing at once can be intimidating. But by breaking the big task down into specific half-hour steps, steps that produce specific things, PT cultivates the habit of stepwise refinement of big projects, accomplished chunk by chunk.
After you have some experience with PT, you'll get better at defining chunks of work, and estimating how long they’ll take you. You could say that the goal of PT is to make you into your own manager. You start the work day (or whatever period of time you choose) by putting on your manager hat, and specifying the actions you need to take. Then, when you start the timer, you put your worker hat on, and dig in.
PT makes use of some lists, but they’re fairly simple. To start, there’s a basic list of tasks you want to undertake today. And after the work is done, there’s a list of accomplishments, and how long they took. There’s no need to make it more complicated than that.
Where You Can Learn More
The main web site for the Pomodoro Technique, hosted by Francesco Cirillo himself, is at http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/. You can even download a free book on PT by Cirillo at that site. There are many other web sites devoted to PT, some of which feature forums or blogs about the technique -- see the list on Cirillo's site. One site in particular has a free cross-platform computer app called FlowKeeper for timing, making to-do lists and noting results: http://flowkeeper.org/.