Always on the lookout for making my professional life more managable and less stressful, I wanted to revisit the Pomodoro technique. It is an old time management technique that encourages you to split your work time into 25 minute units with a rhythm of short and longer breaks in between. Within the 25 minutes, you’d be focused on a predetermined task, and not let yourself get distracted.

I started last Friday and I am ready to throw in the towel. I thought I’d do a quick post mortem.

Right now, I am supposed to be learning Rails (separate topic). Instead, I am writing this blog post. That’s a clear violation of Pomodoro law. I am supposed to make a note of this, so I can revisit the topic later in a separate Pomodoro, and get back to work. Instead, I choose to continue to write this blog post, ignoring my predetermined goal of learning Rails.

Does that mean I will never learn Rails? Perhaps. I chose it for today, because I was in a learning state of mind, and Rails is useful for me to know a little bit about. It’s not crucially important to me, and while I was at a natural stopping point in my learning exercise, I got the idea for this blog post. I decided that shifting to that would be a better use of my time. Learning Rails will still be there for when I get to a place where all I can productively do is learn something new, and then it will be right there for me to pick up.

stillthere Still there!

What Worked

The most valuable thing I learned is to re-appreciate how much time some recurring tasks take. Optimism bias leads to thinking along the lines of ‘Let me just take a few moments to deal with my inbox’ and 30 minutes later you still find yourself responding to emails. Using Pomodoro makes you very aware of the time tasks take – first of all because the technique forces you to estimate that time, and second of all because you are confronted right away with the poor quality of those estimates.

Another aspect of Pomodoro I found rewarding and valuable is being able to account for my time spent. At the end of a day, I often find myself dissatisfied and unable to list five things I have accomplished. Pomodoro gives you a quantified account of each day’s time spent.

… And What Didn’t

Productivity, time and ideas compete in a zero sum game. I can’t fix one in place and hope for the other two to fall in line. I can’t get up in the morning and predict how I will be most productive, or when. There are days when I can be glued to the screen doing something like learning Rails. Other days are deemed / doomed to be filled with mindless chores like completing time sheets, submitting expense reports and figuring out why my phone’s mobile hotspot doesn’t work.

On top of that a good chunk of my time is not mine to schedule. My wife is currently in Europe, on an irregular schedule of planned visits to museums and libraries, travel between cities, visiting with friends etc. Whenever she has time to chat, we chat and I drop everything else. (That happened just now as I was writing this post.) My wonderful co-workers are respectful of my and each other’s time, but they too set, change and cancel meetings, because their days also are unpredictable.

Because of this, Pomodoro and I will never become great allies. I can see how the technique can work fairly well if your work and personality allow you to be more isolated from distractions, and your work can be more easily broken up into timeboxed tasks. For me, it’s back to my trusty notebook and pencil, just jotting down ideas and things to do on a 3.5x6 piece of paper.