A Month of the Pomodoro Technique

[The new location for this blog post is here. This blog has been moved to http://www.colintmiller.com/]

It has been one month as of today that I started using the Pomodoro Technique at work in an attempt to increase my productivity. I think that after a month of use I can provide an evaluation of the technique; what I find good about it along with some of the negative sides. While I think that using pomodoros has increased my productivity overall, there are still some gaps that I have yet to discover ways of filling.

There were several reasons why I started to use the pomodoro technique. I was first drawn in to the concept by an article in the free PragPub magazine. This made me interested enough to read the Pomodoro Technique Illustrated book. I decided to give the technique a try to see if it could allow me to focus more on my work. I had been bouncing a bit too much from task to task as new tasks get added on by management, and older tasks would get forgotten about until they were asked about again. The technique was my own decision to improve myself as far as time management and work efficiency.

A quick intro for those who don’t know: The pomodoro technique is a time management system for minimizing multi-tasking along with prioritizing activities. Work is divided into 25 minute chunks called pomodoros that are separated by 5 minute breaks. The main idea is that for those 25 minutes you should be focusing 100% to the task at hand and avoiding internal and external distractions as much as possible.

My Process

There are many aspects of the pomodoro technique that I really like and that have helped me over the last month. I think the first and most important one is the artifacts that the technique produces. By artifacts I mean the Activity Inventory, the daily Todo sheets, the memory maps, and the Record sheet. These items add a lot of organization to my workflow along with preventing me from forgetting tasks I may have been working on.

For the activity inventory, I use a fairly basic legal notepad. I write down entries of things to do, one per line. The sheet often extends to multiple pages. At the end of the day I cross of anything that was completed on my Todo sheet for that day so that I can just look at the uncrossed entries when deciding what to do at the start of my day. I sometimes put my estimated number of pomodoros next to each item, but not always. I also try to write down everything I can think of, even if it isn’t work related but I want to get it done at some point. Some non-work related items I can get done during the day, but others are just good notes to myself that I can read each day and give myself reminders like making dinner plans for the week or calling the dentist.

My Todo sheet is done on a large spiral notebook of grid-paper. Grid paper is my favorite type of paper for notes, and it works very well for the Todo sheet. I leave 4 boxes empty to the left of each entry in case I need to add a U (unplanned) or small note to a task. I try to leave at least 7 boxes free on the right hand side so I can draw in the pomodoro boxes. I write down each task I want to do that day in pen and then I draw empty boxes in pencil to the right of it, each box indicating a pomodoro I think it will take. There’s usually enough space between those boxes and the item that I use that for marking interruptions. At the end of the day, I use the back of the page to draw up my memory map for the day.

The record sheet I keep in a spreadsheet (I use Numbers from iWork). I have 3 sheets on my record sheet spreadsheet. The first is an overview record sheet. Each row contains one day, with the columns indicating the date, completed pomodoros, internal interruptions, external interruptions, underestimated pomodoros, overestimated pomodoros, completed tasks, incomplete tasks, unplanned activities added to the todo, and unplanned activities added to the inventory. At the bottom of this sheet there is a line that gives averages for each of these columns. More on this a bit later.

The second sheet is an extended log. Here I make basically a copy of my todo sheet for the day. It contains the name of the activity, the number of pomodoros spent on it, two columns for guess errors in case I guessed the wrong number of pomodoros to complete the activity, the number of internal interruptions, external interruptions, if the activity was completed (I just put in an x if it was), and any comments. There are total lines for each day.

The final sheet is a chart sheet. Currently I only have one chart, but I’ll probably expand this when the task makes it to my todo list. The chart shows completed pomodoros for each day. I just use the data of the second column (completed pomodoros) from the first sheet to create this chart. The chart gives me a good indication of how well I was able to perform on each day and shows me some trends. I don’t show the record sheet to anyone else so it’s just for my own purposes. This whole system isn’t something I would bring up to managers during a review or anything, that would bring too much stress into the project and would lead to the temptation to lie.

Positive Aspects

One aspect of the technique that I like is the recording of pomodoros spent each day. When starting a day, you can set a goal for yourself to beat your average number of pomodoros done in a day, which is recorded at the bottom of the first sheet of the record sheet. That average is also a good indicator of how much you’ll likely be able to accomplish in a day, so you can add tasks to the todo sheet until the number of pomodoro boxes is equal to or maybe one greater than your average. If you end up completing every task, you can spend 5 minutes to add some more on and congratulate yourself for being so productive.

I also enjoy the focus a pomodoro can give to me. I try to be tangentially aware that while I’m doing a pomodoro I should ignore all IMs and emails and try to be bothered by other people around me as little as possible. Those distractions can really get in the way and derail you. If something is really on my mind and I don’t want to forget it I’ll write it down on my activity inventory or todo sheet and mark an interruption, but at least then it’s out of my head and tabled for later. It’s also really nice to be able to mark that X at the end of a pomodoro. There have been many times where I would think about getting up for some water or a snack or something but I have 12 minutes left in my pomodoro. I know that doing something like getting a snack can sometimes drive you completely off course of what you’re doing, and honestly I can wait 12 minutes. The pomodoro gives me the incentive to put off doing those things that end up being procrastinations. Basically letting you procrastinate from procrastinating, which I feel is good.

I’m also finding that having things like the extended log in the record sheet and tracking how long each task takes me that it is easier to estimate new tasks that I get. I tend to have to break down tasks several times, but by doing that and adding all of them together you can get a rough idea of how long a task will take. Also since you know how many pomodoros you can complete in a day (it will be lower than you think), you can estimate how many days longer tasks will take. Very useful since managers are all about the time estimates and wanting to know when something is going to be done.

Being able to make up a todo list daily and work on those items is also the main reason that I am able to write this blog. Often when I start a blog I make a few posts every so often but then I forget to post and it just ends up dying. By promising myself that I will post every MWF and adding an entry at the top of my todo list each of those days provokes me to not be as lax about writing entries. This has worked out fairly well so far as I’ve only missed a few days and I feel more accomplished about my blogging abilities.

Not As Positive Aspects

Ok, this technique is not perfect. I didn’t really think it would be, and I don’t think that there exists a ‘perfect’ technique. Here are some of the faults I find in the technique that impede my productivity. I haven’t figured out a solution to all of them yet.

Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair. Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X. For instance, managers love meetings. I think it is some sort of ambrosia to them to have people sit in a room together bored out of their mind as they rant about things that they think are important. Meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting. If I start a pomodoro, I won’t be able to finish it because I only have 20 minutes. Managers will come by your desk and poke you to go to the meeting at the exact time the meeting is supposed to start, so I can’t just show up 5 minutes late. In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway. I try to fill up the time with administration tasks like catching up on email or organizing, but sometimes I honestly just end up reading blogs.

This can be a real problem, especially if you have lots of scheduled meetings every day or even daily meetings. I had a morning standup for a while that took all of 10 minutes, however it took place about 45 minutes after I got into work. I could spend the first few minutes putting together my Todo list and having my computer turn on. After my todo list was created, I wouldn’t have enough time to do a full pomodoro before the meeting started. This meant that I couldn’t start any real work until that meeting was over, which is about an hour after I’ve come in. So the first hour in my day is wasted because of a meeting and the techniques inabilities to deal with time slots less than your designated pomodoro time (defaults to 25 minutes).

Long meetings, like presentations or informative meetings, are also a small difficulty for pomodoros in that you often don’t get those 5 minute breaks every half hour. This makes me cautious on counting meetings in my Todo sheet as something I can mark off as having spent a pomodoro or two on. Sometimes I feel I can do that, other times I’m not as sure.

I think overall my main problem might not even be with the technique at all, just meetings. It’s an area to consider.

Overall

In the end, I like using the pomodoro technique. It’s fairly simple and it keeps me organized. I found a very nice simple application for the mac for measuring pomodoros so I don’t need a real kitchen timer. I like this because it’s easy to see on my computer, doesn’t get in the way, can provide the ticking sound, proper notifications, and has easy keyboard shortcuts. It’s also good that if I keep the volume at the correct level on my computer, it doesn’t irritate my coworkers like a kitchen timer would.

I’m going to continue my current path of using the technique, but I might tweak some things. There are additions I would like to make to my record sheet and I still need to work out a good way to deal with smaller units of time in a useful manner. Maybe a separate series of mini-pomodoros that are tracked differently.

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36 Comments on “A Month of the Pomodoro Technique”


  1. [...] Aspirations of a Software Developer. [...]

  2. Cindy Says:

    Why not make each of your pomodoros 15 minutes long? That way it fits better into the 60 minute work world and, while you’ll end up with more checkboxes, you also get to check more boxes off.

    • jearil Says:

      The technique focuses around a set period of work followed by a break. If I set my pomodoros to 15 minutes and kept my 5 minute breaks I would feel that I’m breaking too often and for too long. If I shortened the breaks it might work, but I also don’t know if 15 minutes is enough time to really build up a good focus on what I’m working on.

      So far I’ve only stuck with the 25 minute pomodoro. It’s possible that shortening it might work better for me. I’ll have to look at it as a possibility.

    • Jan Tomka Says:

      After a few weeks of using the technique as a programmer I would actually suggest making them longer. Sometimes I find it difficult to make a break in the middle of an activity. On the other hand, coming back to desk refreshed after a brief break makes a difference in the level of concentration.

      You can sure sure set your pomodoro timer to 15 minutes or any other time period you find comfortable to use. However, don’t forget you want to get the job done and too short pomodoros could pose a threat to your productivity. Just like too long pomodoros during which you’d focus on the task for a time too long to be still productive.

      Please, have a look at the articles I wrote using the pomodoro technique, which describe the technique in action both in my daily job of a programmer and writing the articles themselves.

      http://jan.tomka.name/blog/the-pomodoro-technique

      When it comes to checking the boxes, that is something I still haven’t got my head around. While I can understand the concept of pomodoro voiding is important to encourage you to protect your pomodoros, the work done in such pomodoro is not lost even though you don’t cross it off. Therefore, you can’t really use the number of pomodoros to measure your productivity. Anyway, if you keep the number of interruptions low, it’s still a fairly accurate measure.

  3. Angie Bowen Says:

    I do the Pomodoro technique without the rigidity of the time limits. I try my best to stick to the 25/5 minute sessions but if I only get to do a 15 or 20 minute session or end up going long because I’m too focused to stop, I just make a note of the length of that altered Pomodoro. I know some people would probably say that defeats the purpose of the technique but it works really well for me.

    • jearil Says:

      I think that in the end, that’s what really matters. The technique was created by someone in a way that worked really well for him and he decided it could also work for other people. But I don’t think it’s a catch-all solution that fits everyone. Being able to modify the system to one that fits you better is ideal, even if it goes outside of the ‘standard’ way of doing things.

  4. Mel Says:

    Try making at least part of your next day’s To Do List during the boring afternoon meeting – then you may be able to squeeze in one pomodoro before the morning standup.

  5. Tom Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts. I just learned about the Pomodoro Technique and am eager to try it. My biggest concern is educating my boss and coworkers so that I can avoid interruptions without appearing as though rudeness was my New Year’s Resolution.

    • jearil Says:

      My job is very IM heavy for sending information between people. I ended up using an away message that went along the lines of: “I am currently in a pomodoro. I can’t respond right away, but I promise to do so within 25 minutes.” or something along those lines. I also used a hyperlink on pomodoro to an information site on the technique so that the person trying to contact me could get a hint.

      People work differently though. I would recommend just talking to your boss and maybe putting a small sign up (nothing too annoying) to let people have some sort of clue. In the end you’ll just have to have some talks with people and communicate what you’re doing.

  6. Rose Says:

    I find the pomodoros great for just getting started. Makes a task less daunting and bigger tasks more manageable.
    My personality is such that I am not rigid when it comes to the exact time limit. 20 minutes to 30 minutes is fine by me. How do you deal with the task that only takes 15 minutes compared to not starting a task cause you have a meeting in 20?
    You could Astrix some EZ tasks for those pre-meeting times.
    Seems to be a theme in the meetings and IM interruptions in the reply posts. Tim Ferris has some great hard core techniques to deal with that in his book, the 4 hour work week. While I have not taken his information to the fullest, I have renewed a respect for my time in my co workers.

    • jearil Says:

      For shorter tasks I generally group up multiples of them for a full pomodoro. Like if I’m going to write an email that might only take 10 minutes I’ll also add in a few other small things that I need to get done until it’s around 25 minutes worth.

  7. John Barley Says:

    Hey, great article. I was wondering if you would share your spreadsheet for everyone?

    JB

    • jearil Says:

      Sure. I had been thinking about doing that for a while now.

      I created the Record Sheet in iWork Numbers. There is a copy here (slightly edited). I’ve been thinking about eventually switching away from the spreadsheet however into a custom application that I’m going to write. I’d like to have a web application (possibly with an open web service API) so that I can store my Record Sheet in a database that I can make custom queries against. Currently with the spreadsheet that I’m using it would be difficult for me to find information such as how many pomodoros in a given month do I spend on writing related activities.

      If you have difficulties with the numbers file (such as you don’t use a mac) you can send me an email and I’ll give you access to the iWork.com file I put up. My gmail user name is Jearil.

      • Joel Says:

        Thanks for the spreadsheet. A custom app sounds nice! Please let us know if you have it finished.

      • Jearil Says:

        I’ve updated the link to point to an excel file hosted on my new domain (colintmiller.com).

      • Blake Says:

        Hi Jearil, the link to the spreadsheet seems to be broken. If you have a moment, I would love to have a look at the spreadsheet you created. Great article. I have just begun using the Pomodoro technique and am eager to see how and if it works for my goals.

  8. Frank L Holdsclaw Says:

    Good review of the technique. I’ve been using it for nearly four months now and agree with most of your pros and cons. Here’s mine and I hope they help and any suggestions sent back would be great.

    My technique:
    Use MS Excel for keeping Inventory,Recording, computing averages, and for making my To Do Today sheet. Fairly easy to create To Do Today sheet as table of drop-down cells feed from my Inventory.
    Each morning I beging with my ‘Plan Day’ pomodoro. I start by scanning in the prior day’s To Do Today sheet into a a pdf into a series of folders I have, one folder per month.
    Then create the daily To Do Today in excel and print it. I’ve got a fullsize planner that I insert the page into and take the planner everywhere I go. I collect any materials I’m going to need to do the day’s tasks. Usually this takes just a few minutes our of the 25. I spend the rest of that first pomodoro going down the To Do Today list and pondering each item and making some side notes on the page of what I really should do on each. I find this to be some of the most useful time I spend. Ring. Then I’m off and running. Note that I have running down the right side of my To Do Today sheet a series of small circles and squares: 2 squares, 1 circle, 3 squares, 1 circle, 3 squareas, 1 circle, etc. This is where I kep track of my breaks between pomodoros. A square is a 5 minute break, a circle is a 15 minute break. I rarely use the full 5 minutes but I do get up and walk around a bit, get a drink, say hi, etc. I make an effort to use the full 15 minute break to do some face-time with coworkers. I use a free screen tool, ‘Focus Booster’ rather than a kitchecn timer because, like you I found it to be less disruptive to folks in the cubes around me.

    Pros : very simple technique for focusing on getting things done. I’ve found productivity has increased. My department has a weekly status meeting and it use to be difficult for me to give my status of work done in prior week and plans for future week. Now I simply look at the scanned-in sheets from prior week to refresh my memory of what I did and look at Inventory to know what I will do. Makes my status reports better than before. I’ve been able to stop myself from self-interrupting while the clock ticks.

    Cons:
    I no have not yet been able to discipline myself to consistently have a End Day pomodoro where I review the day’s accomplishments and think about the internal and external interruptions. I know that I’m missing a key part of the self-improvement part of the technique but I just can’t seem to shut down my ‘get it done now’ focus to do the self-reflection. I’m sure this is a person thing I have to work on and not necessarily a negative part of the technique, it is just difficult for me to do. Final con is that it does nto seem well adapted for doing one-off things, such as replying to this posting.

    Overall: I think this is great and I expect I’ll continue using it for quite awhile. Considerably easier that other time management techniques I’ve tried in the past and great for tracking prior days’ work.

    • jearil Says:

      Excellent additions there. I already tried out the ‘Plan Day’ pomodoro. I had been combining my previous day’s record sheet and current day’s Todo but I never felt it was really accomplishing enough. Writing down notes for each task on the todo list and starting to think about each one is a great addition I feel.

      People had asked me to post my spreadsheet file and I think that’s probably a common request. So I’ll make it of you and ask if you’d be willing to post your excel sheet (or at least a template thereof with some fake data) for others to look at and explore.

      As far as the end of the day pomodoro, I tend to make one that combines a memory map and the record sheet. Sometimes the memory map isn’t as easy to create if nothing really interesting happened or I didn’t get any new ideas, but sometimes I’ve used that time to do some really good brainstorming on ideas and problems I’ve been working on throughout the day. I’ve come up with solutions for problems that were bugging me just by fiddling with circles and lines. I’m still bad myself at reviewing past days or months worth of work or memory maps so I’m also probably not getting as much out of self-reflection as I could.

      I do agree though that when the time comes to report on your status or to tell management all of the things that you’ve accomplished, you have a handy list right there.

      Thanks for the comment! Very useful stuff.

  9. Patrick Says:

    Thank you very much for this informative post.

  10. Frank L Holdsclaw Says:

    If you are interested here’s my excel spreadsheet.

    http://tinyurl.com/ycs5n7l

    First sheet is ‘To Do Today’. but before you use it you need to populate the second sheet, ‘Active Inventory’. This is because you populate the ‘To Do Today’ from ‘Active Inventory’, you can of course add other items to the ‘To Do Today’ directly as well.

    On the ‘Active Inventory':
    Name: is your name
    Due Date: is your projected due date (optional)
    Activity: is the activity of course
    On t: is the estimated # of pomodoros. Can’t remember why I used that label.
    Actual: number of actual pomodoros spent so far.

    Note when you populate these rows they will be avaiable in the drop-down list on the To Do Today sheet. Also your estimated pomodoro and actual pomodoro numbers will copy over from the Activity Inventory to the To Do Today sheet when you pick an activity from the drop-down.

    The Prior Inventory is just where I keep activities I completed and want off the Activity Inventory and it keeps the drop down list short.

    Enjoy and any recommended improvements are welcome.


  11. I use them regularly and find that I get so much done and sometimes keep working. I can get four blog posts done in the 25 mins so often use up the smaller chunks of free time with shorter Pomodori :-)


  12. Any luck on the web application for tracking?

    • jearil Says:

      Interestingly enough work has been so busy that it keeps being pushed down on my activity list so I haven’t had time to schedule for it. I’ll be sure to post a comment here, and probably a new post entirely, when I’ve gotten to that project.

      Do let me know though if you create your own. I’d be interested in seeing a good one.


      • well what did you have in mind for it?

        just a web app as the equivalent of a spreadhseet? (i don’t do desktop right now).

        There are some negatives to using a web app i.e. copying and pasting large blocks

  13. jearil Says:

    A little bit more useful than a web app of a spreadsheet. Entry forms can be made easier with optional auto-complete based on previous tasks. I could also add the ability to duplicate a task in case I didn’t complete it the first time or if I have a task that’s similar to a previous one that just needs some tweaking.

    In a record sheet application, there really isn’t that much in the way of copying and pasting blocks of text. Most of my record sheet entries have items that are different from day to day. Some items like creating the sheet (my “plan day” item) could be duplicated from previous entries, but mostly the information I’d be storing is things like the task name, number of pomodoro’s I spent, number I originally meant to spend, any count over or under, and interruption counts. A set of tasks would be easily divided up by days.

    There should be a section that allows for custom queries on the data, such as number of pomodors spent in a week, or averages per day, maybe per day of the week so I can see which days seem to be more productive. The reporting options can be pretty varied.

    And the benefit of doing it online is I can enter things from any computer or mobile device.

  14. Célio Says:

    For Windows users, here is a desktop timer I’m working on:

    http://code.google.com/p/tomighty/

    Cheers!


    • I’ve been using Tomighty for a few days, and I really like it. I’m not sure if you’re interested in feedback, but here are some enhancement requests:
      1. Add a ticking sound during pomodoro
      2. If the window auto-hides, then I cannot see the remaining time. Display the minutes remaining in the tray icon.
      Thanks for an excellent app.

      • Jearil Says:

        I didn’t make the Tomighty app. I’m not really sure who did. This was only a review of the Pomodoro technique in general.


      • Hello Chad, I’m glad you liked it.

        I will add the ticking sound very soon, it’s already planned to be done. Showing the remaining time in the tray icon seems to be a good idea, I will add it to my issue tracker. There are a lot of ideas that I want to implement, you can expect more features to come in the next few weeks.

        By the way, feel free to join the user group: http://groups.google.com/group/tomighty

        Thanks for your feedback!


  15. [...] A Month of the Pomodoro Technique ” Aspirations of a Software Developer (developeraspirations.wordpress.com) [...]

  16. ccidral Says:

    I just released version 0.4 of Tomighty. Check out the new features:

    http://code.google.com/p/tomighty/

    If you are using Tomighty, don’t forget to subscribe to the discussion group:

    http://groups.google.com/group/tomighty

    Cheers!


  17. [...] A Month of the Pomodoro Technique ” Aspirations of a Software Developer (developeraspirations.wordpress.com) [...]


  18. [...] stuk over iemand die zijn ervaring op heeft geschreven inclusief een aantal leuke links.. http://developeraspirations.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/a-month-of-the-pomodoro-techniquethepositive/ Categories: Persoonlijk, Projectmanagement LikeBe the first to like this post. Reacties [...]


  19. [...] Despite the number of Pomodoro-heads out there, the system isn’t without its critics. Colin T. Miller, a Yahoo! employee and blogger, tried using the Pomodoro Technique and had some [...]


  20. [...] Colin T. Miller, a Yahoo! employee and blogger tried it and have this to say: Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair,” he says. “Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X. For instance…meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting…In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway [...]


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