Pomodoro Technique as Self-Awareness Tool

I’m currently doing some contract coding, working largely remotely. As a way to keep me focused while working from home, I’ve been using the Pomodoro technique quite a bit. Beyond the usual productivity gains, I’ve found some surprising advantages to working on a timer.

If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro technique, it is a productivity or time management method where you set a timer for a set interval and commit to working in a focused manner on a specific task during that time. When the timer goes off, you take a break. The main idea behind this technique is that when we commit to a brief but intense burst of work it is easier to keep ourselves productive.

I’ve used this technique on and off over the years. I find it especially useful to help me break through into tasks that I’m dreading or for some reason find hard to start. Recently I’ve started using the timer more consistently throughout the day, and setting a theme or main task to work on for each interval. I’m using an app called Be Focused that allows me to write a task name at the top of the timer before starting an interval. I’m finding that this way of working is a great way to learn more about my own work rhythms and improve on my habits.

For starters, working in timed intervals is improving my sense of how long some tasks take, which in turn is making me much better at estimating when larger projects will be delivered. You’d think this would be obvious, but I didn’t really start getting this benefit until I started using this technique throughout an entire day, with many intervals and breaks in a row. In this way, working on a timer feels like an easier variant of building a time-sheet by hand to analyze where your time goes.

“Be Focused” by default gives you a break interval as soon as your work interval is over, and I’ve been obediently getting up and making tea and stretching and generally not-being-at-the-computer for 5 minutes when the break comes on. This has been surprisingly helpful to keeping my head clear even later in the day. It is also a great help in preventing me from falling into the hyper-focused somewhat-obsessed state to which I’m prone to — I’m liable to continue “working” at the computer way past the point where I’m making good progress.

A surprising thing I’ve learned is that 25 minutes is actually quite a bit of time. You can get a fair amount of work accomplished in 25 minutes if you’re focused (although never as much as you thought you would accomplish — such is the nature of optimistic engineering estimates). For me, 25 minutes is enough to get really productive on an engineering task. I used to think that I needed at least an hour to “get in the zone”, but that does not seem to be true (at least not at the moment, on this particular project).

If you haven’t tried it before, I suggest you take the Pomodoro technique for a spin. You might be surprised by what it can teach you.