The Pomodoro Technique: What I wish I'd known

Sep 18, 2014

Let me tell you how I came to write this blog post. I have been using the Pomodoro Technique for over a year. I was using a web-based timer but felt I was due for an upgrade. I wanted a command line app.

However, in my research, I learned a lot more than I thought I would. My opinion has changed on what's truly important. I only wish I had realised this sooner.

A look back

I first tried the Pomodoro Technique In June 2013. The idea is simple. Set a timer and focus on one task until it runs out. I absolutely loved it.

When I first started, I needed a tool to time myself. I quickly found Tomatoes. It's a free and open source web app. After a year of use, I'm still pretty pleased with it. It does all the important stuff. It has a timer, audible alerts and the ability to visualise past performance.

If you are interested, here is a link to my Tomatoes profile. I've completed 702 tomatoes as of the time of writing. I am pleased with that but I know I could have done better.

The biggest "problem" is that I lacked consistency. My graph is nothing but a series of spikes. 8 tomatoes one day, 0 the next, 7 the next, 0 the next. I didn't realise why this was happening until recently.

I missed the most important part

That brings me back to this blog post. While researching it, I read Pomodoro Technique Illustrated. It's a good book (although most of the information is available elsewhere too).

What was the reason for my inconsistent spikes? My planning sucked.

I was having great success with the 25-5 cycle but that wasn't enough. I did not get into the habit of creating strong plans. I never prioritised enough or made them specific enough. This caused me to waste too much time on the wrong things. I felt like I was "stuck" and lost motivation to continue.

Here is a specific example. When I started putting together the website, I spent ages struggling with the CSS. I tried to create my own responsive layout from scratch (with no previous experience doing similar things). It was really hard. I hated it and wanted to quit. Eventually, I realised that the reason I hated it was that I was working on the wrong thing. Perfectly aligned CSS was not important to the project as a whole. I ended up switching to Bootstrap and got on with making the site.

So, what should I have done? Basically, I should have followed the actual Pomodoro Technique much more closely.

  1. Plan
  2. Get stuff done and track it
  3. Review daily progress

I used to think that having Tomatoes track everything was good enough. I realise now that tracking is useless unless you look back at the data and process it. I'm getting better at planning but still need to work on reviewing.

Tools don't really matter

It's obvious but also hard to internalise. I think everyone falls into the same trap. You think, "Maybe this next todo app will make me more productive". But no, it never works like that.

The original Pomodoro Technique recommends sticking to the simplest tools possible. Just paper and a simple kitchen timer. I respect that now.

What does matter?

I think the most important part of the Pomodoro Technique (and of any productivity system) is the Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. That is, creating a prioritised plan, doing it, reviewing how it went and using that information to improve your next plan.

Having said that, I also really like the 25 minutes of focus, 5 minutes of rest cycle. I've been using it for so long that I think I take it for granted. Taking frequent rests and focusing completely can build significant momentum. I've just got to make sure I point that momentum in the right direction.

If you are interested in the Pomodoro Technique, I highly recommend it. This blog post is hardly meant to be a comprehensive introduction. The official website is a good place to get started. The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated ebook is also very good. I also still like Tomatoes.