Friday, March 12, 2010

Pomodoro- what's in it for me?

Lately I've been trying to use the Pomodoro technique. I have been using time boxing for a longer time and find Pomodoro to be a simple and efficient framework which revolves around time boxing.

Pomodoro being so simple, I was rather surprised to find a critique of Pomodoro recently. The critic ignores the fact that the Pomodoro author doesn't mandate that Pomodoro should be used in every occasion; that Pomodoro may use a different time unit than 25 minutes; or that you can void any Pomodoro if you see fit. But let alone the fact that the author misinterprets how strict the Pomodoro should be. By focusing on productivity, it's easy to ignore an equally important aspect- Pomodoro also helps relieve stress and prevents burnout.

Let me try to explain how Pomodoro achieves this by describing the basic building blocks of the Pomodoro process, which applies to time-boxing in general.

What is time boxing? Simply put, it's deciding what to do in the next fixed short period of time- and sticking to it. This consists of the following key stages and transitions:

1) at the start of the Pomodoro- comitting to one thing only for the next time period

2) during the Pomodoro- trying to focus on this one thing without interruptions

3) at the end of the Pomodoro- wrapping up and detaching from the work, followed by a short break

Now let's enumerate some of the reasons for stress, anxiety and burnout. Among these are: multitasking, procrastination, interruptions and obsessing over the completion of a task.

Comitting to one thing is crucial both for a productive and stress-free state of mind. Multitasking is proven to lead to anxiety and inefficiency time and time again. Why? First of all, because switching contexts is very inefficient and exhausting at that. Getting into the right set of mind to do a task takes time and effort and switching to another task destroys all that mental preparation.

Multitasking also leads to the impression that we're not acomplishing anything. If you have followed Joel's article on the subject, the explanation is simple: if you do 2 tasks which take 10 minutes to finish sequentially, you will have a finished task in 10 minutes. If you switch the tasks every minute, you will only get the first task done after 19 minutes! Multiply this by the number of tasks you're trying to switch every day and you get the picture.

The conclusion is that multitasking takes more effort and gets things accomplished slower. If this is not frustrating, I don't know what is.

Furthermore, giving a time limit for a simple task helps you get started. It encourages decomposing the problem into subtasks and transforms a huge amorphous blob of work look like something more palatable. More importantly, getting started is the best way to defeat procrastination, and procrastination is also a major factor for anxiety. Now which is more stressful: a heap of work, where you don't know where to start, or neat organized small tasks, each of which is easier to estimate? Try for yourself.

Interruptions are another very frequent source of frustration. An extremely important but often forgotten type of interruptions is internal ones. Keeping track of one's desire to chat with someone, check your email or just browse the web for something interesting which has popped in your mind is hard to resist, and can break your flow. It is, however, much easier to control these urges if you know that a break is coming soon, rather than when you feel that it's all work all day long, and a small diversion will just take a couple of seconds. Except that it doesn't.

Interruptions from other people are harder to avoid, especially in a job, which is related to responding to different events, like answering a support hotline. However, even in the case of phone calls, you cannot be in two unrelated conversations at once. Besides, the criticism of Pomodoro listed two examples which are notably free from interruptions: a surgeon in an operation or a lawyer defending a case in court. You don't need to control task switching in these scenarios because the situation does not allow for any other tasks to be performed. Can you imagine a lawyer in court or an operating surgeon surf the web or check their mail? Thought so.

Finally, it is very easy to forget that the slow but steady runner wins the race. We often lose track of how much time and effort we have been spending on a task. The short length of the Pomodoro (or any time boxing technique) helps you take a step away and ask: where am I going with this? Is it taking longer than anticipated? Am I actually doing anything or going in circles? Taking a break and detaching yourself from the task at hand helps you see the bigger picture and backtrack if you've reached a dead end. Besides, taking a break will often let your subconscious find a solution, which is otherwise not obvious. Obsessing on completing the task is counterproductive and will leave you unable to take on the next task and burned out in the long run.

There are other benefits of time-boxing, but all in all, it is a very useful technique. Even people who claim they are able to concentrate without taking breaks, are often doing it subconsciously by letting their minds meander from time to time or switching for a couple of minutes to less stressful aspects of the task. But why rely on being a born time-boxer? Once you agree that time-boxing is helpful, it pays off to make it a habit. It will make you more concentrated and calm.

And remember- if it ever feels like you're more stressed by using time-boxing, don't push yourself too hard and stop it. Take a break; enjoy your own flow.