Why the Pomodoro technique doesn’t work for me

My friend Amanda writes a great blog over at Capture30Days. Her recent post “getting stuff done” outlines the Pomodoro technique: work for 25 minutes uninterrupted, take a 5 minute break, start again. I think it works great for some sorts of work.

It doesn’t work for me.

I had tried this technique, but I found for my sort of work it sometimes was in fact harmful.  I guess my work (designing educational apps) swings between product design (creative, collaborative) and programming (a different sort of creative, lots of problem solving, often on my own) and so I sometimes need to just work through a task list and have lots of interactions with others, and I sometimes need to have long periods of uninterrupted focus.

For the programming especially (and to an extent the design also), I have to work hard to get into a “flow” state, where I get the entire mental model of what I’m creating in my head, so that I can work and create efficiently, remembering how all of the different pieces of my app are supposed to fit together.  It can take me a couple of hours to get into this state.  And when I’m in this state, I don’t want to stop.

And knowing I have to stop, because my 25 minutes is up and it’s time for a 5 minute break, or because I have a meeting, or because it’s lunch time, can seriously throw me off.  I’m not the only one.  Paul Graham contrasts the “managers schedule” (1 hour blocks, optimised for meetings) and the “makers schedule” (usually blocks into “morning”, “afternoon” and “working into the night”, optimised for creative work).  He makes the point that for a creative, a single meeting can destroy a whole afternoon.  I definitely have experienced that.

So, alternative to the Pomodoro technique?  I personally go for the 1-3-5 technique.  It goes like this:

Today I will achieve:

  • 1 Big Things:
    _______________
  • 3 Medium Things
    _______________
    _______________
    _______________
  • 5 Small Things
    _______________
    _______________
    _______________
    _______________
    _______________

I find this gives me the flexibility I need to work on big tasks that require long periods of focus, as well as help me not forget the small things that also need doing.  In reality, a day may end up looking like this

  • Morning:
    Small task 1 – emails
    Small task 3 – voicemails and phone calls
    Small task 4 – fix small bug
    Medium Task 1 – draw interface designs for a new feature
  • Afternoon:
    Small Task 5 – responding to support questions
    Big Task – programming a new feature
    Medium Task 2 – got started finding a bug, did not finish.

If I’m having trouble getting into “the zone” or “flow”, I start with the small tasks and work my way up to the big ones.  If I get stuck on one task, I jump to a different one.  Then anything I don’t get done, goes on to the list for the next day.

Finally, there’s a website which makes this easy: http://1-3-5.com/  I set that site as my homepage, so every time I open a new tab, rather than Google or Facebook, I see my task list.

Do you have any tips for staying focused and managing your time when working on creative or programming projects?  Especially when you don’t have a formal workplace to keep you accountable :)

9 thoughts on “Why the Pomodoro technique doesn’t work for me

  1. Hey Jase,

    This is fantastic, it would be great to get a whole group of creatives doing a discussion around this and trying out all the different techniques and helping one another.

    thanks for reading and replying.

    Have a productive week

    Amps

  2. Really interesting Jay. I wonder how I work? I think I prefer good solid blocks of uninterrupted time to get the stuff done. I like your 1-3-5 thing. I might try it to see how it works for me. :)

    • My Dad commented on my blog! Hoorah :)

      Your work and mine probably has a lot of similarities in terms of a need for long blocks of uninterrupted time because of the focus required when working with complex concepts. Unfortunately your job description requires more appointments and classes than mine, which you have to work around. Probably why you get so much done at night time. The “Makers Schedule” article I linked to above said the guy used to divide his day into the “meetings” part and the “work” part… pretty extreme but whatever it takes I guess.

    • Hi Dan… I must say it’s pretty cool having the author of my homepage leave a comment on my blog :)

      Love your work. Not only is it really useful, it’s also a great proof of concept for HTML5 apps utilising offline storage…

      Speaking of which, have you considered setting up a cache manifest so that the core files are loaded from the browser cache rather than the server every time? Just in case too many people like me make it a homepage and thrash your bandwidth!

  3. Great tip. The Pomodoro Technique is not applicable for everyone. People who are on the go and managers find it ineffective to their situations. What’s important, though, is the importance of having “uninterrupted” work depending on how much time you feel comfortable with.

    Like for me, I love time blocking. Sometimes I use 25 minutes and sometimes I can go to as far as 45 minutes before taking a rest. I have developed an online tool that serves this need and makes it very simple to manage your time.

    You can try it out for free at http://racetodolist.com.

  4. I tweak pomodoro to fit into my maker schedule preference. A little bell sounds every half hour (it’s actually a question on my phone) to remind me if I’m still doing what I was supposed to do – as I sometimes get side tracked, even if it’s interesting.
    Lunch, dinner and “getting ready to sleep” (“wake up” too) are reminders that I have to actively stop (or snooze in case of the last one).
    I don’t need to look at the clock, my alarm tells me what time it is. All (..) I have to do is make a plan for what I want to get done on a day.

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