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 :)