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Technically Non-Technical: The Pomodoro Technique

I've been going through a period recently of attempted self improvement.  Trying new things to make myself a better more effective code monkey — iterative code reviews, todo lists, time management, pair programming, TDD, BDD, la dee dee.... 

My old strategy was simple — get given or discover a piece of work, usually pretty large, and start coding.  Once done do a bit of exploratory testing, read the spec to check I've covered everything, commit the code and submit a bit of a code review.  These sessions tend to last a number of days which leads to an eventual short term burnout.  Now because I always write 100% flawless code first attempt that's generally fine but it doesn't really allow other people to learn from my excellence.  Also being the smartest person on any project I am generally being pulled left and right answering queries and explaining my very clever designs — this creates regular context shifts and makes it harder for me to get my focus back on creating all the awesome!

One of the techniques I have found quite successful recently was the Pomodoro Technique.  The name comes from the original kitchen timer used by the creator and the focus is squarely on a low tech approach.  The premise behind it is simple but effective.  You focus on your task for a 25 minute period (a pomodoro) ignoring all external interruptions (or you forfeit the pom), take 5 minute break, repeat. After 4 pomodoros you take a longer break (15-30 minutes).  The rules are as follows,

  • A Pomodoro Consists of 25 minutes Plus a Five-Minute Break.
  • After Every Four Pomodoros Comes a 15-30 Minute Break. 
  • The Pomodoro Is Indivisible. There are no half or quarter Pomodoros. 
  • If a Pomodoro Begins, It Has to Ring:  
    • If a Pomodoro is interrupted definitively – i.e. the interruption isn't handled it's considered void, never begun, and it can't be recorded with an X. 
    • If an activity is completed once a Pomodoro has already begun, continue reviewing the same activity until the Pomodoro rings. 
  • Protect the Pomodoro. Inform effectively, negotiate quickly to reschedule the interruption, call back the person who interrupted you as agreed. 
  • If It Lasts More Than 5-7 Pomodoros, Break It Down. Complex 
  • activities should be divided into several activities. 
  • If It Lasts Less Than One Pomodoro, Add It Up. Simple tasks can be combined. 

My Honest Opinion

My previous development strategy was all kinds of broken.  It worked provided I wasn't disturbed and I didn't really have a point at which I could turn round to someone and say 

“give me 5 minutes and I'll get back to you”

The pom gives me that excuse and with the use of a simple widget I am able to know when I'll next be free (and so are other people).  The hardest thing for me to accept was actually taking the 5 minute break post-pom. Initially (and sometimes still) I'd just work over the 5 minutes — just one more line of code, just test it once more — excuses, excuses, excuses.  Breaking old habits is hard!  Some of the other benefits from the technique is that, 

  • it really helps you visualise your task up front and break it down much better
  • it helps you track work that you have done and how long tasks take.  
  • some pomodoro software even integrates into popular task lists and calendars


The Pomodoro Technique website is by far the best resource for this stuff and even has a free ebook on the technique and its background

Personally it's going to take me while longer to get into the right mentality 100% but I think the benefits will be worth it.  One day I'll be so efficient the code will just stream out of my brain and into my IDE - but for now I'll stick the mortals way of doing things.

Published in Craftsmanship on April 05, 2011