How the pomodoro technique has changed the way I work

For many years I thought that working hard was the way to go. Just make some TO-DO lists, pick work items in order, carry the task on and move to the next. This was my style and I thought this was the proper way. However this proved to be not that great plan, as I had a hard time tracking my progress, maintain focus on tasks at hand, while burnouts occurred more often than usual. On top of that, health issues risen to make things worse, degrading my focus even more. There were times that I was at terrible shape and my performance at work and at personal time decreased, spanning for periods of 3-4 weeks. So working that hard was not the way to go, apparently. Until I found out about the Pomodoro technique.

This is my story about the Pomodoro technique and how it helped me.

My story

I’ve been a professional software engineer for many years, and as everybody in this industry, I won’t forget how I got into this business. I’m sure, you all remember your first job, the first day in the office, the passion you had at that time to succeed and show that you truly have the potential to become a great employee.

I still remember my first day at work, I was hired as an intern for a digital marketing company and placed to the web development team. I wanted to show what I can do, so I was working very hard, doing overtimes, studying at home, especially the latter, I was investing a very good part of my personal time to become fluent with the technologies I was using at work. Of course, I’ve made time for myself, but I always put learning and job first and that was me for quite some time in my early career.

My efforts started to pay off, I was hired after a few months by that company, something that made me super happy and convinced that my method truly worked. I didn’t of course stop learning, I continued with my recipe.

  • Get to work early, plan work tasks in a sheet of paper.
  • Work until lunch, usually without any break in between.
  • Work until late evening (sometimes even late night), usually without break in between.
  • If nothing else scheduled, watch some Pluralsight or work into a pet project at home.
  • Sleep really late.
  • Cycle repeats.

I have to make a note here, I did had a life, I met with my friends, with my girlfriend, I went out to have fun, attended muay thai classes, gym, etc. just for certain days per week, I had to concentrate on my job and learning process. This was fine for quite a few months, even couple of years, I had a lot of energy as a youngster, so I didn’t felt fatigue or any sign of burnout. However, I started to notice that I’ve become more stressed and that in few occasions my concentration level dropped, making it hard for me to understand what I was trying to learn, be it a book or online course.

My remedy for this was to get a few days off from my learning schedule and get back to it as soon as I started to feel better. On the other hand, I had to be accountable in my daily job, I had to meet deadlines and in the same time make sure that I deliver quality software, all these in a very challenging environment, with requirements changing very rapidly from our demanding customers.

Health issues

This lifestyle kept going for a while, pilling up my stress. Due to my work style, working for long spans without even breaks sometimes, I had developed some initially minor lower back issues.

Then, I moved from Athens to Dublin and although I was working for a startup, the environment was less stressful, so for the first time after a while I was feeling much better with myself. But, my learning plans were left behind, same for other personal projects I was working on, as it was difficult for me to concentrate, due to the new environment and things that I had to take care that seemed alien to me up to that point. Due to limited time, I also stopped working out and muay thai training.

My back problems continued and started to become worse, but I never realized that the culprit was my lifestyle, I used to blame my body, that it had become soft because I stopped working out or that I hadn’t yet adjusted to Ireland’s climate. How naive. Years passed and I never got to go to gym while in Ireland, I always had something else to do, software to ship, new technology to learn, personal projects to work on, I had to remain competitive. Eventually, my back problems worsened even more, leading to acute lower back pains, so I was forced to see a doctor, who found that I suffer from the pyriformis syndrome due to lack of exercise and prolonged sitting because of my profession.

Not only that, but stress made its comeback and was possibly the cause of other health problems, which led me to a minor surgery operation.

As you can tell, things gotten sideways, not only I can’t progress as much, or as fast as I want with my career,  but my quality of life has decreased because of these problems, not fun at all.

Personal projects

The way I’ve worked for personal projects, was kinda similar to enterprise, I planned my tasks in a sheet of paper and tried to cross them out. If I didn’t made it, they were moved for the next day. I did made some estimates on how long it will take me to finish each task, but never accounted how much time I should spend doing it, breaks in between, etc. I was just diving in, without having an idea exactly when I am going to stop, usually, I took a brief break when I felt discomfort.

For enterprise projects I was able to manage, at least I knew how to proceed with my work and deliver based on my estimates, although in tough projects I was feeling sick after the delivery, due to the amount of effort. But for personal projects, it was a disaster. For work related projects, I had to be accountable to my responsibilities. For personal projects that I owned, I lacked this kind of motivation, leading to either neglect working on them or being distracted by various other factors, which led to procrastination.

Books

From early in my career, I liked to plan my year ahead and put a learning plan with certain books to read throughout that year. When I retrospected my year performance, I noticed that it dropped every year and got less books finished. I got to a point where I could just not concentrate on what I was reading, because there was no formal plan, sometimes I just gave a read of 10 minutes during midweek and in weekend I might spend 2-4 hours straight reading.

That said, my learning plan was not going as I was hoping and with all these problems pilling up, I needed a way out.

First time I heard about the pomodoro technique

Earlier this year, I had a discussion with a good friend of mine, Tasos, who blogs at blog.drinkbird.com. He was talking about a great book he had recently read; mind you, not only once, which made me question the context and its impact to him. The book is one of the greatest book ever written from a software developer to software developers, Soft Skills: The software developer’s life manual, by John Sonmez. My friend suggested to try out the Audible version, which to be honest, I was skeptical at first, because I told him that I tried podcasts and didn’t work for me, but he talked me through to purchase it. The good thing with audio books is that you can listen to them easily while walking, commute, free running and other activities, where a physical book is hard to read.

Soft skills book cover

This was the first time I heard about the pomodoro technique by John, he did a great job presenting it and giving some insight of his personal productivity plans and thoughts. I got very interested in it and started researching over the internet to find more, with the majority being positive comments, so I thought, why not? I should give it a try.

How it works

The technique is very simple.

You have to give your complete focus on a task for 25 minutes, then you can do a 5 minute break. This is called a pomodoro and you score one after every 25 minutes.

If you complete a focus session, which consists of 4 pomodoros, then you can do a longer break, usually 15 minutes.

Things I’ve realized

This little technique was proven very useful for me. At first, it felt a little bit awkward, but quickly it became second nature, so much that I can’t simply do without it anymore.

At the beginning, I was just using a mobile application to just notify me. It was pretty much pointless to do so, because I did not completely respected my efforts until that time. I needed a way to have some visuals on what I do, so I can respect my efforts but also monitor and track my progress and adjust if needed. I tried with a sheet of paper, but because I don’t wish to kill the whole Amazon rainforest, I moved to an online application which uses best of both words, pomodoro and Kanban! It’s a free online application, called Kanbanflow and you can find it at kanbanflow.com. More about it shortly.

Procrastination

I quickly realized that I can’t escape from the pomodoro rules, I have to give my full attention during a pomodoro, no more sidetracking, browsing or any other interruption was between me and my work. I also realized that I was more motivated to work on a task because I was feeling less fatigue and burnout, while the whole process turned to be fun for me, with all the ticking sounds, bells and reward points. I managed to gamify tasks which initially seemed boring.

Also, I was able to identity procrastination sources and isolate them, like certain kinds of interruptions such as internet browsing, email, etc. By monitoring what kind of interruptions I allow to happen, I can safely isolate and prevent them from happening in the future. One particular example comes with internet browsing, I was very prone to browse certain things that crossed my mind during working on a task, which caused my brain to switch mode very rapidly, in a non-canonical way, having me losing focus on the task which turned to make me slow in the process.

Planning

Usually, at work, I plan 12 pomodoros per day, this is my upper limit, indicating that I I’ve been fully productive if I reach that goal. It’s not the end of the world if I don’t reach it, the pomodoro technique is not about quantity, is about to make the time you spend worth it and a person who is truly focused on a task, can certainly tackle it much faster than one who’s not focused, partially or at all. If I don’t reach the 12 pomodoros goal, I retrospect what went wrong, what kind of interruptions I did had and try to improve the situation the next day. When I reach my goal, I stop; there is no further reason to exhaust myself, I want to preserve my energy for the next day.

Estimations

Something new that I noticed is that I can estimate tasks much more accurately using the pomodoro technique. I never quantify my tasks in minutes or hours or days, I estimate using pomodoros, for example task X needs 3 pomodoros to complete.

On estimating tasks, the technique suggests that you break your tasks to smallest task possible, so usually, you shouldn’t estimate a task as 9 pomodoros, this hints that the task can be broken to smaller pieces, which might take different number of pomodoros. People can easily estimate a small task, but we are much more error prone when estimating big tasks, thus estimating with the pomodoro technique can become a breeze. I’ve been using the pomodoro for about 5 months now, the longer the time passes and I get closer to master the technique, the more accurate are my estimates.

Breaks

I have to say that I was surprised on how revitalizing breaks can be. At first, I wasn’t that much disciplined about taking my 5 minute break, but after I read some articles [1], [2], [3] and did more research on the subject, I started to respect more and honor these short breaks. Results were immediate for my health, due to body movement, I rarely have back problems now and I usually feel fine when sitting on a chair, something not possible few years ago. I usually use this time to walk, which not only keeps my body healthy, but also my brain as studies show [5], [6], [7].

Regarding the longer break, I usually keep it a little bit longer, like 30 minutes sometimes, to have some lunch and do a longer walk.

Using Kanbanflow

As I briefly mentioned, this application changed my perception about the pomodoro technique. This was also recommended by John Sonmez in his book and I totally recommend it too. Since I started using this app, I can’t do without it.

It has a kanban board, which you can modify as you wish. In that board, you can define your tasks and move them to the appropriate columns. It also has a build-in pomodoro timer, which can be used on the board tasks. What I really enjoy is the sound that plays when I earn the pomodoro, the sound gives me a reward feeling, which stimulates my brain and makes me feel happy about putting that effort.

It also includes reports on your pomodoro and interruption statistics, which is the major selling point for me. Using these reports I can monitor my progress, see how I did for a specific period and what interruption I did had, so I can adjust my plans better next time.

I usually look at my weekly reports every Sunday evening and based on past week’s performance, I plan the next. Now that I know what kind of interruptions I got during my focus sessions, I remember and tend to avoid them.

This app comes with a paid version that has more features, but for me the free is sufficient for what I do.

Sounds

I mentioned that I love the reward sound at the end of my pomodoro. Another sound that I came to like is the ticking sound, but to really feel it, you should probably buy a real pomodoro timer, as some suggest [8]. If you are focused enough, you might not even notice it. At first sometimes it can be annoying, but soon it becomes insignificant, so much that I don’t even realize it, and apparently it has helped me concentrate more. If you are into the technique, you have to give it a try, either with a real timer (recommended) or with the digital that comes with Kanbanflow. Just make sure you are not driving your colleagues crazy! (At work, I usually use my digital one at Kanbanflow and headphones).

The science behind

Before I talk a little bit about science, I would like to mention a movie I watched recently, called ‘The Office’. It’s a Korean mystery/thriller movie I saw on Netflix, produced in 2015 and the premise is the investigation of brutal murders performed by a sales manager of an overwhelmed, workaholic, sales team. What we see in this movie is the embodiment of what office stress can do, how it can break even the most pure and nicest people around.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, in UK, 526,000 workers are suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017, while 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress in the same year.

Stress causes statistics
Stress, depression or anxiety by cause 2009/10-2011/12

The are various articles out there that suggest using the pomodoro technique. By reading those, I noticed they branch to various other scientific proof that has to do with how our brain functions, researches on people’s attention span and how breaks affect our brain to be more creative, even to philosophy and Henri Bergson.

According to David D. Nowell Ph.D., the pomodoro technique seems to increase an individual’s motivation levels, especially when the task at hand is boring or hard to complete. Something like that, without the pomodoro technique, would seem enough to turn a person off, but using that technique, one is encouraged to press forward, because it’s crucial for a mind to understand that is at exactly the right place, doing exactly the right thing, right now.

But doing the right thing, at the right place, what does that mean? Something that can explain that, is the maximum attention span for a person and how it can affect motivation. How long we can stay focused on a task can be crucial in achieving our goals. What is the maximum attention span though? It’s the amount of concentrated time a person can spend on a task without become distracted. According to a research in UK, estimates on the maximum attention span on healthy adults and teenagers range from 10 to 20 minutes, however there is no empirical evidence for this estimate and of course this varies by age; older children have more focus than younger. According to the studies, factors that can affect attention vary but some of focus arch enemies can be fatigue, hunger, noise or stress, and once and individual loses focus it’s hard to regain it and many times feels demotivated to do so. Studies have shown that we tend to increase our focus on a certain task if we find it enjoyable, we feel motivated to carry it on, thus we instinctively put our full attention into that.

This research proves a very good point in cases where people work hard for hours, trying to focus on a task, but ultimately fail, because of, well, distractions. But is it possible for an individual to work for a short time and then take a break? Would that lead to more creativity and productivity? The answer is yes, according to this article, and it has to do with how our brain functions. According to author, our brain uses the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, in goal-oriented work that requires concentration, in order to keep us focused. This part of the brain is responsible for logical thinking, our willpower to work on a task comes from there, so we need to keep it fresh from time to time by taking a break. Usually, most people prefer to take movement breaks, like short walks, which is probably the best way to renew focus, as such activities do not rely on PFC, but other brain regions. It’s usually preferable to not stay in the same environment while in break, according to Nir Eyal.

From the above, we understand that working for a short amount of time, take short break and then get back to it, can help our PFC to function better and not lead to fatigue, because if one starts feeling tired, not only loses focus, as mentioned earlier, but also leads to sloppy work and decision making, which sometimes can be crucial in certain jobs, like in judiciary or IT industry. This study is an incredible example of decision fatigue, cited briefly in Meg Selig’s article, analyzing the factors that impact the likelihood of Israeli prisoners to be released on parole. Judges were usually more likely to grant parole when they started the day, but as long as the day passes and no break is between the probability to grant a parole falls down to 0%! Why? Because it’s the safest option and they are tired, their brain literally does not have the power to process the information further, so it resorts to the easiest thing to do.

That means breaks do actually refresh our brain function, while skipping them can lead to creativity block. This forced me to take a step back to think when did I had my “aha” moments and to my surprise, I had them while in the shower or commuting, because I deliberately let my brain move to a diffuse mode for a while.

Did you know that Charles Darwin used to take long walks around London, as cited by Ph.D. Damon Young in his article? Did you know that Charles Dickens also took long walks during the afternoon? Such great minds, important people for our human history and evolution, used walking as a physical and mental exercise.

So don’t be afraid, take short breaks and try to move, walk around, it’s good for your health, physical and emotional. Sitting for prolonged times affects our health negatively, I’ve experienced that and my therapists, all said the same, take short breaks and walk. Move. Movement is a medicine and is free!

But should I take indeterminate breaks? Or should be scheduled? According to Harvard studies, the latter is the answer. If you follow the pomodoro technique, it has your focus and break time scheduled for you, of course you can alter the duration of each one, but bear in mind the studies that we saw above, on maximum attention span and breaks. The 25 minutes focus and 5 minutes short break work great on me.

Working and taking breaks on predefined windows, is also a remedy for stress. I’ve done a little bit of research on Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, based lots of his work on the theory of duration, researching on the aspects of time and his Ph.D. thesis on Time and Free Will. He believed that we as human beings, perceive time via a succession of separate, discrete, spatial constructs, like seeing a film. We only see a succession of fixed frames, but we feel it as a continuous flow with no beginning or end. That is exactly one factor that produces stress, seeing the big picture of time sometimes terrify us, we don’t have the mean to measure and if we can’t measure, we can’t control time. Usually, we fear what we can’t control and in this case we can’t control our schedule, but, what if we determined our plans, measure them somehow and put them in a list, seeing them as a succession of events, like wake up, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, dress up, go to work, do x1, x2, …, xn. This generates an illusion of control for us and it’s not that scary anymore, we are in the driving seat. We usually plan our tasks, like in a kanban board and we can measure them with pomodoros, with max 12 pomodoros to be completed within a day. Having this in mind, we see that the pomodoro technique actually helps you remove stress out of your life.

Something great I read recently was about a story in the 1920’s, in a blog written by Derek Thompson. I will cite one paragraph that piqued my interest.

In the mid-1920s, an executive in Michigan studying the productivity of his factory workers realized that his employees’ efficiency was plummeting when they worked too many hours in a day or too many days in a week. He instituted new rules, including an eight-hour work day and a five-day work week. “We know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six,” he said. “Just as the eight hour day opened our way to prosperity, so the five day week will open our way to a still greater prosperity.”

That company turned out to be one of the most profitable companies of the mid-twentieth century, and the boss at its helm is remembered as one of the most talented executives in American history. His name was Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, thought on how he’s going to make his business great by not forcing people work to death, but work reasonably. He understood that working smart is the way and not working hard, the latter only hindered production. That’s incredible thinking, 100 years ago, and yet today, we are back in ground zero in certain areas or industries, a very good example is Austria’s recent proposal to increase the workday hours up to 12. This is a step backwards and it’s proven it does not work.

Summary

By now, I hope you enjoyed reading this post and got to know about the pomodoro technique. I really hope my story has motivated you to try it out. In the end, you don’t have anything to lose, if it doesn’t work out for you, it doesn’t and you just move forward with what makes you happy the most. But in case it works out, it will be life changing, making me feel happy that I piqued your interest in this technique.

Do you use the pomodoro technique? How it’s been so far for you? If not using the technique, do you think this blog has motivated you to give it a try? Please let me know in the comments.

This blog post took me 10 pomodoros. The research prior writing the post took me 9 pomodoros.

Some resources

  1. For a More Creative Brain, Take Breaks
  2. Different Types of Breaks Boost Creativity and Productivity
  3. To Be More Creative, Schedule Your Breaks
  4. Attention span
  5. Walking linked to improved brain function
  6. Walking, talking, and thinking about brain and body health
  7. Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills
  8. The Science behind the Pomodoro Technique

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