The Pomodoro Technique: Using Rhythm to Increase Productivity

Over the last few years I have read about lots of techniques for increasing productivity. Getting Things Done is all the rage & there are many apps that claim to help you Getting Things Done better than anything else. What most of these amount to is a glorified task list, just one more thing to manage & keep me from actually Getting Things Done. In the end it turns out that the real enemy of productivity is time.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a method of dealing with Time Anxiety. All you need to try it out is a timer, a paper & pencil. At it’s simplest it involves a list of tasks & a commitment to focus on one task in 25 minute increments. The 25 minute increments are broken up by three short breaks followed by one long break. These breaks are 5 & 15 minutes respectively.

Each 25 minute increment is referred to as a Pomodoro. During a Pomodoro distractions are not allowed. If a distraction pops into mind you are supposed to record it but maintain focus on the chosen task. Four Pomodoros make up one set.

How you organize & prioritize your task list is up to you. The creator of the Pomodoro technique does have some suggestions, but if you already have a system in place I imagine that it can be easily adapted to work alongside the Pomodoro Technique.

Where does Rhythm Come in?

If you are musically inclined you may have already noticed a familiar structure here. I’m no expert on music theory but I believe that most modern music is written in 4/4 time. There are notable exceptions but personally 4/4 is the time signature I identify with emotionally.

Nearly all electronic dance music is in 4/4. It is this consistent rhythm which allows DJ’s to seamlessly blend one track into the next. It also makes it easier for the dancer to anticipate & react to changes. The best music uses this rhythm to create an emotional connection in the listener.

With the Pomodoro Technique you get to apply the benefits of rhythm to your daily tasks. One set of Pomodoros becomes a measure, a full work day might be a phrase. After weeks & months of practicing the Pomodoro Technique you end up with songs. Taken over years of practice you get albums & a full discography cataloging your professional output.

Applying this to my own work a phrase might become a feature in a web app. Each incremental release might become a song & an app launch becomes an album. Over the history of my career I hope to create my own discography of projects. Some of them will be successful & others not so much so. Framed in the musical concepts I am comfortable with it all doesn’t sound quite so intimidating.

My History with Time Anxiety & Fear

Until discovering the Pomodoro Technique I had never heard of Time Anxiety. I was aware that I wasn’t as productive as I felt I could be, but tended to write it off as a personality flaw & tried to brute force productivity. The results were generally unsatisfactory & frequently led to depression when I felt like I wasn’t accomplishing the things I should be.

I first started to really consider this issue after watching a talk called Fear of Programming by Nathaniel Talbott at RubyConf in 2008. Nathaniel talks about how at a subconscious level Fear is frequently involved in preventing us from achieving our full potential. I started to consider the role Fear was playing in my life & was shocked to find that nearly every source of unhappiness could be traced back to Fear on some level.

I’ve always been attracted to media involving Time. The earliest may have been Star Wars, which starts out by declaring that these futuristic events actually took place a long time ago. Douglas Adams & the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy treat Time as something totally different than what we perceive. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins has transcendence of Time as a core theme. When season 5 of LOST began I was thrilled with the time skipping plot & spent a ton of my own time coming up with theories of time travel. Another recent favorite is The Holographic Universe which covers Time as part of it’s Theory of Everything.

After a short time practicing the Pomodoro Technique I started to realize that this fascination with transcending Time may have been a subconscious hint at my own Fear of it. This Fear was the cause of my anxiety & it made important tasks seem insurmountable. By reframing the idea of time as something I could take control of it became much easier to focus on the immediate task at hand.

Rhythm in Life

Music isn’t the only place where rhythm affects us. At a basic level rhythm is really just a series of cycles & cycles are everywhere in nature. The change of seasons, the tides, reproduction, weather & so on are all cycles which stretched out over time create natural rhythm. I think this is why rhythm can be so comforting.

I believe that everybody can benefit from taking a close look at how rhythm affects their life. Think about the patterns in your career or your relationships. Especially as the workforce becomes increasingly mobile, think about how you feel going into a new job versus how you feel right before leaving an old one. Or the difference between a fresh relationship & one that is about to end. By recognizing these rhythms you can become aware of how they are affecting you & use that knowledge to make better decisions.

As part of the Pomodoro Technique you are encouraged to keep a log of your tasks as well as your distractions. Some of those distractions may end up becoming future tasks, but the important thing is that they don’t get in the way of the current task. By paying close attention to where your focus likes to wander over time you will be able to make better decisions about what to focus on.

Getting Started with the Pomodoro Technique

The first thing you should do is grab a PDF copy of The Pomodoro Technique. It goes into much greater detail than I have here & will help you get started with concepts I’ve just glossed over like the activity inventory & to do today sheet.

The next thing to do is get yourself a timer. If most of your tasks happen online you may want to give Tomatoist a look. Any timer will do however, the important thing is that it stays close by & visible.

Another helpful tool for the computer bound is Concentrate for Mac. If you find it hard to avoid distraction this app will let you hide programs & block websites on a timer. For those looking for a cross platform tool there is Focus Booster which runs on Adobe AIR.

Other Techniques which Use Rhythm

One which comes to mind that I haven’t tried out yet comes from Jerry Seinfeld. The goal is to mark an X everyday that you perform a certain task & try not to break the chain. There is an iphone app call Streaks to help you do this.

I am curious to hear about other productivity techniques which use rhythm. For example anything that focuses on achieving a balance between work & pleasure could apply. Do you have any tricks for being productive which are based around establishing a rhythm?