Time-boxing your work with Pomodoro for health, fun, and profit

A 6 minute read written by Derek November 26, 2013

Three juggling pins

I’m an OpenText Developer at Yellow Pencil, but that's not all I do. From agile coaching, running our backups, keeping our Git install going, building back-end toolsets, keeping things documented, and working on multiple client projects simultaneously, I have a lot on my plate. It can be difficult to stay on top of things, and I frequently run into two opposing productivity problems: doing a bit of everything, but not actually getting anything done, and being so focused on getting one thing done that nothing else gets done. And of course on some days, I simply just have a hard time getting motivated to do anything at all. A late night of being woken up multiple times by your three year old daughter will do that to you.

But I’ve discovered that using the time-boxing aspect from the Pomodoro Technique® can be really helpful here. Let me tell you three stories…

How I started drinking water, eating, and getting exercise during the day

Like a lot of developers, I can get completely lost in my work when I have an interesting problem to solve and I’ve got some really good music thumping in my headphones. Four, eight, sixteen hours can easily go by without me noticing. Once I stand up at the end of the day (or night) and my body reminds me that I haven’t moved AT ALL since I first sat down, that I’ve missed two meals, and that dehydration is setting in, a massive headache usually follows.

After reading articles about how sitting at my desk job was basically killing me, I resolved to do better. I wasn’t about to get a standing desk, but I was going to try to actually walk around the office from time to time.

Time-boxing my work really helped me stay on top of that. Using one of the practices of the Pomodoro Technique, I structured my day into a pattern of 25 minute work periods, followed by short five minute breaks or longer 15 minute breaks after every fourth work period.

During the short breaks, I would try to get up and walk around the office. Or at least stretch. And during the longer breaks, I would walk down the stairs (we’re on the fifth floor), walk around the block, and then sprint back up the stairs.

The result? A lot more energy at the end of the day and an effective way to counter the afternoon slump. Getting up from my desk gives me an opportunity to stay in touch with what’s going on around me, chat with my co-workers, have a snack, and fill my water bottle. Going outside for a few minutes every couple of hours gives me a chance to remember the big blue room outside of our office, and helps prevent the feeling that our short summer is slipping away from me. I’m also getting way more consistent with actually eating my lunch, which my body is happy with.

How I started wasting less time

To work at a computer is to be bombarded by distractions. Email, Campfire, and IM aside, whatever your particular vice is, it’s way too easy to get distracted. For some people, it’s Facebook, for others it’s Reddit. Or Tumblr. Or Twitter. For me, it’s my custom Feedly queue of webcomics, Slashdot, Lifehacker (ironically), and Bruce Schneier. There are some days when it’s easy to ignore the distractions and just focus on my work, but there are other days when I’m tired and uninspired, and I don’t have caffeine to turn to.

On these days I give myself a rule: pick something productive and work on it for just 25 minutes (since I use GTD, I always have a list ready made to choose from). It’s such a short amount of time, such a tangible commitment (not even a half hour!), that I can just muster up enough energy to get started. While working, I “save-up” my distractions for the 5 minute break at the end of the work period.

I’ve found the results to be very good. When I’m in the middle of the work period and I feel tempted to check into one distraction or another, I remind myself to just wait until the end of the work period - on average, only 12.5 minutes away. And the Pomodoro Timer puts some hard limits on the amount of time I let myself get distracted.

How I started focusing on the right priorities

Another problem I have with being the type of person that can slip into a highly focused flow is that, by definition, my perspective becomes narrow and I develop tunnel vision. This is fine when I need to tackle a challenging piece of work, but it becomes a problem when I look up and realize that I totally forgot about that meeting I was supposed to be at two hours ago. And those other three things that I promised I would get to today. And that I promised my spouse I would be home half an hour ago.

This is another place where using the time-boxing aspect of The Pomodoro Technique has proven useful. When I’m feeling like there is a lot to stay on top of, or when I’m tackling some particularly interesting piece of work, I use a portion of my five minute breaks to process my email, scan my to-do list and calendar, and ask myself “what’s the best thing for me to work on for the next 25 minutes?”

As a result, I’ve noticed that I’m much better prepared and on-time for meetings, because I’ll actually stop ahead of time to get ready, I’m more responsive to emails, and I have a much more relaxed sense of control. Working on multiple projects simultaneously becomes much less stressful when I’m continually evaluating my priorities throughout the day and staying on top of new inputs, and yet still giving myself the chance to focus on one thing at a time for just long enough to make some meaningful progress.

Some tips and ideas for getting started

Breaking up my day into short intervals of work and rest has proved to be a powerful habit. My experience has been that the days I do this are my most productive and balanced, and I end the day with energy to spare.

Here are some tips if you want to try this method out for yourself.

  1. Find a timer that will get in your face. There are all sorts of gadgets, apps, and desktop and web applications that can do this for you. Personally, I use the 30/30 app on my iPad Mini, with a stand that holds my iPad right below my center monitor in constant view. 30/30 is configured to prevent the iPad from going to sleep, so I can always see how much time I have left in the current work or rest period.

  2. Use your break period to check your calendar and to-do lists and ask yourself “what’s the best thing for me to work on for the next 25-minutes?”. If you have a meeting coming up before the end of the next work period, set your timer for a shorter time interval and even give yourself an extra five minutes before the meeting to prepare and switch contexts.

  3. Decide ahead of time what you are going to use your rest periods for. Have different activities for the short and long breaks. Here are some ideas:

    1. Write a journal entry on what you worked on during the last 25 minutes

    2. Clean up your workspace

    3. Stand up and walk around

    4. Do some stretches

    5. Relieve eye strain by looking out the window or focusing your eyes on a distant object

    6. Fill up your water bottle

    7. Get a snack

    8. Check your email

    9. Refill your coffee

    10. Check your to-do list and calendar

    11. Close your eyes and rest

    12. Meditate

    13. Check in to your social networks, blogs, news, etc.

    14. Wander around the office and chat with your co-workers

    15. Go outside and walk around the block

    16. Get some physical exercise to boost your heart rate - try running up and down a few flights of stairs!

Have your own efficiency techniques? I'd love to hear them. And let me know if you tried my system, and what your experience was like!