Okay, that title's a bit dramatic, but I've had a lot of coffee this morning, and that's just what popped out. On topic: I’ve been meaning to write a little about the Pomodoro technique, and a post by Dave Caolo motivated me to finally do it.

I agree with Dave: it’s gimmicky, but

It works because I can concentrate for 25 minutes easily, and enjoy the regular permission to goof off. It’s effective for me and that’s what counts.

I see the Pomodoro technique as a kind of “plug in” for GTD. It’s not a substitute for good planning and review, but it’s a great way to stay focused when you’re in work mode.

By working in little 25-minute time bundles, you can turn your focus into a sharp, persistent chisel capable of dislodging some pretty significant barriers in your project (life?).

I find the Pomodoro technique particularly useful for

  • Getting through multi-hour stretches of the day when your mind is saying “I’d really rather be somewhere else.” Happens to everyone, I bet. I know it happens to me.
  • Tackling certain tasks whose time frame just can’t be laid out ahead of time. Sure, we’d all love to be able to set only short duration tasks in OmniFocus (or wherever), but there will always be those tasks that just take longer than we want – and for which it’s just not useful to break down ahead of time. For example, I may spend an hour or more simply investigating an actuarial software problem before I even know what the project to fix it should look like.
  • Focusing on creative tasks like “draft chapter 10 of my book” (not my book, but your book). I’ve always struggled a bit with the “creative task” in GTD because they’re often vague and any attempt to make them not vague usually stifles creativity. Making a task like “spend 25 minutes writing” can be a useful hack for peacefully integrating your creative contexts into your utilitarian productivity system.
  • Using Parkinson’s Law to your advantage. We all become a hell of a lot more productive as deadlines approach. By wedging your work into small, finite time packets, you’ll feel a greater sense of urgency per minute of your time. Honestly, it can become a game to get things done before break time with the Pomodoro technique.

Personally, I’m not nutty about racking up Pomodoros (i.e. scoring myself by the number of 25-minute segments I complete in a day). I just use it as a kick-starter or a way to change things up when needed. No rules, no rigidity. I have enough of that.

I’ve been using an iPhone app called Task Timer [iTunes]. It’s got a great minimalist interface. I especially like it because it’s not strictly made for the Pomodoro technique. You aren’t locked into using 25-minute segments. It also has different presets for break times (2, 5, or 10 minutes).

In the end, the idea is very simple.

  1. When you’re working, be as focused as possible in the moment.
  2. Have fun frequently. If your mind knows a break is always just ahead, it’s a lot more willing to work in the moment.