A while ago I started working with The Pomodoro Technique. I initially had my reservations but after using it semi-consistently for a couple of months I don't see myself going back.
Pomdoro is a time management method named after the kitchen timer. The basic premise is that you decide on a task to work on, set the timer at 25 minutes and exclusively work on that task. When 25 minutes have elapsed you take a short 5 minute break and start the next.
The Pomodoro kitchen timer
Initially I had problems adopting it because I had a wrong definition for a task. For me, a task had to be something I could finish in 25 minutes. Most programming tasks don't fall into that category. Eventually I settled on a different definition: a task is something to work on exclusively for the next 25 minutes. It doesn't matter if I finish it in that time, I just want to commit myself to doing that one thing for a specific amount of time. If I do finish I pick the next task of my todo list and continue with that until the 25 minutes are up.
My average work day now consists of three recurring tasks:
- Programming, what I get paid to do, so basically what I do when not doing anything else;
- Email, 1 Pomodoro somewhere after lunch;
- Write, 1 Pomodoro immediately after lunch;
I keep up to date with what's going on in the world during the 5 minute breaks. The point is to eliminate distractions so I try not to check IM, Twitter or Facebook during the 25 minutes.
It's impossible to measure if using Pomodoro has made me more productive, but I feel more productive. Heck, I literally shipped an Android app with no prior Android development experience in 4 weeks.
Pomodoro also gives me a way to measure my productivity. Honestly I don't really care about how much time I spend on programming. Some days are bad, that's what you get when you're doing creative work. With other tasks like email though it helps me constrain the amount of time I spend on it. Even on a bad day I know I'll never get distracted by email for more than 25 minutes. Also if doing email starts taking more than 25 minutes I know it's time to change something.
Like everything else, it isn't all perfect. It's hard not to get distracted when working in an office. A co-worker can distract you at any moment. The official book says to be strict, because whoever is interrupting you can usually wait. I just don't like blowing people off like that. Besides interacting with co-workers should be fun and an important part of any office culture.
Office culture also prevents me from taking the longer breaks. The technique suggests taking a break every 4 Pomodoros. We do lunch together at the Karma office and our lunch time rarely coincides exactly with 4 Pomodoros. I basically take my first long break during lunch and usually another one somewhere in the afternoon. They're rarely exactly every 2 hours though.
I've been doing Pomodoro consistently for a while now and I'm not going back to my old way of working. I realize now how much time I actually spent being distracted. Programming often requires keeping a complex model in your head and that's gone the second you do something else.
Hopefully by now you're thinking about trying Pomodoro. I highly encourage you to do so. Get the Pomodoro Mac app, commit yourself to work on something for 25 minutes and start the timer.
When you're starting out, don't repeat my mistake. Keep It Simple (Stupid)! According to the book Pomodoro is about much more than just 25 minutes of focused work, but that is what gives me the most value. Don't get bogged down in the details, just get started!
Update: I recommended the Pomodoro Mac app because that's what I use and at the time of writing it was free. Even though it's a paid app now I can still recommend it, but I don't know how it stacks up against other paid Pomodoro apps.