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07.09.2010 Tomatoes to my taste

Pomodoro is an interesting technique

I am an easily distracted person. I use music as an escape from the office environment. My ultimate goal is to work constantly in a flow. As you might guess, that does not happen all the time. There are distractions, scheduled meetings and the urge to get coffee because the chair suddenly turns into a void of thoughts. That is when a piece of paper becomes my best task list and I need to start shielding myself from the world to get something done. On the other hand the world might need me soon. As a Scrum Master I expect them to need me all the time. Sometimes that is a wrong assumption.

I do have clockwork to help me. I use the Pomodoro Technique. The basics are simple. Even the book is only around 40 pages. It is freely available.

How does it work?

I pick an important task from my prioritized list of tasks, I set a kitchen timer to 25 minutes and start working on the task. While I am at it, I take notes of all distractions, notes regarding findings in the task and Pomodoro itself and add emerging tasks to the task list. If I am distracted enough to start doing something else, the Pomodoro is void and to continue I maybe take a break and then reset the timer. After a successful Pomodoro I take a break of 5 minutes and for each group of four Pomodoros there is a longer break. After a day of Pomodoro there is a personal review. Briefly it is a personal Agile approach.

How do I actually do it?

I have made modifications. For the same reasons why many forget the core principles of Scrum, I cut some corners in Pomodoro. The most important thing for me is that it gives me the next best thing to a mini-flow. My best working hours have usually been between five and nine, the early and the late flavor. That is when there is nobody to distract me. You would be surprised how many distractions that leaves laying around.

First of all, I do not use a kitchen timer. I work with a team in a room. For someone practicing Pomodoro I would say: “If distracted by the timer, you are not concentrating.” When my team is not a volunteer to this technique, I will not force them to work with a constant ticking sound, not to mention the alarm going off every 30 minutes or so. There is a team version of the technique but I do not think it is the first thing to try in a fresh team.

My timer replacement is a piece of software called Pomodairo. It consists of a timer, a simple task list, an interruption counter and a minimal reporting application. It is just enough for my needs and gives the grim velocity I am able to keep up.

I don’t do all of my work under a Pomodoro. Meetings are an obvious thing. Though I would like to try time-boxing a few with a timer. There are a lot of individuals and interactions in our environment and sometimes it is simply beneficial to go ping them over the Adidas network layer. My number one type of Pomodoro task is reading. The man behind the technique, Francesco Cirillo, used it to cram for exams.

I extend the Pomodoros. This is strictly forbidden by the book, but I can feel when the flow hits me and in that case I will continue working until interrupted. Usually when I am strict in the morning, I will be indistractable by lunch time. Also I tend to reserve only half of the day for intense iterating. The reasoning is that there is not so much of that in my line of work.

Even as an abused abomination of a technique, I feel that Pomodoro is one of the best things happened to my time management in a while. I am not following it to the letter with an ambition because it has proven to be an useful asset in my tool chest. I have used it before in cramming for an exam and it is perfect. There is a lot of improvement to be achieved and it keeps getting better. At the office, all days are different and I rarely need to strive for 12 Pomodoros per day.