Book Summary of Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Nöteberg

Pomodoro technique has been amongst one of my most impactful experiments to improve productivity. Today, I will be summarizing a book, Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Nöteberg, that I read as I attempt to master the skill of Pomodoro via personal experiments.

Introduction to Pomodoro

The Pomodoro technique was defined by Francesco Cirillo in 1992 after the frustration of low productivity and unstructured studying. Therefore, his goal become to use Pomodoro (time) to focus and get the work done.

In summary, Pomodoro technique is as simple as;

  1. Prioritized and Scoped (Defined and Estimated) tasks to do
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and start the first one. Take a break and repeat this until the task is completed.
  3. (Advanced) – Have retrospectives, create daily commitments, handle interruptions, and improve your practice as you go.

In Pomodoro technique, velocity means how many focused sessions (pomodori) you get done each day. Remember, you get lots of work done by focusing on focus (and not on focusing getting the work done).

Why the Pomodoro Technique?

Here are some reasons why the Pomodoro technique is effective;

  • Excitement decreases when complexity is high – with Pomodoro you don’t focus on the complexity but rather focusing to get the first small chunk completed.
  • Procrastination increases when tasks are boring – with Pomodoro you focus on getting the task done within the timer – regardless of how boring it is.
  • The hard work is done, but the activities that matter are still not completed – with Pomodoro you focus on a prioritized list of work each day.
  • The pressure builds before a deadline – with pomodoro you focus on completing the focus and work session and not get stressed about the deadline (which you will hopefully meet)
  • The mental transition between work and breaks is too slow – we are not good at self-regulation – that is when we need to break and when we need to focus. Pomodoro, helps with that by alerting us to focus or take a break.
  • Mistakes get repeated over and over – with Pomodoro you learn your weaknesses and “distractions” to not repeat the mistakes via retrospectives.
  • The effort that one task takes is underestimated – usually we don’t know how long a task with take, with Pomodoro, you attempt to do that upfront (and if wrong, learn from it).
  • The scope of a task is underestimated – usually we don’t know the scope (exactly what we are trying to accomplish) of a task. With Pomodoro, you attempt to define the scope before committing to the work.
  • Your mind is invaded by competing thoughts – Pomodoro trains you to focus on the current task (single task) and limits your working memory to finish the task at hand.
  • A complex and demanding methodology of working consumes your time – simplicity is at the core of Pomodoro, allowing you to focus your energy to get the work done.
  • You forget about the wholeness while in flow – Pomodoro allows you to focus on just this task (not the complexity of the whole project) while doing it. Better yet, the breaks allow you to see new patterns in the “wholeness” (or big picture) of the project.
  • Estimates are seen as promises – Deadlines or promises create artificial stress, thus, Pomodoro is a stress-free way of delivery by just focusing on one Pomodoro at a time.
  • The process is not based on facts – Unlike other ways of working, Pomodoro is based on facts (ie what interrupts you) and context to help you improve your focus.
  • Someone pushes work on you – Instead of others deciding what you should do, you decide your priorities and commit to it. This results in higher personal commitment.
  • Perfectionism prevents actions – we attempt to finish the best work (instead of finish a draft of the work). Pomodoro prevents against that by attempting to finish soon and then revise if need be.
  • Fear of failure or criticism is a mental impediment – pomodoro is personal as it attempts to hold you accountable for your work. Thus, it takes away the pressure for criticism or blame from others.

Context and Setup for Effective Pomodoro

Understanding how your brain works will help you understand why Pomodoro are an effective process for our brains;

  • Focusing (Flow): The prospects for getting into the flow are much better when you are rested, seated, and focused than when you are just hanging around and waiting for inspiration.
  • Let the Brain Refuel – Our brain is refueled every hour with almost 2 grams of glucose. Thus, it is best to work in focused sessions and breaks to allow the brain to not get fatigued.
  • Train your brain with a rhythm – Brain thrives on rhythms – breathing cycles, electrical activity of the heart, food, hormones, sleep, etc. Even in social lives we have rhythms – religious events, birthdays, etc. With Pomodoro, we can have effective rhythms for our working brain (focus and rest).
  • Brain prefers the same environment– For pomodoros, its best to keep the environment and routine the same so our brains can get into the flow without much confusion. It has been proven that our brain is comfortable in a known working environment.
  • Condition your brain to focus with Pomodoro – Unconditional reflexes (blinking) are associative. Conditional reflexes are formed – such as laying in bed to sleep. With pomodoro, you can train your brain (conditioned) to focus when the timer (with or without sound) starts.
  • Brain is noisy between right and left brain – Sometimes they interfere too much, thus, Pomodoro allows you to but both in harmony and get into a flow state.
  • Brain fatigues from hyperactivity – Overworking (not taking breaks) results in focus and energy resources depleting. Therefore, work at a sustainable pace (with pomdoro) rather than unsustainable burst of energy.
  • Brain has a limited working memory – Pomodoro helps you avoid having your limited working memory become a bottleneck (thinking about too many things). It limits the problems and focus by focusing on what is in the working memory (ie the current task).
  • Brain is an association machine – Short term memory is more of an audio recording whereas long-term is a mind map. We need to balance between the two to get results. The breaks and focus of Pomodoro allow us to do that.
  • It is better for your brain to view time as succession rather than duration – Treat time as succession (instead of duration which is unpredictable) to increase productivity. Our brains work better with succession – it gives focus and eliminates anxiety from producing the end result.
  • Brain and Dreaming – The brain discovers new relationships between collections of memory by dreaming (at night or during the day). Pomodoro, gives it that time to do so.
  • Brain needs offline time – Our brain works on a problem or task in the background, not only while we’re asleep but also in offline time when we’re awake. Giving ourselves the break (via Pomdoro) allows the brain to put forward good ideas and insights.
  • Brain absorbs and forms relational memory – which is the ability to generalize across existing personal knowledge is highly affected by offline time such as REM sleep or even small (awake) breaks from problem solving.
  • Flow and the brain – mental state characterized by following: clear goals, concentration and focus, a loss of the feeling of self-consciousness, a distorted sense of time, direct and immediate feedback, balance between ability and challenge, a sense of personal control, intrinsically rewarding, the merging of action and awareness.
  • Brain on procrastination – Why? Becomes procrastination feels like a reward. Remember that stress comes from the inside, and the cure is to find a starting point for your project.
  • Effect of heroism on the brain– don’t do overtime to get your undeserved hero status. Working overtime is like compromising on sleep, you might get ahead in the short-term (the task at hand) but your health will make you fall behind tomorrow.
  • Brain needs to be regulated – Relevant metrics are tracked during focused work of Pomdoro. This helps us regulate and learn about our brain.
  • Too many choices are bad for your brain – Constantly choosing all the time between all possible alternatives creates anxiety and disturbs our focus. Pomodoro (selecting priorities) ensures our brain is not in that unhealthy loop during work.

How to practice Pomodoro Technique

Below, we will breakdown the stages, the artifacts, and the how-to of the Pomodoro Technique.

Overview of the Stages of Pomodoro

  • Pick Your Priority Tasks (Planning) – Pick and commit to top tasks from your backlog (Activity Inventory) and add them to your “To Do Today” sheet. Each task should be defined and estimated (# of Pomodoro it will take)
  • Start the Work (Tracking) – Start the work with the Pomodoro timer and collect your metrics.
  • Daily Summary (Recording) – At the end of the day, you file your daily observations on the Records sheet. For example, # of pomodoro completed, estimates, interruptions etc.
  • Reflect on Performance (Processing) – After recording, you convert the raw data into information. For example, you get interrupted on average twice in a Pomodoro.
  • Improve the Process (Visualizing) – Organize the info in a way that helps you see how to improve your process. For example, defending your Pomodoro and letting others know not to disturb you.

Artifacts (tools) for conducting the Pomodoro

The above stages of the Pomodoro techniques are supported by the following artifacts (tools);

  • To do Today
    • List of your tasks (scoped and estimated) to be completed today
    • This list is your commitment for the day and acts as your goal for the day
  • Activity Inventory
    • Backlog of all the work you need to do in the near future
  • Records
    • Daily summary of performance metrics
  • Timer
    • To conduct the Pomodoro – including the breaks
pomodoro_tools_timer_estimate_staffan_record
3-Step Process of tools (Artifacts) to Conduct Pomodoro Technique

In addition to general benefits of Pomodoro, the above setup allows for;

  • Direct and immediate feedback – we get satisfaction when our investment of mental energy results in success. With the Pomodoro and focus on the current task, we immediately see how the past Pomodoro brought us closer to our goals.
  • Trains the prospective memory – Goals are connected to our will – if we are motivated to make things happen in the future (prospective memory). With Pomodoro’s tool of “To Do Today”, we focus on what we can do in the future.
  • Choose one single task and focus on that – to enable flow by focusing on one task, the above tools ensure we are setup to succeed – one task at a time.

Taking Breaks and Detaching

Breaks and detaching from the task at hand are a crucial part of Pomodoro. If you skip breaks, then quality of productivity will fall and result in attention-deficit (mental fatigue). On the other hand, if breaks are too long, then you will lose the rhythm and every Pomodoro start will feel like starting a new task.

Thus, between pomodoro’s, make sure to take a break and detach:

  • Pomodoro Breaks – move and do something different from the task at hand
    • Take a 5 minute break between every Pomodoro and a 20 minute break after 4 back-to-back Pomdoro
    • Goal is to recharge the brain and allow for background processing of previously assimilated info
    • As a guideline, do activities that require less effort. Things like sleeping (napping), meditating, walking around, drinking water, and looking out the window.
    • Don’t do activities that require more mental energy – talking to others, reading news, responding to emails, or doing more work.

Again, if we don’t break or detach, our stress system is not neutralized and results in a number of symptoms;

  • The thinking system in the brain stem is affected resulting in poor thinking
  • The senses of the limbic system and our rhythms are affective (to keep recharging between tasks)
  • At chronic stress levels, the capacity of your working memory and your ability to concentrate will fall
  • The joy of working will be transformed into anxiety – inspiration is altered to irritation

Dealing with Interruptions during Pomodoro

For most, interruptions (or distractions) will occur as we attempt to focus during the Pomodoro. That is okay as long as we have a strategy to deal with them. The interruptions are;

Internal Interruptions with Pomodoro

  • Internal interruptions happen from within – like remembering to do something, browsing the web, feeling hungry, or thinking about something else.
  • To deal with these kind of interruptions – accept them, record them (as a task in your backlog), and then continue to focus on your current task.

External Interruptions with Pomodoro

  • External interruptions are from other people – bosses, co-workers, family, or phone calls or emails.
  • To deal with these kind of interruptions – defend your Pomodoro and ask others that you will get back to them. Furthermore, make your Pomodoro workflow known to others so they can respect it.

Overtime, you will begin to become more aware of your interruptions (and their sources) and work towards minimizing them on your journey to mastering Pomodoro.

Advanced – Modify and Personalize Pomodoro

As you begin to master the discipline of working with Pomodoro, you may want to modify it. Changing parameters like work duration (longer than 25 minutes) and break duration.

However, experts caution against doing that too early. First, attempt to get disciplined with the standard Pomodoro, only after that attempt to change it. And if you do change it, record your metrics to know if you are still performing at metrics comparable to the standard Pomodoro (of 25 minutes).

There is strong proof and data suggesting that a pomodoro longer than 25-minutes is not optimal for most people, thus, better to go with that.

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