A Quick Intro to Pomodoro

If you haven’t looked at the Pomodoro Technique I suggest you should. The premise is simple: work for a bit, take a break for a bit. This break should be shorter than the time you worked. So work (usually 25 minutes, but I’ve had success with 45), then break (5 minutes for 25 minute sessions, 5-10 for 45 minute sessions). For the more exact here are the steps, stolen from Wikipedia:

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

  • Decide on the task to be done
  • Set the pomodoro timer to n minutes (traditionally 25)
  • Work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  • Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
  • After four pomodoros, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

It is extremely important that the break you take is a complete detour from what you’ve been working on.

Diversion as Focus

The real key to how the Pomodoro Technique works is in the breaks. Human attention is about 10 minutes, so any work you do has to be parceled out into 10 minute chunks (or 5 minutes, which is half that). I’ll call these ‘attention units’. Once you spend an attention unit, you have to refocus. Most public speakers will use some emotional content or move onto the next slide to keep their audience engaged. You have to ‘buy’ attention units from an audience. If you time a presentation poorly people will wander off into their own heads.

Plays and movies do this with small breaks in the action to have characters reminisce or consider their situation. Though one of my favorite films, Mad Max: Fury Road famously does not allow for many breaks, so the audience feels the tension of a sustained chase.

Pomodoro works because the effort spent in the working time is short, broken up into those convenient attention units. Once you reach the end of a working session, right when your attention unit is spent, you end up stopping, putting down your work no matter where you are, and doing something different.

If you keep thinking about the problem or your work as you take your break it’s not nearly as effective as if you did a dance or went for a quick jog or watched a cat video. You’ve already spent an attention unit. You can’t expect your brain to spend more energy trying to sustain that focus. So don’t.

It’s like running without breathing too much. Some people might be pretty good at it, but that doesn’t mean that’s the best running technique. Most work you do is going to be a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s important to be able to pace yourself.

That’s why you do something different. You spend half an attention unit resetting your brain, get used to not doing something. Your brain, elastic thing that it is, has been stretching to keep focus. Now it’s less strained. Now you spend the remaining attention unit getting back into the swing of things.

The Importance of Showering

or: The Back Burner Principle

or or: The Eureka Effect

Everyone knows what it’s like to be in bed, warm and comfortable, and suddenly you have the best idea ever. Why didn’t you think of this earlier? Too late now, you’re tired and falling asleep. This is known as the eureka effect. The idea is pretty basic: insight comes when you’re stuck on a problem, and then you do something completely different. That’s why you have good ideas in the shower, or as you are falling asleep.

Your brain puts the problem, the hard and difficult thing, on the back burner. The right hemisphere of your brain starts lighting up. Creativity is happening, just under your conscious thought.

This is why you should shower. If not for hygiene, at least for the good ideas. Sadly, I do not take advantage of this effect as much as I should. Often I have a waterproof speaker in the shower with me, I like to listen to podcasts and audiobooks.

So back to the Pomodoro technique. You’ve worked really hard, your focus is sharp, but it’s waning. So you take your break. Excellent. You do something that’s different. Possibly even idle. You make coffee or play a round of ping pong. And then you get back to work.

I’ve found that the hard problem I’ve been stressing about is less scary. I roll up my sleeves and get to it. Sometimes inspiration comes in that moment. My brain, having been given time to stew, has done work that I am not aware of. Brains are weird.

Giving the Time

The real challenge is spending the effort to allow those breaks. Not just when you’re using the Pomodoro technique. In a world where refocusing on every notification is a daily experience, it’s good to practice focus and then unfocusing. A brain is a muscle, just like everything else. It’s not a computer or a machine that’s great at making sure you remember grandma’s birthday. If I exercise it and give it a break, I’ve found it works better.

I’m not saying throw away your phone, or that Facebook is rotting your mind. Just be aware of where your attention is going. Practice focusing intently, but then not. Heck, even if your break is staring at a wall you might reap some benefits.