It's Focus Time!

The best concentration timer for smartphones and tablets

Pomodoro Technique: Is it really useful?

Posted 835 days ago by Baris Sarer

Despite its increasing popularity, Pomodoro Technique has its critics as well. I took a tour on the Internet to sample criticism and address the most common ones to my best understanding of the technique. A quick study of these critics reveals some typical misconceptions.

1- “It is not perfect for everybody”

Yes, it is not. First of all, if your task requires interactions with others, sticking to your Pomodoro becomes so much harder. The technique is definitely better suited for tasks that can be performed in isolation. If your tasks require heavy collaboration, (unless your co-workers agree to follow a Pomodoro schedule), the chances are you won’t be able to apply it.

2- “It is hard to manage interruptions”Jan Tomka provides a few good examples to this problem in his blog post: “Applying the Inform, Negotiate and Reschedule procedure is just another part of the technique which hardly ever works for me. There is no way I can ask my boss not to interrupt me while I’m working on something. There is no way I can ignore random people entering the office asking for directions to the eye clinic (which is just around the corner). Or when a colleague asks about where that good sushi place was I went the other day, I can’t ask her to come back in 20 minutes. Not only it would be rude, but by that time her lunch break would be over.”

True. Though, you can always inform your co-workers and boss that you need a couple of uninterrupted hours to get something done and if required, you can always chose to remove yourself physically from the environment. And again, Pomodoro Technique only works when you can successfully apply it and only you can judge if your environment would allow you to do so. If you believe that you will be interrupted a million times and that there is no way to stop that from happening, just don’t try to use the technique in that place at that point in time.

3- “Do we need a special technique to stay focused?” Mario Fusco makes the following bold statement in his widely quoted criticism of  Pomodoro: ”I honestly don’t need a pomodoro to keep myself focused for just 25 minutes. And if somebody can stay focused for no more than 25 minutes I am afraid that he should really rethink the way he works.”

I respectfully disagree. I’ve been evangelizing Pomodoro Technique for several years now and the most frequent feedback I get from new users is that staying focused on something for 25 minutes is a major challenge. These people are from all walks of life and are accomplished professionals  so I trust their ability to get and stay focused. So to answer the broader question of whether we need Pomodoro or any other technique to improve our focus, I would say ‘yes, a majority of us need it’

4- “Pomodoros are an all or nothing affair” Colin Miller explains this perceived limitation: “Either you work for 25 minutes straight to mark your X or you don’t complete a pomodoro. Since marking that X is the measurable sign of progress, you start to shy away from engaging in an activity if it won’t result in an X… (For example), meetings get in the way of pomodoros. Say I have a meeting set for 4:30pm. It is currently 4:10pm, meaning I only have 20 minutes between now and the meeting. If I start a pomodoro, I won’t be able to finish it because I only have 20 minutes. Managers will come by your desk and poke you to go to the meeting at the exact time the meeting is supposed to start, so I can’t just show up 5 minutes late. In these instances I tend to not start a pomodoro because I won’t have enough time to complete it anyway.’

Colin Miller’s criticism based on his interpretation of the technique is absolutely right. However, the technique is not as rigid:  (1) 25 minutes is not carved in stone. If you have 20 minutes only, feel free to run a 20 minute session, (2) The purpose of Pomodoro Technique is not to organize all of your waking hours into 25 minute sessions. Do your sessions only when you can and when your task demands it. This is a technique to help you get organized around your tasks and stay focused. It should not rule your day.

5- “Breaks can be a problem for people who likes to work in a ‘flow’”

This is another common and legitimate criticism of the technique. The purpose of the break is to refresh mind and enhance the ability to refocus with a high level of intensity. There is no doubt that if you love what you are doing and/or are reasonable challenged in performing the task, you will be able to stay focused more than 25 minutes. The question is how intense is your focus and how productive you are? Just because you are consumed by that task does not necessarily mean you are productive. Keep that in mind and if you truly feel that you are producing, ignore the break, stop your timer and continue working.

6- “25 minutes is too rigid”Arialdo Martini, in his rambling criticism of Pomodoro Technique brings this issue up.

He is right – 25 minutes sounds random and is too rigid. The simple solution to this problem is that you should feel free to set your Pomodoro for, say, 30 or 45 minutes instead. There is nothing inherent to the technique that should stop you from doing that.

Summary:

Most criticism about Pomodoro Technique seems to revolve around 2 misconceptions:

1- Universal applicability: Pomodoro Technique is not meant to be a “one size fits  all” solution. If your work/study environment and your tasks don’t lend themselves to Pomodoro, then don’t use this technique.

2- Rigidity: You don’t have to organize your entire day around 25 minute Pomodoro sessions and 5 minute breaks. These are some guidelines to help you make the most out of your working/studying time by improving your focus. If a 30-minute Pomodoro suits your work habits better, use 30 minute Pomodoros instead. You don’t want to be “compliant” to a fault.

The bottomline is Pomodoro Technique is more flexible and less universally applicable than its critics misinterpret it to be. If you accept the fact that you cannot manage all your time and tasks with Pomodoro and you can (and probably should) adopt it to your tasks and work habits, you will gain maximum advantage of the technique.

 

 

This entry was posted in Pomodoro technique, time management and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments

  1. Arialdo Martini says:

    Hi Baris.
    Obvioulsy, as you write, the problem with the “25 minutes rule” can be simply solved choosing another length. Feel free to use 30 mins instead of 25 mins, you say.
    I agree. Unfortunately, this still misses the point I was raising in my rambling post: in timeboxing technique, one should choose a timebox length commensurate to the task to achieve. That is: timebox length is a dynamic measure. It’s like a sort of estimation of the task.

    The problem with Pomodoro is that it requires you to choose a timebox length and then never change it. Never, no matter the tasks you will be achieving.

    You perfectly know, in fact, that Pomodoro technique relies on the length of each timebox in order to give you management tools.

    In other words, I think you are missing the point: I didn’t say that “25 minutes are wrong”. I wrote that the very big problem with Pomodoro is that it’s timeboxes *must* be all constant in length, or the whole technique can’t be used.

    Hence, you see that “feeling free to set up you pomodoro to 40 mins” does not solve the main problem: Pomodoro is the only timebox technique trying to elevate to team management approach by removing a fundamental principle: timebox length should be evaluated depending of task estimation.

    Cheers

    • Baris Sarer says:

      Hi Arialdo,

      Thanks for your comments. I do agree with you that timeboxes must be all constant in length but not necessarily last 25 minutes. The Technique allows you to set a Pomodoro duration that fits you the best but then you will have to stick with it. The two points where you and I seem to be diverging are as follows:

      1- Pomodoro Technique is based on the assumptions that a) a human being can only stay focused for so long and needs to take a break to restore its focus, and b) distractions reduce our productivity. The ability and duration of focus may change from person to person but these fundamentals remain the same. If you have a task that is likely to take 2 hours, you can define 4 Pomodori and get on with it. I don’t see why the 3 mandatory 5-minute breaks you would take during this 2 hour session would hinder performance or progress. Basically, you estimate task duration first and use one or more Pomodoro sessions to perform it. There is flexibility of time estimation at the task level. You just use smaller, fixed time periods while performing it.

      2- I am not aware of Pomodoro Technique trying to elevate to a team management approach. It doesn’t offer the broader set of tools one would need to manage teams. I think the technique is best suited for standalone, self-managed tasks.

      My .2 cents.

      • Arialdo Martini says:

        Hi there. Thanks for your replies.

        <b1. It seems to me that we agree on everything, but you simply forget to mention the consequences I see. May be I’m see wrong consequences. But I didn’t read any demonstration in your post. Just a “Arialdo said 25 mins are bad”. Well, it’s not exactly what I said ;)

        I completely agree with your description. You can break down big tasks into more pomodori and also join more small tasks into a pomodoro. And your pomodoro can last whatever you want: the classic is 25, but also 40, there’s no restriction. I agree.
        And we both agree that once you decide your pomodoro is x mins, you must stick to this value as soon as you want your estimates to be coherent.

        This is very different than other timebox techniques, where timeboxes are estimated each task. 10 mins for the first task, 70 for the next one. You can do this because the-number-of-timeboxes-finished-in-a-day is not a metric for your productivity. With pomodoro it is. The number of pomodori is like the number of story (or velocity) in SCRUM. It is a value further used (for example, to measure your improvements).

        Then, you must stick to the first value. This is what I wrote in my post. 25 mins are arbitrary, hence I could not say “they are absolutely wrong”. What’s very wrong is that timebox is used as a unit of measure and it cannot be ever changed.

        Why it is absolutely wrong? For several reasons. For example: should YOU decide to use a 25 mins pomodoro, all your team colleagues must choose the same 25 mins, or the opportunities to communicate will disappear (because according to the official book everyone should refuse interruptions by colleagues while pomodoring).

        In other words: again, I didn’t say 25 are wrong, and I do know that you can have flexibility by combining 25mins into more tasks and viceversa; what I was claiming is, instead: the idea of a fixed length, unrelated-to-the-real-effort timebox has a lot of consequences that one should take into consideration (then, I listed them).

        2. May be you are right, and Pomodoro Technique is not trying to elevate to a team management approach.

        Hence, may be I am misjudging Cirillo when he is writing a paper titled “Applying the Pomodoro Technique in Team” and in his non-free courses the day 2 is dedicated to teams and have topics like “How to organize a team”, “Improving team production process”, “Establishing a sustainable production process”, “Organizing the team schedule”, “Organizing the team to deal with interruptions”, “Applying the technique in multi-team organizations”.

        Isn’t organizing the team schedule and organizing a team an attempt to be a team management approach?

        Cheers. I’m not disturbing you anymore on this blog. I don’t want to monopolize the comments space.
        Have a nice day, and thanks for the citation.

    • In an adaptive method, you’re the boss. If you’re pretty sure that you have two types of tasks. Those who benefit from 60 minute iterations and those who work better in 30 minute iterations – then go ahead and add that granularity. You’ll lose the rhythm and it will be hard to measure process improvements, but you may find that other values are more important. However, I recommend that you first try – for at least two weeks – to have one single iteration length. It might not be the problem you thought it would be.

      Compare with a Kanban team that have daily gatherings where they prioritize what to do. Some of their tasks are much longer than one day, some only last for an hour – still they use the one day rhythm. I believe it’s important to recurrently have scheduled overview moments. Stop focus on your current problem for a moment and assess if you’re doing the right activity at all.

    • mascip says:

      Hi Arialdo, I have the same issue with this technique.

      I’m thinking of using multiples of my “Pomodoro-unit” to address this problem.

      I would have Pomodoros that are 25/5, and Pomodoros that are 50/10, because for these ones i don’t want to be interrupted in the middle, and i know that i will need a bigger break afterwards.

      What i will do is just plan, ring and cross 2 pomodoros, while in reality i’m taking all of the 10 minutes break in the end.

  2. Arialdo Martini says:

    In 2 words: the problem with Pomodoro is not that you cannot change it’s timebox lengths: it’s that they *must* be constant.

  3. Julien Nichol says:

    I read Mario Fusco’s interview and i believe his message is different than what you write above.

    He did not just say “I don’t need pomodoroes, then why other people should need it? We could do our job without it”.

    He put his argoument around trust. He says: would you trust someone who needs a pomodoro to keep concentrated, and who is unable to achieve his job without it?

    This is an excerpt by his interview:

    Let me slightly reframe my thoughts. Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects? Will you trust in a lawyer employing the Pomodoro technique while is trying to defend you? Will you let a surgeon that needs a timer to stay concentrated on his job to operate you? In the end I honestly hope that the pilot of my next intercontinental flight will be able to pay attention to what he is doing for all the 8 or more hours of its duration.

    So, why should our work be so different from the former ones? Why do we always think that our work is so special and unique to need a wide set of specific methodologies? Are we professionals or unexperienced kids playing with something bigger then them? I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours. I honestly don’t need a pomodoro to keep myself focused for just 25 minutes. And if somebody can stay focused for no more than 25 minutes I am afraid that he swhould really rethink the way he works.

    this is very different don’t you think?

    • Stephen Bosch says:

      Did Mr. Fusco actually say this?

      “In the end I honestly hope that the pilot of my next intercontinental flight will be able to pay attention to what he is doing for all the 8 or more hours of its duration.”

      Clearly Mr. Fusco knows nothing about flying, and anybody who says they can maintain concentration for 8 hours at a stretch is lying.

      And I think Mr. Fusco is lying to himself. If he’s not measuring his productivity as objectively as possible, how can he say that he’s focused and concentrated “for hours”? That’s just naive.

      Everybody — even the most amazing, most productive people in the world — bumps up against the limits of human physiology. The evidence that focus is a limited resource is bursting from the scientific literature. Even experienced pilots and surgeons screw up. And if you look at productive people, you discover that they are already using techniques that are not all that different from the Pomodoro Technique.

      And then, there’s this last sentence:

      “And if somebody can stay focused for no more than 25 minutes I am afraid that he should really rethink the way he works.”

      … and the Pomodoro Technique is what, exactly?

      I would rather my surgeon or pilot use a system that acknowledges his or her human vulnerabilities than pretend they are something they are not, namely superhuman. That’s what Crew Resource Management is all about — being realistic about the limits of focus and concentration and human fallibility.

  4. Baris Sarer says:

    Hi Julien,

    Thanks for your note. I had to limit the excerpt due to space constraints but I do still think that I captured the essence of it, which is “a pro should not need special techniques to stay focused. I am a professional and I don’t need it. You should not need it either, that is, if you are a serious professional”. As I tried to elaborate in my post, I don’t find this argument very strong. In addition to implicitly labeling people who use Pomodoro Technique as amateurs, it goes against all empirical evidence that most of us – professionals and amateurs alike – are finding it hard to focus in our “always on” lives constantly interrupted by cell phones, social media, email, etc. Yet, we do still focus and deliver. So while Mario Fusco’s argument seems true at a first glance in that we are able to function without such techniques, it actually represents a misunderstanding of what Pomodoro Technique aims to achieve: It gives us an improvement opportunity on our current focus levels and productivity. Nothing more and nothing less.

    • Julien Nichol says:

      This begs the question: would you trust a surgeon who needs a pomodoro to keep on focus while operating your heart? ;)

      • Simone says:

        If he/she achieve an high success rate, why not?

    • Mario Fusco says:

      I think you are still missing my point, so let me rephrase it again with a very simple question: provided that there are hundreds or thousands of different jobs needing high level of concentration, what does our job have of so special to need something like this technique? Why does the other professionals working in different areas don’t feel the same need?

      • Mario, there are hundreds or thousands of different jobs needing high level of concentration. And most of them, if not all, do benefit from time management processes like Pomodoro, GTD, Autofocus etc. And as matter of fact they do use them. Perhaps with varying process names, but similar practices.

        • Mario Fusco says:

          Hi Staffan,
          to be honest I’ve never met in my life somebody doing a job different from software development who knows the pomodoro technique or even uses or feels the need of any time management process. Out of curiosity, can you name a few examples?
          Maybe I am lucky because I work alone from home (i.e. a very comfortable and quiet environment) but anyway I really really don”t understand. Is it so difficult to stay concentrated on your job (especially if you love it) for, let’s say, 4 hours in a row?
          Under this point of view the only effective (but questionable) usage of this technique is to say: “Hey man, do you see that timer on my desk? Well, you’re not allowed to disturb me until you don’t hear it ringing”. Is it really only for this?

          • Dear Mario,
            I just started using pomodoro yesterday to put more drive into writing my master thesis (in marketing). I have three full days a week to write my thesis and want to get the most out of it. I using classical GTD which is not well-suited to long-term projects with lots and lots of tasks. As procrastination came creeping along I was looking for something new. The first day I finished 12 pomodoros, working at home and achieved some major objectives.
            Thus, pomodoro is not only for developers like you are. Although I don’t believe it will work in the office, where I rarely work at all, nothing but interruptions…
            However, I am one example!
            Best,
            Roman

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>