Like many people who work at a computer, I find it hard to stay focused on the task at hand. I get easily distracted and find myself reading emails, checking on twitter etc the moment I hit a bit of code that requires thought. So something that can help me stay focused would be a real boon to me. The pomodoro technique is a simple one, when one cuts away all the fluff: focus for 25 minutes; play for 5; repeat. The idea is that you have some sort of timer that you set to 25 minutes and you work solidly on a task for that time. Then you take time out for 5 minutes to read email, check twitter, make a cup of tea etc. After five minutes, you start the next 25 minutes of focusing.
So this week I have tried this technique to see if it would help me. It has yielded some mixed results. On the one hand, I have found it helps prevent me “self interrupting” (eg giving in to the impulse to write a tweet half way through writing a line of code.) I found that it only took a couple of days to suppress those impulses until the 25 minutes was up. On the other hand, it just doesn’t seem to fit into the work I do.
As a senior (more in age than skills I suspect) member of a development team, my day consists of developing aspects of our company’s products, discussing solutions to problems and supporting more junior members of the team. These duties pose two problems that – as far as I can see – the pomodoro technique cannot solve.
1. Developing products. Our products tend to be large “enterprise” solutions. These take many minutes to run through the compile/ automated test cycle. So during a 25 minute period, I often might spend 5-10 minutes staring at the screen watching it compile. I found that if I remained focused on the task, then I was unproductive for that time. If I tried to do something else, then I’d become distracted from the task and I found I had to try and do another task and watch the first one for when it ended in order to focus straight back on it.
2. Helping others. A considerable part of my day is spent discussing things with other people. According to the pomodoro technique, if a junior member of staff comes to me during the 25 minutes, I’m supposed to tell them to go away until that slot is complete. There is however no quicker way to discourage people from seeking your help than to be inflexible over responding to them. They need help now, so they get my help now. Telling them to wait is just an unacceptable restriction imposed by Pomodoro as far as I’m concerned.
Over the course of the week, I found myself adopting a semi-pomodoro approach. I split each half hour into 25 minutes work, 5 minutes other stuff. During those 25 minutes, I would code, read and respond to work emails, and talk to others in the team. Then during the five minutes, I’d read twitter, look at websites, make tea etc. The exception was when talking to people, the five minutes would go out the window.
This approach has helped me focus better, but it both feels clunky and I’m aware that I’m not really following the pomodoro technique. So I’ve not yet decided whether to carry on with the experiment next week, or whether to find an alternative approach to focusing better.