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Improving my productivity using Pomodoro: takeaways after 2 years of practice (cherti.name)
224 points by mehdidc on Dec 18, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 88 comments

I have a much simpler technique: Always have a non-empty drink on your desk. It makes you take breaks to get a new drink and to go to the restroom. During these breaks you can procrastinate.

It keeps you hydrated (drink water, tea [caffeine free in the afternoon] and coffee) and makes sure you don't sit at your desk for too long periods at a time.

Basically, the timing is just how a human being does exhausting work, isn't it? The exact minutes aside, you work for a bit, then you need a break (5 minutes is nothing, really). After a while, you need a bigger break. It's how I do it, without thinking (and admittedly, whenever I break that kind of cycle too drastically, I get unproductive).

I feel like a lot of these "life hack" kinda things are essentially just little pieces of entertainment/motivation you need to muster the initial energy needed to break a bad habit. Pomodoro sounds fun, it means tomato. It might let you fiddle with an app. You can track your progress and have fun charts to compare with potentially exciting results. And you have a story to tell people when they ask about your work.

The actual benefit of partitioning your day into exact 25 minute intervals is probably negligible, but while you're dealing with all this, you're actively working on being more productive and that alone has its benefits. It's probably a chicken-or-the-egg problem or even a plain old placebo effect, but it seems to work. Especially engineering types (as most people on hackernews) tend to have a problem accepting how convoluted psychology is, but sometimes just the decision to try to fix something fixes it.

The largest benefit of Pomodoro for me is just starting things instead of procrastinating. It's a very "light" thought that I'll just spend a pomodoro on something, making it easy to get started. And once you get started, it almost always gets far easier to continue than to stop.

That's called Zeigarnik effect.


Like the old writer's trick of leaving your daily work mid-sentence / paragraph to keep your mind working on it even in "offline mode."

I feel that Pomodoro and friends are similar to many diets: they might be placebo, but in the end you will focus on and address a problem directly.

I do this exact thing. And make jokes to my team about how I practice "beverage-driven development"

I tell my team I practice 'pee-modoro'

> beverage-driven development

Since quite some time, the bio on my Twitter is "This process emits code when Premium Cola is present on stdin."

Yeah, I do that with tea.

Some time ago, I was making myself another cup at work late afternoon when my boss came, and he asked me if I'm staying longer today. I said no, I'm just staying for about one more tea. He asked me, jokingly, if I measure my work time in teas? I said, actually, I do - one tea takes me ~25-30 minutes to drink, so it's a pretty good unit of time...

very important to stay hydrated as it also promotes regular intervals, following a short walk, when you can feel the stress just leaving your body

Pomodoro Cup ?

Same here. At least (to me) it feels a bit more natural. I also eat an apple at half past ten, forcing myself to peel and cut the fruit and try to think about things unrelated to the current task.

Why do you peel it? All the "good stuff" is in the skin.

All the "bad stuff" is also in the skin if it's not organic.

And if it's organic. Organic does not mean they don't use fertilizers or have cleaner apples in general.

If you're worried about bad chemicals that can't be washed off then the core would likely be poisoned as well because it's going through the skin.

In europe, with organic foods you have a very clear list of which fertilizers are authorized. And those authorized are not poison, they are not harmful for the organism.

For dirt, you can just wash it. Dirt is not harmful and doesn't penetrate the fruit.

About chemicals, a large part stays in the skin of fruits / vegetables, so it's always better to remove it when you're eating non organic food.

I do this as well and it's fantastic. Also, a standing desk helps as I rarely want to stand up and procrastinate. It's too easy for me to feel lazy sitting in a chair.

I'm also standing when working, however, my feet hurts if I'm wearing a wrong shoes that day.

Guess people who want to try out standing desk may also need pair of a good & soft running shoes.

Spend the money on a mat to stand on. It makes a huge difference versus standing on a regular hard floor.

The downside of this technique is getting into the zone but being forced to leave your desk for organic reasons. A pomodoro timer, you can turn off.

Ditto - plus gets you around to interact with co-workers, which is also a benefit.

You can also try a standing desk. One with a memory setting works best.

That sounds a bit like a hamster in a treadmill or a rat with an electrode in the brain linked to the pleasure center.

7 days per week, averaging 11 hours per day you're going to have a pretty solid case of burn-out after you do that for a few years more.

Work-life balance is important if you want to avoid that sort of episode. I wished I could go back in time and do a couple of years again with a bit less pressure.

Aggressively using pomodoro does not automatically imply unhealthy work-life balance; pomodoro can be very useful in the "life" side of things too.

There is a very strong implication that all the pomodoros tracked are work related. If that's not the case then my apologies but the text has many passages like this:

"In the morning, there is a peak of productivity around 10AM, then it decreases until lunch time. After lunch, it starts to increase with a peak around 4PM, then it starts to decrease from 4PM until 7PM. Then, again, starting from 8PM, I restart working and there is a gradual increase with a peak at 11PM. The reason there is a peak at 11PM is that I often set myself a goal of total number of Pomodoros per day, and I try my best to achieve it during the day. Almost always, I end up not being able to achieve it during the day, and thus I try to do the best to achieve it in the evening."

I agree. I split Pomodoro time between coding/work related tasks and "soft skills"/non-work related but learning experiences (reading personal development books, cooking/reading about cooking). I just try to maximize "how much time did I spend learning things today" and having numbers is a nice way to keep track of that.

But he's not implying that about Pomodoro, he's saying working like that for 11 hours a day is a recipe for burnout. That can happen with or without Pomodoro, but if you're using it to reach that 11 hour goal you're probably going to induce burnout.

It cannot be healthy not to have weekends. The jews discovered, a few thousand years ago, that a weekly pause is necessary for the body and the soul. This tradition has been maintained during history and even atheistic regimes, such as the communists, maintained weekends. We should fight to protect time to be spend alone, with family and with friends.

I have learnt to combine pomodoro with GTD to create routines.

My routine is simple and takes a total of 4hrs. I leave the rest of time to other unplanned things that come up.

Been attempting to follow the routine for a couple weeks. As a result I have noticed these changes:

* Consistent reading habit.

* Haven’t even thought about watching TV for more than a week.

* Had lunches and dinners on time.

* Slept by 10:30pm

* Have not refreshed HN frontpage every hour (I have forgotten about HN for an entire day sometimes).

If anyone is interested, I have details about my routine and the reason behind my simple routine - http://hashnuke.com/gtd-workflow-2.html

I've come across "Pomodoro" many times over the years but one thing has always prevented me from bothering to consider it: when "in the mode" 20 mins or 30 mins or some other arbitrary length of time just isn't long enough... If you've ever been "in the mode" you might know what I mean.

However, I get stuck just like everyone else, and I think "getting stuck" is the problem Pomodoro is _really_ trying to solve, but to me it feels unnatural. My own method of getting unstuck is:

1. First consciously "notice" deviation (being susceptible to 30sec check of HN or whatever), I tend to start deviating because I have found a natural break or because I am stuck (deviating in quick succession). Either way I should make it a proper break, go make a cup of tea and leave the computer, think about where I am. Recognising this is not as easy as you might think at first.

2. If this is a repeat occurrence within some short period of time then I am stuck... noticing this is important because rather than just grinding away harder, it is likely a change strategy is needed in order to get back into "the mode". There is no silver bullet here, but I have a few tricks, for coding in general i find that moving to work on different areas or levels of abstraction help prune the decision tree higher up which can get you out of a little local minima with too many decisions that are grinding you to a halt.

I suppose what I am doing that Pomorado seems to lack is finding natural breaks and trying to introspect in the natural break to determine if I am breaking too frequently and if there is a reason (I'm not suggesting it should be ok to have absolutely no breaks, but that lack of concentration can sometimes be an indicator of an issue with your strategy for the current work.)

The 'unnatural' breaks you get from Pomodoro do have some advantages, though. If you use 'natural' breaks -- when you have finished a task, or got stuck -- you are breaking at precisely the point where it will be hardest to resume work.

When your break is on a fixed schedule, you're more likely to have something left half-finished. That makes it much easier to jump back in 5 minutes later.

Personally I gain more from the easy resumability than I lose by not having the break-for-abstract-thinking which you describe. Doubtless this varies massively between from person to person.

> when you have finished a task, or got stuck -- you are breaking at precisely the point where it will be hardest to resume work.

This might make sense from a procrastination point of view, but my point is that you should stop there to revise your strategy so that it will be _easier_ to resume. But with pomorado you just have to grind through because your 20mins isn't up yet... To me that seems inefficient.

When I say stuck I don't mean a hard challenging or complex part, I mean you really are stuck and that's why you should stop, because you aren't making significant progress and it's inefficient. You don't necessarily need to give it deep thought like I suggested, sometimes simply having a break is enough to give you a fresh perspective once you go back.

Anyway, it's all subjective, not only to the individual but probably also the task.

> This might make sense from a procrastination point of view, but my point is that you should stop there to revise your strategy so that it will be _easier_ to resume. But with pomorado you just have to grind through because your 20mins isn't up yet... To me that seems inefficient.

I think you people use different definitions of "break". What you (tomxor) describe as "revise your strategy" is probably a task that the other person thinks should be done within the 20 pomodoro minutes, and then a break is not "stop your actual work to think about your work instead" but rather "play angry birds" or "have a water cooler chat".

At least to me, if I get stuck but know that I have time left in my 20 minutes, I am more likely to switch to rethinking my strategy than if I feel like I have the option of taking a break right now.

Maybe you are right... I think i'm also forgetting there are many different degrees of "stuck" :P . Although most "micro stucks" in my experience definitely fit into a break with your mind in diffuse mode, but at the other extreme it needs some serious and prolonged thought that could well be considered a task in itself.

Having used Pomodoro extensively in the past, the short breaks are short enough to allow you to stay "in the mode/zone".

The trick to that seems to be that the break is something mundane like walking around, getting a drink; not focusing your attention on something else.

Wow, average of over 5 hours of pomodoroing per day 7 days a week for two years. Sounds exhausting

"In the morning, there is a peak of productivity around 10AM, then it decreases until lunch time. After lunch, it starts to increase with a peak around 4PM, then it starts to decrease from 4PM until 7PM. Then, again, starting from 8PM, I restart working and there is a gradual increase with a peak at 11PM."


I wondered too - but the only other post on that blog tells us he's a phd student, so it's a little less surprising - at least to me...

Yeah, and here's a link to their Google Scholar page [1]. It's not surprising at all for a PhD student (especially a full-time one) to be working those hours.

[1] https://scholar.google.fr/citations?user=JgOyYi8AAAAJ&hl=fr

It's also not uncommon (about a third I believe) for PhD students to suffer from depressions and what not.

our society is sick.

I did Pomodoro for about 3 years while I was doing my PhD (UK type). It was a live saver for me as I came from a study system that had all the questions and answers given to you, so the requirement of sitting in my desk to 'do research' was completely alien to me. Before I adopted Pomodoro, I tended to procrastinate and distract a lot. Using Pomodoro I got to focus, and found a way to split what I was doing (reading papers, writing, thinking about my problem) in small bites.

Nowadays I wouldn't think in using it, because my current work requires me to be interrupted plenty of times a day. Pomodoro is terrible if your activities include interacting with other people. But for me it really worked.

Interesting post. I found 25/5 too short so I switched to 50/10. I did that for a while but found 50 too long so now I do 45/15. It seems odd that I only work 3/4ths of the time but after meticulously tracking my hours worked (I'm a data nerd) I found that I work (intensely and focused) for roughly 3-5 hours/day.

My goal every day is to get 6 blocks of 45 minutes, which is 4.5 hours of real work. Seems sufficient for me so far ...

The most important thing to productivity is 'constancy of purpose'. If you are working on something of decent consequence to your financial or career situation, using techniques like this acts as catalyst to your productivity.

Applying these things to drudgery causes a level of burnout from which its almost impossible to recover.

Do not sweat the irrelevant stuff.

i have a python curses app that i use. it plays audio and opens browser windows with giant text that say: take a break. after years i just discovered the killer feature: locking the keyboard/mouse.

now it locks input for 5 min, and even if replug usb its still locked. only reboot easily clears it.

its been amazing. that little kick makes a huge difference. triggers 5sec of rage everytime, and then im up walking around. its beautiful.

usually i do 40 min with 15 min break, but keyboard only locks for 5 min.

after the lock, the firs keyboard/mouse input resets the timer automatically.

That sounds great. Would you be willing to share it?

I've been trying to practice a similar technique where I take a break every hour (or two at most) for my health, and I find it very difficult to concentrate and get things done. My peak concentration is usually right before break and after break it's generally gone. I find I need multiple hours undisturbed to really get going on any substantial task. Tasks take way longer to complete with forced breaks, especially if the breaks are longer. I was hoping someone would have a way to optimize this experience. The article glosses over it, but I've been doing this now for two years also and it hasn't gotten better, it's gotten worse. I really can't imagine doing 25 minute sessions. I'm quite certain that would lead to productivity asymptotic to zero. Anyone have any suggestions on how to improve this?

You might enjoy reading the section, "Intensely Single-Task," in this article, Philip Guo's "How to Be Effective."


He also expanded that section into a full article:


Here is an excerpt I think you might find useful: "This tip has had the greatest benefit to my effectiveness: When you want to work on a task (e.g., from your to-do list), get your mind to enter a specific 'mode' where it only knows how to do that task. Forget everything else. Remain fixed in that mode until you get tired and have to "break character". Then move onto the next task and repeat."

I think it addresses: "Tasks take way longer to complete with forced breaks, especially if the breaks are longer."

mnm1 said the breaks were for health reasons, whereas that seems focused on productivity.

Ah, right: "My peak concentration is usually right before break and after break it's generally gone."

One thing I do is, before I take a break, I dump my current notes, as well as things I'd like to do, into a Google Doc. When I return from my break, I take the time to read the notes, which loads pertinent facts back into working memory and gets me back into it.

Another practice that helps is that I let a fine-grained todo list guide me during work. I make sure to explicitly mark what I am currently working on. If I get distracted, it is straightforward to remind myself what I was doing, and once I am done with it, I know exactly what I should be doing next.

I'm pretty similar - by far my most productive days are when I successfully ignore the world for hours on end. And it really doesn't matter what I'm doing, though creative work benefits the most.

When this doesn't work, it usually means I'm spinning my wheels on something and not getting anywhere. On those days I tend to set up an hourly "write down what you're doing" reminder - it's just enough of a reminder that I notice the lack of progress and switch to something else, without losing any kind of groove if things are going well.

But personally, I go to a coffee shop and get a ridiculous amount of work done, because I know I can ignore everything that happens around me. At work people ask me questions, or at home the cats celebrate my presence by knocking stuff over and then throwing up on it - anywhere else, and the only channels to reach me are async (chat/email) or high enough priority that they're worth never ignoring (phone, pagerduty, etc).

For me, I just ignore the break and set up a new 25 minutes. The 25 minutes is just to build an easily achievable target to start your "productive part of the day". If I'm in the flow state, I just cancel the 5 minute rest and do 25 minutes again.

Mostly for fun, but also to 'optimize this experience', I'm building a Pomodoro android app that adjusts work duration based on brainwave data from an EEG headband: https://github.com/NeuroTechx/neurodoro

Are you getting meaningful data from the Muse? I tried it a while ago and didn't get usable data.

Too early to tell with regards to concentration, fatigue, or any measure directly related to productivity. We can get good classification of basic eyes-closed-alpha and are hoping our ML approach (RNNs + LSTM) and enough data will carry us beyond that.

I find that pomodoro is really only helpful for when I am reluctant to do the task or where I don’t know what I’m doing to such a degree that it is helpful to expkicitly block out 20 minutes to flail at it followed by writing up the relevant questions.

My experience is that the efficacy of the Pomodoro technique depends a great deal on both user personality and type of work. It may be that the way you want to work and the things you’re working on aren’t a good fit. That’s fine.

perhaps you should break down the task into larger chunks that you could do for a few hours of intense focus and then do the pomodoro technique after lunch where you go through the motions on smaller tasks that you don't feel motivated to do?

For you other folks that do this. How many Pomodoro's do you do a day?

See this discussion - there seems to be some consensus that 10 pomodori per day is very good. This matches my experience as well.


Ouch. Pomodoros do make you honest.

When I first started experimenting with it, I though to myself: my work day is 8 hours, so I should expect ~15-16 pomodoros; say 14 if I take a lunch break. Between stress, interruptions and procrastination, reality turned out to be more like 5-8.

These days I assume that a good, practical goal to aim for (at work) is as many pomodoros as you have working hours.

I aim for a hard maximum of 12 pomodoros, or however many fewer than that it takes me to complete what I have planned for the day. If I hit 12, I move the remaining tasks to a different day.

Six hours of good focused work is about all I can manage in a day.

I do most of the pomodoros in the morning between 8 and 12:30, when I take an hour break. The afternoon is usually just finishing things off or preparing for the next day.

I have struggled with initializing a strong habit. Except for pomodoroing for cleaning.

I average 1-2 pomodoro per week and it's used only for cleaning my apartment.

I have never been successful for doing it for work or side projects or anything else.

I am probably the least successful pomodoro example thou. /shrug

I found that actually using a timer was too rigid but I still use the same basic concept. I use Anki, electronic flashcards with spaced repetition, by far the best learning tool I've ever used. I do cards for about 15-20 minutes or so. On Anki you can see how long you've been practicing. Then I take a break to do something physical not at my computer, like wash dishes or clean my apartment. Nothing too fun. Typically for 5-10 minutes. Then I come back and do more. So I take a break, but it's not as rigid as pomodoro with a timer.

+1 for anki, the greatest tool i have ever found for learning - i will use anki for the rest of my life, without a doubt. i still everything in there now, math equations, history, italian (which is why i started using it), haskell, birthdays, my new address, phone numbers, vocabulary.

spaced repetition is life changing

People ask for your setup, but I'd love to see examples of your cards.

I've tried using Anki for things, but I struggled with figuring out how to put things on cards. Languages are easy - you put vocabulary. History sounds easy too - you put dates and names.

But how on Earth do you use Anki for Haskell? How do you use spaced repetition to learn fields that's about concepts, not memorizing bite-sized facts and factoids? I would love to know that, since most of the things I'm trying to master have to do with things I find too large to put on a flashcard.

For flash cards I use different types for different things, I use the fluent-forever picture cards for almost everything related verbs / adjectives / and nouns in italian and for english vocabulary words (like words I do not know when Im reading a book.)

I use to ONLY read physical books, but after speaking with someone else on hacker news about it, I use the kindle only, and heavily use the kindle highlight feature, download them, and create tons of flash cards using cloze deletion in anki. I also use kindle highlights to keep track of vocabulary i am unfamiliar with.

For math related stuff, I have two way cards for tons of theorems. example "what is the law of large numbers", "what is mean's value theorem", "what is the definition of taylor-series expansion", "what is the difference between a taylor and maclaurin series". I have hundreds of these cards that I can review anytime I want. My programming cards are very similar. I try to create very concise cards, based on the steps found here: https://www.supermemo.com/en/articles/20rules

I am just starting to experiment with incremental reading now too: https://www.supermemo.com/help/read.htm. I have only been using it for a few weeks, but im convinced this is the way to do it.

If anyone has any questions or comments, send them my way -- These methods are not perfect, but they work for me, and I am always trying to improve them.

On last thing that helped me with anki, if you can figure out a way to add an image to the card, add it, if it seems superfluous --- this really helps with retention.

I use Anki too, but probably not as much. IMO Anki is a tool for memorizing things, not learning them. You don't make a card for anything you don't already understand.

Don't get me wrong, I think memorization is still useful for things like Haskell. You already have to have learned the concepts, but Anki helps you migrate what you've learned to a part of your brain where you just know them, no extra conscious effort required. Eventually this has to happen with what you already know if you are going to tackle bigger concepts, Anki just streamlines it.

I'd imagine that the utility of spaced repetition for Haskell is more about remembering important function names rather than learning the concepts.

It's probably not amazingly useful in that context, but it may help to feel fluent faster, which could help with other things.

ya that is correct, i take common things like print/control statements, function definitions, etc and make sure i see them a lot so i dont forget them (haskell is a language im trying to learn, i do not use it for work so i dont see these things as much as i would)

Is this the one?


Yes, see here for a download: https://apps.ankiweb.net/

Could you share your setup?

There is also this nice article about spaced repetition if anyone is interested. https://www.gwern.net/Spaced-repetition

I tried Pomodoro before, it did boost my productivity during the work time. But the problem is, I started to hate my work more and more because I knew that I had to be totally focused around 20 minutes or more on my work during that time, and I was not allowed to have a rest until the time was up. It could be exhausting at the end of the day, when I tried it for multiple times.

I'm freelancing, and my goal is usually to work 12 productive Pomodoro's every day, i.e. about six hours of productive work. That really feels like I've extracted all the productivity I have in me for a day, and still leaves plenty of time to rest and do whatever I want. (When I used to work at home I would e.g. go for a run after four or eight Pomodoro's, and continue with the rest afterwards.)

Exactly, it feels like you are now working for the clock. I do think if you can focus for more than 20, don’t break the momentum. Is better to take a bigger break after than to force a break.

People at my job use a version of this called smoking and a lunch break.

Pomodoro thus being a healthy alternative to those.

John Carmack had a music CD. He would track time using how many times he had to play the CD from the beginning.

The website isn't loading for me, so here is an archive snapshot (although it doesn't seem to load graphs and such).


I've tried Pomorodo a few times, but it hasn't really been working for me. I'm more of a GTD guy. This idea of fixed amounts of time to work just doesn't work for me. I need a few minutes to really get into the zone and then I don't want to stop after 25 minutes but rather after I've completed the task.

I find creating an easy path to get thing started helps a lot. Is same idea on how games get you keep coming back and continue playing. How you create it is based on what you think is easy

Well, if you can't make do without a Pomodoro-style tecnnique, nothing can really help you in any case. People who are motivate from within do it anyway.

What about all the people who work well with pomodoro and not so good without? Doesn't that contradict your point, completely?

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