Some Questions About The Pomodoro Technique

Written By John Sonmez

In this episode, I answer a questions about the Pomodoro Technique.

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Full transcript:

John:               Hey, John Sonmez from I got this question from Kent about the Pomodoro Technique. As you might know I am a big proponent of it for increasing my productivity as a software developer. I follow that technique. I have kind of my own version of this with—using the KanbanFlow but I often get some questions about how I execute this. Kent says, “I recently finished reading your book on soft skills and wanted to start by congratulating you on such a fine piece of work.” Here’s the book if you’re interested. “It was thoroughly fantastic and I’m already applying some of the techniques you suggest with good success so far. If you have time I have a few questions for you about the Pomodoro Technique.” There’s a couple of questions here.

“How do you account or adjust for delays imposed by computers? I’m talking about software updates sometimes forced on you, long build times, mobile dev particularly has lengthy build lengths, backups. Since starting the Pomodoro Technique I found myself several times in a position where I’m being forced to wait a long time for a computer and I wasn’t sure how to deal with that. I’d switch task if I could but often my entire machine is crippled until the update is completed.”

I’ll just address these one at a time. When you have things that are outside of your control when you’re doing the Pomodoro Technique and this is a refresher here, the Pomodoro Techique you’re basically working for 25 minutes on a single focus task, no interruptions then you take a 5 minute break. In that 25 minute block Kent is basically asking, “Hey, what happens when you got to wait for your computer update or something that is stopping you from working, what do you do?”

There’s a couple of different things that you could do. One, you can switch to another task. I frequently do this. Technically that’s against the rules. But hey, what are you—are you just going to sit there at your computer? I’ll switch to another task and start working on that task. You’ve got to be careful. You don’t want to be switching, switching, switching task but it’s acceptable in my mind to switch to one task. We’re going to be pragmatic.

The other possible thing is staying on the same task. This is probably preferable but get out your pad of paper or go to your whiteboard and start doing some brainstorming. Most tasks require some thinking as well as some doing. Very rarely is there a task where they’re just like do, do, do, do, so plan it out a little bit more while you’ve got that down time while you’re waiting for something to happen. Do some of the thinking work and usually you can figure that out if you—if you think in those terms you can usually figure out how you can do that. Overall, number one, be pragmatic about it. Just don’t sit there and wait in front of the computer because you’re supposed to follow these rules of the Pomodoro Technique. That’s not very pragmatic.

Then he asked, “What about problems with third party software? I’ve been hit by several bugs and third party dependencies including my dev tools themselves. I had to go on major tangents to get those issues fixed and felt like I was straying from my goals even though I guess I wasn’t. They would just take me longer.”

Again, you can apply this generally. When you’re sitting there doing the Pomodoro things that are outside of your control are going to happen, right? You’re going to go on some tangent. The idea is to minimize this as much as possible, right? When you recognize something that is going to be a new task that’s going to take you a longer amount of time, then plan that out. You might not have to do it immediately.

For example, suppose that you’re working on your task, your Pomodoro, and then all of a sudden you have some kind of a bug on a third party component and you’ve got to go and fix that thing in order to finish your task. At that point you want to figure out first of all what’s the minimal thing that you need to do to get your task done? Can you do some kind of work around or something in order to accomplish what you’re trying to accomplish? If you can’t and when you do that you might be able to create a new task that you’re going to work on to fix that thing later, to fix the right way later so that it doesn’t interrupt that flow. If you can’t then you’ll just have to accept reality, again being pragmatic and realize that you’re going to have to go down this road and things are going to take you longer than you expected, but that’s where you replan.

If you planned out your day you get new information and you realize that I have 2 hours, this critical task or 2 hours worth of debugging that I’m going to have to do, you have to replan your day. You have to sit there and match reality. You can’t force things that—you can’t artificially force things. Replanning your day is probably going to be the answer in most of those cases.

Then he says here, “What about random little things that require waiting on a third party?” Again, the same thing here, I’m not going to go into the details here. He does mention though that if you had something that’s going to take a week later how do you handle this. I schedule in my calendar and I move on, call that task complete. You can only set work for you that you’re actually going to be able to accomplish so don’t try and control the world, you can only control you.

In those times when you know that you’re going to wait on someone, mark your responsibility of what you’re supposed to do. That’s your task. Your task shouldn’t be the entire thing that needs to be accomplished, but the thing that you need to do. That’s the key component and then you can mark something in your calendar to follow up or you can various programs that will auto-follow up for you.

Another question, “Why does the Pomodoro timer on KanbanFlow anyway not have a pause? Am I missing something? What about when you need the bathroom?”

Okay. It’s 25 minutes and 5 minutes, right? You’re an adult. You can hold your—you should be able to plan out 25 minutes and 5-minute break. You’re not supposed to pause the thing, right? It doesn’t have a timer because you’re not supposed to have interruptions. You’re not supposed to let interruptions happen. If you have a—I mean obviously, if you have emergency, you got to go to the bathroom. Forget about the timer, right? Hopefully, I would hope that you can like plan your day, so that you can not go to the bathroom for 25 minutes and then in the 5-minute break go to the bathroom. Okay. Enough said about that.

“How much detail do you put in to your Kanban board? It seems too transient and medium to bother putting too much effort in the subtasks and the like. I also feel like I'm duplicating what’s in my issue management software or Evernote.” This was a good one here. Put in as much detail as you need to clearly define what must be done. When you have something on your task board, it’s better to spend a little bit of extra time planning things out to know when something is done rather than to waste time like not knowing when you’re not done or when you need to stop. Spend as much time in detail as you need.

Remember that all this time is overhead and it’s wasted time technically. It doesn’t add anything to the bottom line, right? Planning in general is overhead. It’s a waste. Planning doesn’t actually produce a thing, but what planning does is it can save you time. Plan as much as you can save time off in the backend if that makes sense, right? Sometimes 5 minutes of planning can save you an hour worth of work. In that case, you want to pay that overhead, right? If you plan too low level of the detail, sometimes you can spend an hour or you can have 10 people in a meeting that don’t need to be there planning a thing and then they save like 10 minutes of time for all that planning. That’s not worth it. You got to balance it out.

Again, a lot of my answers to this is pragmatism. Be pragmatic. Think about what makes the most sense and execute on that. Don’t blindly follow rules. Set up rules for yourself, but be pragmatic when you need to break those rules or change those rules.

Hopefully, that helps you. I get a lot of questions about this. Again, most of my time Pomodoro Technique or my productivity system technique questions, most of the answers, will basically be pragmatic and don’t drink a 64-ounce Dr. Pepper because you will have to pee in less than 25 minutes.

Anyway, I hope you found that useful if you’re applying the technique. If you want to find out more about it, you can, of course, pick up your copy of Soft Skills and I do cover a whole section on productivity in there. Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe. Talk to you next time.