GTD, OmniFocus, and Pomodoros Part V: Deciding When to Use a Pomodoro

“When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

- Abraham Maslow

One needs to be careful that dedicating a set time prior to a task is not for every situation.  As noted prior, some creative tasks are especially delicate, and the potential to break an important flow needs attention.

First, lets look at some areas and ways of integrating pomodoros as dedicated intense islands of time that can be used in the contexts, tasks and projects of GTD:

pomodoro

  1. Doing a Project that has at least 25 minutes of work in one context
  2. Doing a Project that has 25 minutes of work in a number of contexts that are close to each other (e.g. @Desk and @Phone)
  3. Doing the work of any number of projects within a single context

The first scenario is excellent for projects such as writing a series of posts on the GTD and pomodoro. It is also great for other projects that take longer than 25 minutes at a sitting that would not be adversely effected by the 5 minute breaks.

The second and third scenarios describe situations when you have a lot of tasks built up in a certain context or closely related contexts. Sitting through a pomodoro in one context may be a way to concentrate enough to get through some stale tasks.

Another advantage of creating 25 minute blocks is that one can batch together smaller tasks. For example, one can adjust the times of day for the repeating tasks in the Routine Maintenance folder to batch into 25 minute increments. Rather than have them spread throughout the day, the regular email, phone, and paperwork that one does can perhaps be done in batches and effectively be timed.

Continuing the example of adjusting routine maintenance tasks, one can take advantage of recording the number of pomodoros the folder takes. You may suddenly discover that your maintenance tasks take anywhere from 1-2 hours of concentrated work. Scheduling or delegating that work can now become a higher priority once recognized. When scheduled, you can detect fluctuations in time needed over the week and can take pressure off other projects you may want to address.

A Note on Interrupting Flow

A very important point was brought up in the comments of the first post – What about the break in flow? The questions highlights not only the nature of the tasks chosen for the pomodoro, but also the breaks.

It would be easy to dismiss the break aspect of the pomodoro technique, but I believe this would be a mistake. The break is every bit as important as the task itself. Between breaks is not the time to check the internet or the mail or anything that would divert attention. It is about relaxing the mind. Peace of mind enhances the work and play of mind.

What does this mean? Breathing, thinking of nothing, visiting the restroom, eating a light snack, walking for a moment, or any simple task that is largely known. Checking email or Twitter invites the unknown – we do not know what will be in the Inbox. Whatever enters will trigger new thoughts in new directions, even if the intent is “only” to file them away into the task management system.

There is a type of flow that is established when breaks are set every 25 minutes. Whether this type is conducive to the work at hand is a decision for the individual. Whether a different set of work and rest times are beneficial is also a unique decision. For example, the most raw and creative stages of working on music is an aspect that I much prefer away from any artificial constraints of time. Art work is partly a practice of listening to the piece itself as it emerges and understanding its dimensions on its own terms – in essence a meditation of listening to and understanding the unconscious. A piece too short ends abruptly and piece too long grows bitter. A timer going off in the middle of this process would be unacceptable and damaging to the craft.

The reason that creative tasks are more elusive is likely best left for a future series of posts. It is enough to say for now, though, that creativity involves the unconscious which often does not like to deal with such pesky things such as reality, and a timer is far too much reality for such tasks. However, ushering the works of art into reality could be boosted by a technique such as the pomodoro as is done when I edit music and prepare it for release.

Cirillo has a simple method of deciding when to use a pomodoro: only “work” tasks are assigned and leisure is left unstructured.

However, I think good work is imbued with play in some form or another. In this way, I prefer the encompassing nature of GTD that combines all tasks one has in mind rather than make a distinction. As a result of this less divisive way of looking at things, the decision of how to structure one’s work becomes significantly more nuanced.

Learning the nature of the concentration involved in a dedicated span of time is likely enough to decide when it can be useful to a particular task. Depending on your own particular lifestyle, work and play can also be more spectrum concepts than be divided. Even if they are sharply divided, where and how one uses a set time frame may not even lie along this separation.

The most difficult area of distinction is in those tasks requiring creativity. Writing this series did involve the creation by way of writing, but I did not feel it to be so intense as to be hurt by breaks. In fact, I do believe them to have been helpful.

In the next post, I will list specific repeating tasks to add to OmniFocus to integrate Pomodoros as part of a GTD routine.

3 Comments

  1. I think there are two types of tasks that lend themselves particularly to use of the pomodoro technique, within a GTD context. Both are helped by taking proper breaks:

    - Tasks which you’ve been procrastinating on, due to their size, or inability to break down into a more manageable first step (“Next Action” in GTD terms). The fact you are going to take a break in 25 mins lowers the barrier to entry and makes you dread starting the task a little less.

    - Tasks which either involve a high degree of concentration and/or involve a significant amount of learning. For example, today I’m working through a book on CSS in 25 min chunks. I find the breaks are essential for properly absorbing material, especially if the first thing I do after taking a break is review what I learned in the last pomodoro. It’s possible to tackle even the most mundane learning outcomes (I rank CSS as pretty mundane FWIW) without resorting to reading and re-reading each paragraph because it’s just not going in.

    PS. I find the font on this blog too small – it’s one of the few pages on the web where I routinely reach for the browser zoom option.

    Reply
  2. You make a good point about the break as well – it does lower the barrier to entry of a task. Knowing that it will end can have a big influence on starting the task at all.

    Your second thought – do you mean alternating pomodoros then? The first you absorb new material and the second you review? Sounds like an interesting method.

    PS – adjusted! :-)

    Reply
  3. I guess you could alternate pomodoros learning and reviewing, however I tend to just do a 5 min review of the previous pomodoro at the start of the next. Seems to work for me.

    Reply

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