Posted on

Blog content

One of the Computer Science modules that I teach, known as TM112, includes a short section on the Pomodoro technique as a study aid. I was vaguely aware of this technique before starting to teach it, but since we are encouraging students to use it I thought I should “eat my own dogfood” as the saying has it and give it go, especially I often have difficulty staying on task…

I didn’t actually buy a tomato timer, I have several devices that I can talk to that can set up timers so that was easy. I had been keeping an informal task list in a “Todo” app, but decided that it should be much more formal and that almost everything I needed to should be a task. (I even wrote a Python program that takes as input all my tutorials and TMA submission dates and generates as output a CSV file that has every activity I need to do for them! – But that’s a subject for a different blog post).

This pomodoro technique also suggests that you make some estimate of the size of a task – some will take at least one pomodoro, some can be grouped together and others are “fill-in” tasks that you can use to do something productive if you have some time left over. Unfortunately my “Todo” doesn’t really have a convenient “size” field, so I abused the “priority” field, which it does support, to have the following meanings:

“High Priority” – this task will take at least one pomodoro (i.e. >= 25 mins)

“Low Priority”- this is a quick task, I can fit several of these into one pomodoro

“Normal Priority” – this is a substantial, but not time critical “fill-in” task (like reading up on the next block, or reading the user manual for some software or programming language – yes, I am that sad!)

So we are all set – timers, tasks, lets go!

~~~ some weeks pass ~~~

Okay, so here are my conclusions (in no particular order)

  • Once you start counting them, the number of interruptions is quite surprising – I work from home so my interruptions included:
    – The family – “what do we want for lunch?”, “where did you put the scissors?”, “can you help move the sofa for a video call…”
    – Deliveries – in one 5 minute period 2 separate deliveries and the postman wanting to know whether I’d found the delivery he’d left in the box that morning…
    – The cat – “tickle me”; “feed me”, “no, not that food, the other food”, “I’ve been out for a pee, can I tell you about it?…”
    – Email and discord notifications – This was the only one under my control so I turned them off!
  • Accepting that it is OK to take regular, short breaks is a good thing, setting a timer for them is even better
  • Understanding the size of tasks and listing everything that I needed to do was really, really helpful
  • Even if I only had a few minutes there was usually something useful I could find to do, and complete
  • Knowing that I was making progress on the big tasks was good, even if I didn’t manage the full tomato
  • Crossing completed tasks off the list gives you a warm feeling!

So, in summary, I think that trying to strictly follow the Pomodoro technique only really works if you are fully in control of your time for substantial parts of the day; but understanding the size of the tasks facing you, and being able to make progress against them in small increments is really helpful.