[Split out of my last post, previously called Rational Breaks: a better way to work, as part of a slight rewrite & rename. So no need to read this if you read that post before.]

POMODORO is a popular way to manage your time. The idea is that instead of half-working all day, you work in intense 25-minute stints, with 5-minute breaks (or occasionally longer) in between, marked by an alarm:

Invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, Pomodoro was named after a tomato-shaped timer. Even back then there was nothing new about working for fixed periods until an alarm goes off. For centuries, schools have taught lessons this way, ending with a bell.[1] And there are various other techniques (listed below) for working in fixed time intervals against the clock. I call such methods ‘clock-work’.

The good

Clock-work has various benefits, principally:

  • Each period is an achievable, bite-sized chunk of work. This makes it easier to start on a daunting project, and to plough on to the next break when a task gets hard or tedious.
  • Each period has a short-term deadline, which focuses your mind and creates a slight sense of urgency.
  • You get regular breaks to maintain your energy, attention, decision-making, performance and well-being. They also provide an opportunity to step back and reconsider what you're working on (though thinking about work doesn't make a restful break).
  • The fixed lengths simplify planning, such as school schedules/timetables; similarly, Pomodoro users treat the 25-minute stints as a unit to plan and track their work.

The bad

Though clock-work suits some people, tasks and situations, it has big problems too. Years before I’d even heard of Pomodoro, I devised a similar system using hour-long work stints. But I could never stick to it for more than a few days at a time, as it kept going wrong. Eventually I abandoned it altogether, and figured out why it kept failing:

No fixed work length is best

How long should each stint last? There’s no consensus between rival time management systems, experts and scientific research at all:

  • Productivity author Mark Forster recommends starting with 5-minute bursts, and progressively extending them to 40 minutes.
  • Medical professor Dr James Levine suggests 15 minutes’ work at a time.
  • Though Pomodoro advocates 25 minutes, many users choose their own length.
  • 30- and 60-minute stints worked equally well for computer operators in one study.
  • School classes typically last 30–90 minutes, and it’s unclear what length is best.
  • Time-tracking software DeskTime found their most productive users average 52 minutes’ work, plus a 17-minute break.
  • The best music students practised for about 80 minutes at a time in a well-known study.
  • The Ultradian system advocates working for 90 minutes, and it’s based on biological cycles lasting up to two hours.

This vast range — 5 minutes to two hours — shows that there’s no one best work length. Which is hardly surprising: how long you can stay productive depends on your attention span, stamina, and motivation. These vary with the individual, the time of day, and the task at hand; one size won’t fit all.

Clock-work hinders creativity

The regular pattern of clock-work can be good for grinding through monotonous tasks. But more creative, intellectual work needs flexibility. When you’re ‘in flow’, you want to keep going — alarms and breaks are annoying and counterproductive.

Conversely, if you finish a task early, Pomodoro tells you to spend the rest of the 25 minutes reviewing or planning; the fixed time periods are sacrosanct. But why can’t you just stop, or begin something else when it suits you?

Annual protests against Pomodoro

Clock-work conflicts with other people

School schedules/timetables work because everyone has to follow them. But with meetings, calls and interruptions, you can’t expect others to obey your tomato. So when these happen, you have to stop what you’re doing and cut a stint short — disobeying the system.

This means clock-work is mostly for working alone, perhaps just for part of the day. And you’re unlikely to stick to a system you can only use part-time.

Clock-work fails in emergencies

Crises and deadlines don’t obey your tomato either; when they arise, you may have to skip breaks and keep working. Again, if a system breaks down when push comes to shove, you’ll probably end up abandoning it.

In short, clock-work techniques like Pomodoro are too rigid. Your work, your attention, other people, and external events won’t fit into neat time-blocks.

An alternative proposal, called Flowtime, suggests working and breaking freely, while keeping a timesheet of what you’ve done and any interruptions, to see what patterns emerge. Though there’s nothing new about starting and stopping when you like (which dates from the Stone Age), it does avoid the rigidity of clock-work. The trouble, though, is that it’s too loose. If work isn’t regulated, your breaks have to be, to avoid lapsing into laziness. Timesheets are also a chore.

A solution

All these problems are solved by my new technique, called Third Time. The gist of it is:

Work for as long or as short as you like, until you want or need to break. Then break for up to one-third of the time you’ve just worked.

So after 15 minutes of dealing with emails, you could stop for up to 5 minutes. After an hour-long meeting, you can take a nice 20-minute coffee break. And if a task bores you after 3 minutes, you can even break then — but only for 1 minute!

Third Time’s work stints can be any length; breaks are (up to) one-third of the time just worked

Because you can stop whenever you like, you can fit work around meetings, calls, interruptions, meals and errands. It’s completely flexible. But the limit on breaks guarantees you're working for (at least) three-quarters of the day.

Full details on Third Time are in this post. (And if you still like Pomodoro, you can even use it alongside Third Time, which fixes its flaws.)

  1. ^

    And for many decades, British high schools have used much the same pattern of breaks as Pomodoro: typically 5 minutes between lessons, a longer mid-morning break, and another for lunch.

Thanks to Cat and Ari for suggestions & comments

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13 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:03 PM
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I think this is based on an incorrect model of what the Pomodoro technique is for, and where its benefits come from. I think most people don't actually have a model of that, they just empirically observe that things go better when they use it than when they don't. So here's my attempt to model what the Pomodoro technique does that's good.

  • Pomodoro breaks act as a stop-loss function on getting stuck or sidetracked, on things that are going to take much longer than expected, etc. The "break" is an opportunity to do metacognition.
  • Pomodoros create a steady supply of minor deadlines to work towards.
  • "Work for one pomodoro on X" tends to be less intimidating than "do X", which makes some tasks easier to get started on.
  • When working in a group, synchronized timed breaks allow for a social aspect with less risk of allowing the socializing to overrun the actual work.

I don't think third-time really substitutes for any of this. None of these fit into a depletion-and-recovery model; for me, that's not what the breaks are actually for.

Interesting - thanks for this.

Re the first point, my understanding was you do this in any leftover time of a pomodoro after finishing a task or subtask. (Thinking about work doesn't make for a good rest, which 'should' be what breaks are for; or maybe people who do this use the longer breaks to rest properly instead.)

I agree re the second point, which I had taken to be one of the key benefits.

Also re the third, though there are other ways to deal with that (e.g. break down tasks recursively into subtasks). [ADDED:] Come to think of it, this is explicitly why Mark Forster’s system starts with 5 mins and increases from there - as you have no excuse not to do 5 minutes work on something.

I'd slightly heard of the fourth though don't know how much Pomodoro is used in groups like that; solo work seems to be the standard usage.

Re the relationship to Third Time, if these are substantial benefits you can still get them with it as it doesn't prevent you working in fixed stints most of the time if that helps - but you can override them when necessary (ignore the alarm etc.) Similarly you could take 5 minute breaks usually and save up the rest, just less strictly than Pomodoro. The best of both worlds

OK I've incorporated some of this in the post, and will say more in my next post about some subtler issues arising.

an important aspect of Pomodoro at a corporate gig is not “how long can i remain attentive” but “how long is it acceptable to be unreachable for”. it’s about guaranteeing yourself an uninterrupted chunk of time, by disabling slack/email/etc. as long as you’re doing vaguely productive things for that time slot, you’ve already unlocked most of the benefits.

for truly personal work, i mostly don’t use Pomodoro timers, and go for a more freeform approach: once i feel myself slowing down, i’ll set down my work, take a break, and then pick a different thing off my to-do list. the exception is for tasks that i have trouble getting started on. say, a book whose opening isn’t hooking me. i’ll set a timer promising to do the activity for 15 minutes. during those minutes, i free myself from thinking about the meta picture of “is this the right task to be working on” and can properly focus on getting into the book. when the alarm goes off, only then do i reconsider my priorities, and either keep at the task without the timer, or put it down.

in the end, maybe it’s just about being aware/explicit with your time. no timer is going to force you into flow. but it will force you to think more critically about your time.

Thanks. Re your second paragraph, this seems somewhat similar to jimrandomh's comment above, viz. pomodoros are for work and breaks can be used to evaluate work. Also I think you're saying that it's OK to do 1 pomodoro on something even if it's not obviously worthwhile - which makes some sense as evaluating the usefulness costs time. (Cf in Getting Things Done, almost anything that can be done in 2 minutes should be done straight away (if it's not obviously not worth doing), to avoid this overhead.)

While I’m here I guess I may as well post that i’ve been using your rational breaks idea for about two weeks now and it’s worked very well for me. It’s not very polished but I made this little website to help track my time in work mode or break mode: https://chadnauseam.com/productivity/rational-breaks . Don’t refresh the page because it doesn’t persist your state haha. Also it starts you out in break mode with a few seconds of example time in each category but I’ll change that soon

Glad to hear it’s working well.

I like your chart of today’s work & breaks on your site.

Note the name change: https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/RWu8eZqbwgB9zaerh/?commentId=eFAiK5kAG3nrvjFjr

Interesting approach, thank you.

A while ago I addressed the same concerns by inventing adaptive variation of Pomodoro, where the interval length is fluctuating all the time:

  • start with 25 minutes pomodoros
  • in case I feel that I'm in the flow and don't want to stop for a break, I immediately start a new pomodoro with length +5 minutes longer than previous
  • in case I get distracted/interrupted before finishing a pomodoro, I start the next pomodoro with length 5 minutes shorter than previous.

I use my own app to implement it: https://github.com/gumb0/adaptive-pomodoro
(perhaps I could adapt it to try out your approach)

If you're in the flow, do you take the break anyway or skip it? If you skip it, it might be best to save the break up for later, so you get a longer break after longer work (somewhat like Third Time). As the academic research suggests, not surprisingly, that people need longer breaks after working longer.

I think making pomodoros longer when you're in flow makes sense, as does making them shorter if you're distracted because your attention span is short today. Though being distracted or interrupted by something external outside your control doesn't seem a reason to shorten the next pomodoro.

I suspect it's best to take breaks when you need to, but maybe within a given day that's at a fairly constant interval - even if it varies from day to day depending on your energy and what you're working on. Your method would be a way of homing in on that optimum length for the day. The academic literature (which I'm currently reading more of) unfortunately doesn't have much research about whether it's better in general for breaks to be fixed or taken whenever you like.

If you're in the flow, do you take the break anyway or skip it? 

I skip it (because in the flow I don't want to be interrupted by a break) and start immediately the next pomodoro with longer interval.

If you skip it, it might be best to save the break up for later, so you get a longer break after longer work (somewhat like Third Time). As the academic research suggests, not surprisingly, that people need longer breaks after working longer.

Yes, sounds reasonable, I will probably make the breaks proportional to pomodoro length.

(1/3 feels like a bit too much though, e.g. 8 minute break for each 25 minute pomodoro. 1/5 to 1/4 would be closer to classic 25-5)

I think making pomodoros longer when you're in flow makes sense, as does making them shorter if you're distracted because your attention span is short today. Though being distracted or interrupted by something external outside your control doesn't seem a reason to shorten the next pomodoro.

Yes, in fact it's not automatic shortening/extending of the interval in my app, I just have convenient shortcuts for "start pomodoro 5 min longer / 5 min shorter / the same length", so I sometimes decide to keep current interval, too.

(1/3 feels like a bit too much though, e.g. 8 minute break for each 25 minute pomodoro. 1/5 to 1/4 would be closer to classic 25-5)

Actually if you take into account the longer break every fourth Pomodoro it works out close to 1/3. (Office workers not following a system effectively use fractions more like 1/5, the research shows, but most of them don't work in intense bursts.)

I appreciate how this clearly gives people a thing they can try today.  I expect the downsides jimrandomh mentions are real (+1 to stop-loss being an important benefit) -- but this seems like an easy thing for people to empirically test out and keep if it works for them better than pomodoros.

Adding another benefit for Pomodoros that I think would be missing here: sync-ing / co-working.

I think individual productivity is probably what matters most overall, but most of the pomodoros I do are co-working with other people.  (E.g. in an office or coworking space -- "Anyone want to do some pomodoros?")

For that, it seems like some sort of clock-work third time could work ("lets do 30 min / 10 min intervals"), but still has the clock-work downsides you mentioned above.

Thanks. I’ll add some more benefits of Pomodoro like this to the post soon, and also emphasise more that Third Time can complement rather than compete with Pomodoro.