The Power of a Tomato

In the On Writing post I made a comment about completing a “Pom”, which is a 25 minute work block.

Pom is short for Pomodoro, the Italian word for tomato. It’s based on an idea by Franceso Cirillo called the Pomodoro Technique. It takes its name from the tomato shaped timer that Sig. Cirillo had.

In the white paper he goes into a lot more detail and explains the experiments he performed on himself. The actual method varies from how I use it, with time estimations, reviews, and more. How I use it is simply to have a block of time, 25 minutes, which I will use to work on one item. At the end of the 25 minutes I’ll take a five minute break, and then at the end of every forth “pom”, I’ll have a longer break.

In my breaks I will walk away from the screen, perhaps make a tea, coffee, or read a book. It’s important that I don’t switch from the screen to another screen activity as then the benefit of the break is negated. Being human I often break the rule, but honestly wish I was better at walking away, that short time away from the screen helps my overall productivity.

A benefit of moving away is allowing the brain to enter a period in diffuse mode rather than focused. This allows ideas to bubble about. It’s just like that time you’re in the shower and suddenly have a great idea for a scene, the solution to a tricky problem, or the name of the song that’s been on the tip of your tongue.

But that only works if you allow your brain to take a rest from one sort of activity and move on to something different. It helps if it’s physical too. In another of my goals I’m increasing each day the amount of steps I take. In my breaks then I often will walk outside for a few minutes. I’ll get a few hundred steps, and I’ve cleared my brain a little for the next chunk of work. The next pom.

An argument I hear against this idea is that it interrupts “the flow”. I argue that it helps.

Firstly flow is rarer than you think. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who formalised the concept as flow suggests flow has six components:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  • Merging of action and awareness
  • A loss of reflective self-consciousness
  • A sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  • A distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  • Experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience

While being deep in a writing session can bring on several of those factors all six would be a very rare occurrence. Instead I think we enter periods of hyper-focus where the ‘real world’ around us drops away. There’s a great series of the TED radio hour on Maslow’s Human Needs which includes an episode featuring Csíkszentmihályi.

Secondly, I find that the breaks away from a session help me. I rarely come back and think that I wish I’d stayed as I had a great idea or turn of phrase which I now can’t remember. Instead stepping away for a few minutes usually means I return with a clearer idea of what to do next.

As it happens, I usually write at the end of the day now, as I have to work for a living, and as such I only usually get one Pom in a day, but I did start off writing in the morning, and I could easily get two poms without any issue and had to control myself not to write for a third or forth.

I had to switch my writing to the end of the day as I should work first and write afterwards as I need to concentrate on what could possibly pay a bill, rather than something which for the moment is a hobby.

Timing yourself is painless, I would advise against using your phone as then you’re opening up more possibilities for distraction which you want to me minimised. Instead I would use either Tomighty or Toggl.

Tomighty is a simple app I use on my computer which becomes available in the system tray of the taskbar on windows. Once you set it running you have a little countdown of how many minutes are left for that Pom. I used Tomighty happily for years.

Toggl is a more involved app. I switched to Toggl as I wanted to track what I was working on. I set up various projects for my work and clients and can then monitor how long I work on each. The way I use it is to add the task I’m working on, select the project I’ve already added to the system and then start the timer. At the end of 25 minutes it will automatically start timing your break. For my writing I simply record the book, but it would be simple to go more granular and track what chapter you were working on, or if it was drafting, editing, etc.

Whilst I’ve said that my daily goal is for ten minutes or two hundred words of writing, I actually open the Toggl app, start a POM and get to work. I’ll write for 25 minutes without much difficulty but the point is that the pass mark is just ten minutes. It should be impossible to fail. I can tick the box every day in my Goal Tracker app. I make a note of my daily word count in my spreadsheet, and most important of all, I come back day after day, put my bum on my seat and succeed again, and again, and again.