Group pomodoros are awesome

Wed 10 August 2016

Some of us productivity nerds tried something new this week at the Recurse Center: group pomodoros!

Cherry tomatoes

I employ the pomodoro technique pretty often, especially when I'm working on long tasks that I tend to procrastinate on (say, writing a blog post...). It's one of those productivity hacks that is so simple in principle that it sounds too good to be true. The idea is as follows (cf Wikipedia) : you use a timer to divide your work day into fixed, 25 minutes chunks of time, called pomodoros. Each pomodoro is separated by a 5 minute break. When anything distracting comes up during a pomodoro, you note it down somewhere and come back to it during the break.

This works because 25 minutes is not that big of a time commitment: when the urge to check Twitter, Slack or your phone comes up in the middle of a pomodoro, you just have to convince yourself to work a dozen minutes more before allowing yourself to give in to your social cravings (and by then, you might even find a better way to spend your five minutes break).

I've used pomodoros regularly at my previous full-time job, but it can be hard to apply the technique when working with other people. You often need to collaborate and pair with other developers who aren't necessarily using it. Also, it requires willpower to stay focused and wait for your break when the rest of your coworkers are having breaks at a different time. If you end up taking breaks with other people, it requires even more willpower to keep your pomodoro break to 5 minutes when the coffee break drags on.

Tomato timer

Using the pomodoro technique in groups comes with some interesting perks. The added social pressure helps to keep you in check: seeing everyone "in the zone" at the same time during their pomodoros helps with concentration and motivation; and your partners can reprimand you if they see you spending time on the chat instead. Also, in a group, pomodoro breaks are fun again: everyone takes a break together, yay! This all makes it dramatically easier to use the method consistently.

So, how do you make this work in practice?

First, you need a group of guinea pigs people who want to use the technique together. They don't have to be working on related things: in fact, in our group this week, all pomodoro-ists were working on different projects. Then, isolate yourselves from the distracting rest of the world. We use a dedicated room, but if that's not an option find yourself a quiet area in the office/space. For our timer, we placed a separate monitor running an online pomodoro app (there's a fair number of them available on google) on a dedicated shelf. This way everyone could constantly see how much time was left in the current cycle (of course, like with standard pomodoro, you could always do it low-tech and just use a standard kitchen timer). Also, and this is the most crucial part: we implemented a reward system by having a huge bowl of M&M's everyone could pick from during their pomodoro breaks.


Our Pomodoro room setup

So if you've been using the pomodoro technique and know teammates or coworkers who do as well, I highly recommend trying out group pomodoros. And if you haven't used the pomodoro technique yet, give it a shot the next time you need to focus on a big task! As for me, the next thing I'd love to experiment with is using pomodoro for pair programming.