OU blog

Personal Blogs


How Many Tomatoes is That?

Visible to anyone in the world

I was vaguely aware of the Pomodoro technique before starting to teach on TM112, 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 Outlook, but decided that it should be much more formal and that almost everything I needed to should be an Outlook 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 Outlook doesn't really have a convenient "size" field. I know I could create a custom field but I wanted something that I could populate quickly and easily with the existing task forms. I settled on the "Priority" field, which I don't really use but is easily set on every task view and on the CSV import. In my world the meanings are:

 "High Priority" (shown with a red exclamation mark) - this task will take at least one pomodoro (i.e. >= 25 mins)

 "Low Priority" (Shown with a blue downward arrow) - this is a quick task, I can fit several of these into one pomodoro

 "Normal Priority" (shown with no marker) - 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)

  1.  Once you start counting them, the number of interruptions is quite surprising - I work from home so my interruptions included:
    1.  The family -  "what do we want for lunch?", "where did you put the scissors?", "can you help move the sofa for a video call…"
    2. 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… 
    3. 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?..."
    4. Email and discord notifications - This was the only one under my control so I turned them off!
  2. Accepting that it is OK to take regular, short breaks is a good thing, setting a timer for them is even better
  3. Understanding the size of tasks and listing *everything* that I needed to do was really, really helpful
    1. Even if I only had a few minutes there was usually something useful I could find to do, and complete
    2. Knowing that I was making progress on the big tasks was good, even if I didn’t manage the full tomato
    3. 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.

Share post