posttitle = Fractal Pomodoros titleClass =short len =17

Fractal Pomodoros

Or: how to temporarily put your head down to focus, on different timescales

(Also, lest it’s unclear: I don’t think everyone should work this way, or that anyone should work this way all the time. There’s something to be said for defragmenting your attention, but there’s also something important about improvisation and fluidity.)

There’s a very famous productivity technique called the “pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for “tomato” because its inventor used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer. There’s a lot of subtlety to the full technique, but here I’m going to mostly refer to the basic elements:

  1. pick something to work on
  2. work on it for 25 minutes without distraction
    • external distraction: don’t answer calls or knocks at the door
    • internal distraction: stay focused on your original task/project even if you think of something else you might do instead
  3. when the 25 minutes ends, take a break for 5 minutes
    • (even if you don’t feel like taking a break, take one anyway! stopping randomly, rather than when stuck, can make it easier to get back into it after your break, and it can be easier to get focused if you trust that you’ll pause when the timer goes off)
  4. …repeat 2 & 3 until the task is complete or no longer top priority

There’s something profoundly relieving, for many people, when they first try the pomodoro technique, where a big question goes away: should I be doing something else?

This should I be doing something else? applies to:

  • should I interrupt what I’m doing to talk to my coworker?
  • should I be working on something else?
  • should I be taking a break?
  • should I be working? (if taking a break)

The internal conflict that comes from evaluating these questions every minute or two while trying to work or rest burns a lot of energy without really producing anything meaningful. It’s not to say that those aren’t important questions to consider, just that by default most people can’t usefully consider them every minute.

So instead: pomodoros: a license not to think of anything that isn’t relevant to the task at hand, for 25 minutes. And people regularly discover that they’re able to get more done in a few hours of this method than they usually achieve in a day.

Seriously, if you haven’t tried the pomodoro technique, and you have trouble staying focused on a challenging project… It’s a classic and my go-to #1 productivity technique recommendation. Doesn’t work for everybody or every situation, but when it does work the ROI is huge.

But then, why stop at 25 minutes?

Say you have 4 tasks, that are all part of the same project.

You could set aside 2 hours, and for those 2h, focus on nothing but that project. So during the 5-minute pomodoro breaks, you still wouldn’t check whatsapp or twitter. You might take a short walk, or get a snack, or meditate, or some other centering distraction. Honestly, this is advised even if you’re doing 4 unrelated things in a row.

But you also might spend the breaks doing some planning in relation to the project.

The point is that you’re narrowing the scope of your attention so it’s clear what’s in-scope and what’s out-of-scope, and you can relax knowing that there’s nothing else you should be doing and that the timer will eventually remind you about the rest of the world for those 2 hours?

But then, why stop at 2 hours?

Depending on the nature of your work (self-employed vs employed, office vs at-home) you might find yourself thinking “you know, I’d actually like to be fully and completely focused on work for the whole workday”

To be clear, I’m not proposing that you might do this to make your boss happy. Such an approach would likely make you resentful almost immediately, which can be destructive (not to mention distracting) in the relatively short-term, not just the long-term.

If you get what I’m talking about here, you’ll see that there’s a kind of liberation. You become free to do nothing but the work you’re focused on. And ultimately: most people find that doing good day’s work is not just more satisfying at the end of the day, but more satisfying while you’re doing it too. At least, more satisfying than intending to work but bouncing around between other things.

Now, of course, a completely focused workday doesn’t mean staring at your screen for 8h straight. You’d still want to break for lunch, take a walk, talk to coworkers, stare into space while ideas cohere, etc. Maybe even take a nap!

The point is that you can still curate your attention for an entire day so that you’re not shifting focus to look at news every few minutes.

You can also do this in reverse, eg by choosing not to check certain sites or whatever after a particular time in the day. In February 2020, I had to stop reading COVID news after 10pm because it would make me panicky before bed but I wasn’t actually going to take any actions before bed.

But then, why stop at 1 day?

Okay, here it gets a bit weirder. I’ve gotten a ton of value out of having very intense focus on specific projects for entire weekends or entire weeks, with no facebooking or news-reading or whatever in the midst of that.

When I initially drafted this in March 2020, at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, I wrote:

Unless you’re already stocked up with months of food and very isolated from the rest of society, you probably want to be tuning into the local situation every day or two, if not the global situation. After all, your “go for a midafternoon walk to think about your work” move might suddenly become illegal in your city/country. And you’d want to know that.

(These are weird times.)

But depending on what your work is and the extent to which it connects with global events, it may still make sense to say “you know, my main plan for this week is to keep writing my book” and to not continually re-assess that with updating news.

In addition to the time boundary, you could also say “I’m doing to work on this unless Event happens” for some specific Event.

The point I’m trying to make here is that there’s a relationship between time & purpose, and that it can be valuable to consciously dedicate a period of time to a particular purpose, and then to allow everything outside that purpose to fall out of your awareness for the duration of that period of time.

Lots of external situations have this structure naturally: if you go on a camping or meditation retreat, likely you put away your phone for its duration. If you go to a 1-day conference, you probably aren’t thinking about your dishes at home or your incoming email. And when you’re on a phone call, you’re mostly just tuning into whatever you’re talking about with the other person; perhaps also the scenery if you go for a walk. It’s just easier in those contexts to do that.

How to create this kind of structure yourself, when you need it?

One option is to construct the external situation: design some sort of retreat, or schedule a call with a friend where the two of you are going to each keep each other on task towards your respective taxes.

This idea can be extended into having a few different user accounts on your laptop, one for work, one for a side project, and one for whatever. Or if you’re working from home, using a particular desk for work and consciously moving physically before switching to play mode.

If you can find a way to set this up, it can be a very powerful technique. However, ultimately the thing that really needs to shift is your internal sense of “what am I doing right now?” Otherwise you might find yourself fighting those constraints.

The other challenge is that there are different scales of scope on which you’re trying to manage your attention. You may be working from home but distracted from doing your actual work by a barrage of incoming slack messages. Or you might need to be on twitter for work, but then you encounter a news item and your attention spirals away into that.

To shift things, you need fractal pomodoros. As I write this, I’m in a 2-layer structure

  • 3 hours focus block (2-5pm)
    • muted notifications on slack
    • not checking twitter or news sites or pandemic charts, etc
  • 25-min pomodoros
    • I wrote a bunch of this this morning, and I’m hoping to have some sort of v1 draft finished by the end of this current pomo, which is now in 11 minutes.

Closing thoughts

Freedom, not forcing

As with so many subheadings, this could probably be its whole own post (update: now it is!) but in brief:

Ideally a pomodoro (at any scale) feels liberating rather than limiting.

When I really get this right, it doesn’t feel like a restriction—”I can’t look at X during this pomodoro / deep focus day” but rather a relief—”I am free from having to consider X during this pomodoro / deep focus day” or “I am free to focus solely on my work. Nobody/nothing else can bother me.”

Limit incoming information to stuff you’re going to act on

If you’re trusting that you don’t need to reply to any messages today / this afternoon / this pomodoro, then you don’t want to be getting any messages. Make it easy for yourself. Put your phone on silent or airplane mode (or do-not-disturb mode or focus mode—they have a lot of modes these days!) and close out messenger apps/tabs on your computer.

If you want to deeply focus on working on a project for a few days and your focus on that project isn’t contingent on world affairs, don’t read the news for those few days! You’re free to disregard it!

Other work projects can also distract

This is also about having periods during which you’re free from needing to question if what you’re working on is the best thing to be working on. This is part of the original pomodoro technique. It’s not just “work for 25 minutes”, it’s “work on this particular thing and not any other thing no matter how worthwhile it seems, for 25 minutes.”

Between each pomodoro, you can consider things like “am I about to spend a third hour on something I thought was worth doing because I thought it would only take 10 minutes? maybe it isn’t worth doing!” but don’t think about that question mid-pomodoro, just roll with it.

Pick an appropriate level of abstraction for each timescale of your work

Maybe you want to focus on one conversation, or maybe you want to open messenger and message a dozen of people at once as part of some larger sense of wanting to start a bunch of conversations on the same topic.

Maybe you want to fix one particular software bug, or maybe you want to explore the codebase in a more open-ended way, keeping that bug in mind while also wondering what else might need adjusting.

Maybe you want to write an essay on a particular topic, or maybe you just want to open up your [[roamblog]] and write for an hour on whatever comes to mind, meandering between different pages & drafts.

A pomodoro icon composed of an image of hyperbolically tiled tomatos (technically not a fractal, but evocative)
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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.

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