Pomodoro Technique® Considered Harmful (don’t worry: you are not using it)

So, you have your shining, ticketing, tomato-shaped timer on your desk and you are a proud practitioner of the Pomodoro Technique®.

I’ve got bad news and good news.

The bad news is the Pomodoro Technique® can seriously damage your team’s productivity.
The good news is that it’s very likely that you are not practicing the Pomodoro Technique® at all.

Timeboxing + Cirillo’s rules

Il_pomodoro
The Pomodoro Technique® is timeboxing (that is, the practice of focusing on one single task for a certain lapse of time, avoiding interruptions) plus a series of additional rules, detailed in the Official Pomodoro Technique Book, written by Francesco Cirillo.

Cirillo didn’t invented timeboxing. He invented the additional rules, and he gave a fancy, intriguing name to timeboxing.

He also made timeboxing famous by associating it with the tomato-shaped timer.

It was a brilliant marketing move, since a lot of people are persuaded to be using the Pomodoro Technique® only because they use a 25 minutes, tomato-shaped timer, while they are in fact violating almost all of its rules.

Chances are you are among them. Let’s check.

You estimate using Story Points

pokerThe Pomodoro Technique® requires estimations in Pomodoros. This is a very unfortunate pick, since Pomodoros are a time unit, and everyone knows someone thinks that estimation by time units rather than Story Points is a very serious anti pattern.

Don’t you estimate in Pomodoros? Super! You are not using the Pomodoro Technique®! It’s a great news, since it’s apparent that Pomodoro Technique®’s estimations are not Agile compatible!

You don’t review each Pomodoro

think
Do you spend the first 5 minutes of each Pomodoro retrospecting the previous Pomodoro, as required by The Book?

No? Amazing! You smartly use those minutes to produce value. In the meanwhile, this means you are violating one of the basic rules of the Pomodoro Technique®.

You don’t systematically take 5 minutes pause between Pomodoros

Feet-up-on-desk-after-BPS-500
Admit: if you schedule a 2 Pomodoros meeting you don’t celebrate a 5 minutes pause between the two Pomodoros, do you? This is very bad, according to The Book. Of course, I’m sure you don’t even resume the meeting retrospecting the previous 25 minutes, do you? And I bet you don’t use the last 5 minutes to repeat what you did, as prescribed by the Technique.

This is amazing! You are using plain timeboxing, with no Pomodoro rules, which could uselessly break an effective workflow!

You don’t schedule a dedicated Pomodoro for reading emails

paperwork_250
You are not allowed to read emails between two Pomodoros. The Book states that no work activity can be practiced while pausing between Pomodoros, or the whole Technique can be ruined. You should schedule a Pomodoro for reading emails.

Aren’t you doing this? Cool! This is good: the Pomodoro Technique®’s approach to mail management is insanely drastic and inefficient.

You break Pomodoros

tomatoes10
Do you strictly stop when the timer rings? Do you adhere to the Fundamental Dogma “If a Pomodoro is definitively interrupted by someone or something, that Pomodoro should be considered void, as if it had never been set“.

Do you drop and start over the work when interrupted?

No? Interesting..

You don’t apply Pomodoro all the day

Yes: I really mean, do you apply the Pomodoro Technique® as a methodology, for all your activities, each day of the week?

Me neither.

You work more than 4 hours a day

The Pomodoro Technique® divides each 30 minutes in

  • 5 minutes for review
  • 15 minutes of work
  • 5 minutes to “repeat what you’ve learned since the beginning of the activity […] and then to print this in your memory
  • 5 minutes for a pause

That makes 15 minutes of work each 30. Counting the long pauses you must take each 4 Pomodoros, it’s less than 4 hours of work a day. Amazing!

Pomodoro-4

You don’t synchronize with your teammates

nuoto
You and your teammates should start the first Pomodoro together.

This is vital, since you can’t talk with them but in the pauses between Pomodoros, didn’t you know?
The problem is: what if you and your teammate start your Pomodoro series not in the same exact moment? Watch the diagram below. See the area highlighted in yellow? This is the first and only occasion you have to communicate with your colleague.

As a matter of fact, Pomodoro Technique® could be a nice technique for personal usage, but it’s almost unacceptable as a team management methodology.

It simply doesn’t scale.

You don’t compile an Activity Inventory Sheet

activity inventory sheet
You probably didn’t know that the Pomodoro Technique® imposed the compilation of that sheet. It is, in fact, a fundamental artefact. More than 20 pages of the Book are about compiling the Activity Inventory Sheet.

It’s unbelievable that such a central topic is completely ignored by most practitioners, isn’t it? It’s probably due to the fact that few people really read the rules in the Book, and most of them just Cargo Cult the Technique. (By the way: did you at least read the Book? The majority of the Pomodoro Technique® fans I know did not).

Ignoring this artefact is somehow like skipping Unit Tests while claiming to be using TDD. It’s just unprofessional.

Luckily, the Activity Inventory Sheet isn’t that effective, and can be completely replaced with Scum, XP or Kanban backlog management.

You are applying Pomodoro-but

violating

After all, it seems that, besides the use of the timer, you have neglected all the fundamental rules of the Technique. Isn’t it weird?

In other words, it seems you are not practicing the Pomodoro Technique® that strictly: all you are doing is a simple, plain timeboxing (which is great!) with the help of a 25 tomato shaped timer (which is completely nonessential).

Yet, you like to call it Pomodoro Technique®.

I can hear your voice: “Oh, don’t be silly! I’m using the Pomodoro Technique® but I’m not that orthodox“.

Uhm. It sounds fair.

Listen what you could hear from a team leader

We don’t use Sprints. We don’t write tests. We don’t have a Product Owner.
We do Design Up Front with UML.
I’m proud to be the leader of a Scrum team.
Yes, we do Scrum because sometimes we do stand-up meetings.
Of course, we use Scrum, but not strictly
shopping_list

Would you consider that team leader a professional manager?

To me, it’s like calling a shop list User Story only because it’s written on a Post-it. It’s just unprofessional.

For the same reason, I wouldn’t say “I’m taking a 2 sprints holidays” only because my vacation will last 4 weeks, would you? It would be just laughable.

So, when someone asks me what is that tomato-shaped timer for, I try to avoid being ridiculous saying that I use the Pomodoro Technique® and I proudly reply

I use timeboxing

4 thoughts on “Pomodoro Technique® Considered Harmful (don’t worry: you are not using it)

  1. I agree that almost nobody I know uses the Pomodoro Technique as described by Francesco Cirillo. I congratulate you on exposing a deep, long-standing mismatch between many people’s perception (“we use Pomodori”) and what really happens (simple timeboxing, no other practice from the book).

    I don’t use the Technique to the fullest, so I can’t say how effective or harmful it is. However, I worked in teams where we used a few practices from the Technique, and they worked kinda OK – they didn’t impede communication or otherwise disrupt the team. For that reason, I would challenge at least a few items from your post:

    – You say that the technique’s name is “just marketing”, as if marketing were bad. There is a reason why “pomodoros” sticks and “timeboxes” doesn’t. The first sounds fun and interesting, the second sounds dry and bureaucratic. Cirillo’s labeling was brilliant in that respect, and I think it deserves recognitiion.

    – There is a different cognitive component to setting up a kitchen timer and listening to it click, versus “plain timeboxing”. Saying “25 minutes with a timer clicking” is just different than saying “one hour while glancing at your wristclock”, because human mind. For example, the ritual of reloading the timer, the audible clicking, and so on, seem to trigger a state of flow in experienced practitioners. If you ignore that, than sure, it’s just timeboxing with a kitchen timer – but you’re ignoring some deep truths about the way we humans get in and out of flow, maintain focus, and so on.

    – You say that estimates that use real time instead of Story Points are “a very serious antipattern” and “not Agile compatible”. I’m very skeptical of arguments that boil down to “not kosher Agile”, as if there was a Sacred Book of Agile dogmas. Agile is supposed to be a set of principles to find whatever process works for you. I much prefer relative estimates myself, or no estimates at all – but I’ve met contexts were real-time estimates (in Pomodori or otherwise) worked fine, and very good developers who were doing just fine with Pomodoro-based estimates.

    When I hear someone say “we use Pomodori”, and I realize they don’t, then I cringe a little, just like you do. But I cringe because of the mismatch between what this person is doing and what she thinks she’s doing – _not_ because I think the Technique is harmful in and by itself. Whatever works for you is fine, and apparently Pomodori work for some people.

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