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The pomodoro technique and the ultradian rhythms mystery

Emmanuel Productivity 1 Comment

If you are a bit into self-improvement, you have probably heard about the Pomodoro technique, a method to help manage your time. If not, have a look at the 2 minute video on http://pomodorotechnique.com/ or read the 20s intro on the Wikipedia page. Pomodoro appears like the miracle cure for productivity ailments, combining simplicity, motivation and structure to make everyone more efficient.

It manages to offer an elegant solution to many of our productivity issues:
– Most tasks benefit from uninterrupted focus. Distractions destroy productivity.
– We need breaks to rest and refresh our brains.
– Complex tasks are better split into more manageable chunks.
– We want quick rewards after each modicum of progress.
– Deadlines make us more efficient.

These promises seem enticing, but does the Pomodoro technique really deliver? The answer is unclear. All the accounts we stumbled upon are “n=1” personal reports, even the most scientific ones.

It speaks to the ambiguous state of personal productivity as a science that Pomodoro has not once been tested in an intervention study.

Productivity is particularly tricky to measure, because the intuitive way in which we gauge our performance is often misleading. It speaks to the ambiguous state of personal productivity as a science that Pomodoro, despite being its most popular method, has not once been tested in some kind of basic intervention study. By comparison, software development teams working with the Agile methodology have put a lot of effort into estimating their productivity accurately. So why didn’t anyone introduce the Pomodoro method to a team then plot their productivity for one month?
Most people report getting good individual results, but they could very well be falling into the “inspiration effect” trap. It’s unclear for how long they conducted the experiment, how they estimate their productivity, and the specificity of their individual context.
On the other hand, many negative reactions are due to the immutable length of the time periods, or the inappropriate duration of focus or rest phases; but the reason for that may be the person themselves or the type of work they do. I gave a shot to Pomodoro myself, and after a few days I realised it wasn’t working for exactly those reasons. Indeed, my rhythm doesn’t match the Pomodoro proposition: my work is split between a lot of very short tasks (2 min) and some long and arduous ones (1 – 2 hours).

My failure to make use of Pomodoro prompted a research phase during which I stumbled upon another sort of productivity patterns, widely documented in recent personal articles: the ultradian rhythms.

Ultradian rhythms rely on the idea that, in the same way that our sleep is broken down into different phases, we have daily cycles of alertness and focus. We would have a “focus curve” oscillating on a ~110 minutes cycle. In that case, it wouldn’t make much sense to split our work time into 30 min periods: it forces us to take a break when we are at peak focus, and work at trough. Indeed, some people have found that a 52 minutes work / 17 minutes rest rhythm works best (although their way to measure productivity seems somewhat unreliable, and their choice to average durations in this context doesn’t make much sense.) Some people even try to combine Pomodoro technique and ultradian rhythms in complex patterns.

The usual graph [unknown source] of ultradian rhythms looks like this:

Interesting, but does everything look quite right to you? Correct, there are no units of measure! So how focused exactly are we at peak? The plot thickens.

The main source of most popular articles on the topic is a 1981 study for the US army. 8 men were tested for motor performance throughout the day. It may not be obvious in the abstract, but after diving into statistical analysis it appears that their performance is only very weakly linked to any sort of rhythm. There is however a strong rhythm to their sleepiness patterns. With the surprising but personally relatable corollary that one can be very productive while also being very drowsy.

Later studies confirm the weak effect (or its lack altogether) of ultradian rhythms on cognitive performance, and most research agrees with that conclusion. The effect was probably a statistical artefact arising from long sampling periods and low populations. The only rhythm that appears there is the familiar circadian pattern:

So yes, you can take all the articles about improving your productivity through ultradian cycles and 90 minutes rhythms with a grain of salt. As to the top violinists study that many of those articles use as proof of a 1.5 hour rhythm? It is indeed a fascinating read, but the only thing it says is that top violinists practice 1 to 1.5 hours at a time. The main point is to demonstrate that intense focus periods take a toll and therefore are limited in length, as our readers already know. The concept of rhythm does not apply and is never mentioned in the study.

Of course is doesn’t stop many people from experiencing the ultradian rhythm productivity boost. That is precisely why we also need some serious investigation into Pomodoro’s actual efficiency. Is there a Placebo effect in productivity methods, and much like with medical Placebos, can they work by not working? Feel free to share your thoughts!

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  1. Pingback: Why I’m Learning How To Learn | Bryan Allen Smith's Blog

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