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You don't need
to fight time

I'll admit that when I first encountered the Pomodoro Technique, years ago, I couldn't see what the fuss was about. Divide your work into 25-minute portions with five-minute breaks, measured with a timer (canonically, a tomato-shaped one, hence the name)? I mean, sure. If you like. Or don't. What's the big deal? 


It took writing a whole book about the power of embracing your finitude for me to appreciate that there's something deep and potentially transformative here, embodying the limitation-embracing outlook I explore in Four Thousand Weeks


For the uninitiated, the basic technique goes like this: figure out the time you have available for work (or housework, or life admin – it's useful there too). Then divide it into 25-minute chunks of focus, or Pomodoros. After each one, take five minutes off; after four Pomodoros, stop for a longer period. In the full version of this approach, you figure out, at the start of each work session, what progress you plan to make in each Pomodoro. There are rules for what to do if you get distracted, or mis-estimate how long a task will take.


I'm not especially suggesting you adopt the technique (though I've recently returned to it, combining it with the "three or four hours" approach I outlined the other week). The real point is that it's just one way of making a key step on the path of embracing limitation: giving up the fight against time. 


The core trouble in our modern relationship with time, I think – made worse by most productivity advice – is that we've come to see it as something we need to try to master or conquer. First, we think of time as a separate "thing" (unlike, say, medieval peasants, who'd have had no such abstract notion). Then, we feel we've got to make the most of it, or squeeze the most work from it, or use it to get on top of things, or do enough with it to feel a sense of self-worth. And our economic system makes things worse, making many feel as though they need to achieve this mastery simply to stay afloat.


Sadly, though, no finite human being has ever won a fight against time. We just get the limited time we get, and the limited control over it that we get. And if you spend your life fighting the truth of this situation, all that happens is that you feel more rushed and overwhelmed and impatient – until one day time decisively wins the fight, as it was always destined to do. (In other words: you die.)


To make the same point a different way: you're not actually separate from time to begin with. You just are the sum of the moments of your days. So trying to gain a sense of control over them is like Baron Munchausen, pulling himself out of a swamp by his own hair. 


Turning time into an ally

Enter the Pomodoro Technique, which its creator Francesco Cirillo describes as a way to turn time from a "predator" into an "ally". It's not about conquering time by imposing Pomodoros on it. It's about seeing – like Molière's M. Jourdain, astonished to find he'd been speaking in prose his whole life – that in a certain sense your day already consists of Pomodoros. You have a certain number of slabs of time available for work, unfolding one after the other, whether you like it or not, until it's time to pick up the kid from preschool or make dinner or go to bed. 


So the Pomodoro Technique is just a way of becoming more conscious of what's already true – that your time is fixed, finite, given, un-pausable – and a tool for making slightly wiser decisions about what you do with it, in the full knowledge that by the end of the day, there'll still be a million things theoretically left to do. All you need do, because it's all you ever could do, is to use the next 25 minutes in the most worthwhile way that seems feasible, then repeat.


This explains a crucial but lesser-known rule of the technique: if you assign a Pomodoro to a given task but finish early – because your goal of, say, making notes on a book chapter took less time than you predicted – you shouldn't move on to the next task, or end the Pomodoro early. That way lies a resumption of the fight against time, and the secret deluded hope of one day getting on top of it all. Instead, use the remaining minutes to review your work, and to get comfortable with the impatience you'll inevitably feel about not hurrying onwards. 


Because on the other side of the discomfort of accepting your limitations comes liberation, and for that matter a lot more productivity. Stepping into finitude is a relief. You get to drop the futile quest to do something no human could ever do – to attain a position of mastery and dominance over time, to feel fully in control at last – and get stuck in to what's actually possible instead.

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