Quantifying My “Off” Days

Productivity by the numbers with a Pomodoro timer

My earliest days as a Real Programmerwere full of anxiety towards my productivity. I didn’t want to waste any time at all becoming the most talented, efficient developer I could be, and I thought that maximizing my productivity was the first step (spoiler alert: it wasn’t).

So it came as a bit of a shock to me when I started paying attention to my “off” days. You know, those days where you just aren’t feeling it or you don’t get quite as much done as you’d like. Initially I’d chalk it up not getting enough sleep, or not having enough interesting things to work on. I quickly ran out of excuses, but I still couldn’t identify the root cause of these little slumps.

Furthermore, I started questioning my productivity all together. Was today actually productive? Did I spend enough time writing code? Did I waste a little too much time on Hacker News? When I transitioned to being remote (pssst Khan Academy’s engineering team is remote-friendly!), these questions only became more pressing. I know I was at the doctor from 11 to 12:30, did I make up the time I was away from my keyboard?

A little bit of time tracking

As much as I’d love to romanticize it, it wasn’t that much of an existential crisis. I was still happy with the work I was doing, and I was learning a lot at my job. I’m fortunate to work at a company that doesn’t tally up how long my butt is in the chair, and my hours are extremely flexible. Still, these questions kept popping up in the back of my head, and I found it harder and harder to ignore them.

I first tried out the Pomodoro Technique when I was looking for something to help me get up from my keyboard regularly. For those unfamiliar:

The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are named pomodoros, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student. The method is based on the idea that frequent breaks can improve mental agility.

So for me it was just a way to get up every 25 minutes and stretch a bit. I didn’t put much thought into the process, but I felt refreshed taking these regular breaks. I started using that time to do dishes, water plants, or other small chores around the house — it was therapeutic in a way.

I still did the normal 9 to 5, and still felt weird when I had an “off” day or was unsure how much extra time I should work when I stepped out for a bit. The pomodoro technique had not yet addressed those problems for me.

What’s in a day?

It wasn’t until chatting with my colleague Benjamin a few months later that I thought about using my pomodoro timer differently:

My friend finally sat down and broke out how many pomodoros he does on a sustainable day, and then just declared that, barring a literal emergency, that was now what a day was.
The time arrangement was whatever he wanted, but he only got that much time. No working on non-time and no not-working on pomodoro time.
I don’t remember the number, but say it was eight pomodoros, which sounds roughly correct. So, if the day called for it, do eight in a row. Or, do one, then break an hour, then do two more, then go for a bike ride, etc.

“That was now what a day was” really struck a nerve with me. All this time I had been wondering why some days were good and some days were bad without having a solid definition of what a day is. Additionally, realizing that this system could support my ad-hoc appointments/errands/other cool stuff remotes just kinda do whenever was illuminating.

I decided to try it out. Over the next few weeks I came to the conclusion that my sweet spot was around 10 pomodoros — or 4 hours of solid, productive work per day. This allows me to work a comfortable 9 to 5 with plenty of breaks (and an hour for lunch), while paving the way for plenty of productive bursts.

As for those “off” days: I found they usually brought in 6 or fewer pomodoros. These days I might roll in a little late, or have trouble re-adjusting after lunch / a series of meetings. I’ll have a tough time chewing through some of my heavier tasks, but might dabble with a simple bug fix or knock something off my back-burner. Fire and motion.

Work that counts

It’s important to note that a scale like this is relative, and depends highly on what you consider to be “pomodoro-worthy” work. I have a few odd rules: I get one pomodoro for clearing out my inbox first thing in the morning, but after that only writing and reviewing code count towards a pomodoro. Checking email, catching up on slack, surfing Hacker News — those all occur between pomodoros, but they might not for you! For example, if your job has an emphasis on meetings and email, those might be good candidates for pomodoros since they’re more directly related to your responsibilities.

When I feel I’m having an “off” day, and hitting that magic number 10 seems just out of my reach, I may pad my timers with some thought-provoking blog posts, or use my time to catch up on conference talks in my bookmarks. Again, it’s all relative, the important step is just feeling your way around to see what schedule works for you.

Personally, I’ve found that this setup lets me stop worrying about how much I get done in a given day or week and focus more on the work at hand. As long I maintain the habit of hitting my pomodoro goals — I know I’m in good shape.

Be sure to follow me on twitter where I often tweet bad jokes during my pomodoro breaks.