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Pomodoro and Other Work-Rest Rhythms

If you want to work with good energy, it often helps to alternate work with rest in a regular pattern. There are many such patterns, and I’ve had success with several of them.

In this post I want to briefly describe three of the main patterns in use today, and make some observations about them.

First, there’s the “Pagan Pattern”.

I got this rhythm from Eben Pagan. And he got it more or less from Loehr and Schwartz. He recommends working for 50-90 minutes, and then taking a 10 minute break to either zone out or maybe even do some calisthenics or something to “change channels” for a bit.

“Changing channels” can get the blood pumping, and perhaps, one might speculate, allow the brain chemicals that fuel concentration and creativity a chance to replenish themselves a bit before getting back to work.

Second, there’s the Mann Method (10+2)*5.

I got this work-rest rhythm from Merlin Mann over at 43 folders. With the Mann Method, you work for only 10 minutes, followed by a 2 minute break to day dream or do jumping jacks (your choice). And you repeat that rhythm 5 times in an hour.

If you work out the math, it does indeed add up to an hour. 10 minutes of work plus 2 minutes of break is 12 minutes per mini-cycle. And 5 mini-cycles times 12 minutes per mini-cycle is 60 minutes.

Third, there’s the Pomodoro Program (or Tomato Technique).

It’s more commonly known as the Pomodoro “technique”, but I already started down an alliteration alley (why stop now?).

If Pagan’s Pattern is the Papa bear of rhythms, and Mann’s Method is the Baby Bear of rhythms, then the Pomodoro Program is the Mama Bear of rhythms.

And, indeed, the Pomodoro is often my Goldilocks solution.

With the Pomodoro method, you work for 25 minutes and then take a 5 minute break. Then you repeat that mini-cycle maybe 4 times before taking a longer break.

Two Questions

  1. Which method is best?
  2. Is there any science behind any of these rhythms?

My answer to the first question is that no one of these patterns is absolutely best for me at all times. I work better with one or the other at different times. And my answer to the second question is that I don’t know. But there are some interesting observations that bear on the question.

Some observations

All three patterns have expression in every day life.

Pagan’s Pattern could also be called the “School Pattern”. Think back to high school, and then college if you attended college. What rhythm was used there? Well, roughly a 50 minute class period followed by a 10 minute break. Maybe it was 55 minutes of class, and 5 minutes of break. And maybe in college it was more like 80 minutes of class with a 10 minute break for some classes. But it was something like that, and that “school” pattern matches up well with the Pagan Pattern.

Mann’s Method could just as well be called the “Broadcast TV Method”. Think of an hour long broadcast TV show. These shows have trained us to pay attention for 10 minutes at a time, with a 2 minute (or so) break for commercials/bathroom/snack-run.

And using the Pomodoro is much like watching a modern sit-com on DVD or some other digital medium (not a live broadcast). These shows have trained us to pay attention for about 25 minutes, followed by a break before we watch the next episode.

One might argue that the Pagan Pattern, Mann Method, and Pomodoro Program work well for us because they match up well with these pre-existing attention-inattention patterns.

So why were those patterns developed in the first place?

Are they arbitrary, and just got enshrined by historical accident?

Or do we have innate rhythms, and trial and error led our school systems and entertainment industries to hit upon these natural rhythms?

In some sense it doesn’t matter, because, whichever way the explanation goes, we do seem to have attention spans that match up fairly well with these rhythms. Or maybe I’ll avoid overreaching and just say that I, myself, seem to have an attention span that matches up well with these rhythms.

Personally, . . .

My favorite method right now is the Pomodoro Method. Though the Pomodoro rhythm often morphs into the Pagan pattern when I’m working well, because I will sometimes find myself blowing right through the first 5 minute break, and it winds up being 50-70 minutes of work, and then I take a 10 minute break.

I do find, however, when I’m writing a lot, and not sure how to proceed, so that I am more prone to writers’ block, my favorite method is Mann’s (10+2)*5 method. There’s something about committing to only 10 minutes at a time that helps me just dive in and start writing in those cases.

Anyway, all this to say that, in my experience, there is great wisdom to simply working with our pre-existing attention span patterns — whether they are deeply rooted in our biology, or simply trained into us by school systems and television programs. All three of these patterns (Pagan, Mann, and Pomodoro) have worked well for me.

If you haven’t tried breaking your hours down into periods of regular work and rest, I highly recommend it.

If you use the Fractal Planner, there is a rhythm timer built in to it, and you can choose any of these rhythms.

If you don’t use the Fractal Planner you can pick up a cheap kitchen timer at Walmart or some other place like that for under $5. Those work very well, too.

OK, so that’s that. If you are in control of your own work schedule, start using one of these work-rest rhythms if you’re not already.

On another note, …

I’m making progress on the first module of the big workshop I’m developing. I’ve got the slide show done, and am working out the script a bit. The first module is a bit bigger than I originally planned, but I’m very pleased with how the presentation has come together so far. And I’m very excited to share a new habit training technique with you that’s based in good recent science, and has been working wonders for me personally.

I’ll say more as I get closer to offering the first module. I really look forward to seeing what you think of it.

Take care.


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