Productivity and GTD
Advanced Pomodoro: Estimating Efforts
For some time I am using the Pomodoro Technique for executing a good part of my tasks. I do not use it for everything, only for activities that require more than 30 minutes and a certain level of concentration, such as programming, designing and writing articles (this is just a personal choice, since it is where I find it more valuable). Its greater benefit is that you can stay focused on what you are doing, by eliminating all kinds of interruptions.
After explaining what this technique is about, in The Pomodoro Technique, in detail and how to use it to deal with internal and external interruptions, I will talk about another, less known benefit of using this technique, but also important for your productivity: the ability to estimate the effort needed to do your work.
We are really clumsy at estimating how long it will take us to do something. We tend to overestimate small tasks and understimate large projects. Have you ever said “I’ll do this in half an hour” before doing a task that finally took you a few hours? On the other hand, have you ever thought “Ugh! I don’t think I can finish this project within 6 months” before facing a project that you managed to complete in less time? That is how we work. Not so good.
Make accurate estimations is an important aid to your productivity. It allows you to plan and properly schedule your tasks in your calendar, meet deadlines, and avoid the stress of an unmet plan.
At the start of the day, you must have an Activity Inventory sheet with the things that need to be done. These are the tasks that come from your daily planning. If you are a GTDer, you will have evaluated and defined your daily work, choosing the appropriate next actions according to your contextual criteria, and you will capture the tasks that show up as you work for processing at a later time, without getting caught up in the urgency of the moment. On the Activity Inventory:
- Estimate how many pomodoros each of the tasks will take. The pomodoro will be your measure of effort. Write down the estimate on the same sheet.
- You must always use complete pomodoros. If you think a task will take between 3 and 4 pomodoros, write down 4.
- If you think a task will take more than 5-7 pomodoros is because the task is too complex. Break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. By doing this, you will also make more accurate estimates.
- If a task takes less than one pomodoro, combine it with other similar tasks and write down 1 pomodoro in one of them.
Now that you have estimated your possible to-do tasks, pick a set of them that does not exceed the maximum number of pomodoros you can do this day and write the To Do Today sheet. Draw a check box for each of the expected pomodoros:
Start working and mark every completed pomodoro on the sheet. If you finish a task using the estimated number of pomodoros (or less), cross it out. If you have been too optimistic and need some additional pomodoro to complete a task, make a new estimate and draw new check boxes on the right side, but with a different color or shape:
I usually stop here. For me, estimating and comparing the expected behavior with reality on the go is sufficient. This feedback allows me to sharp my intuition and become more accurate for future estimates on similar activities.
But if you want to be more ambitious, you can use a Records Sheet, where you can include your estimates, the real effort and the differences between them. If you want to efficiently analyze this information, paper falls short; you should to use a spreadsheet or database: