Personal Scrum

pomodorosEven though I’ve never participated in a Scrum project, I’m a big Scrum fan. I’m convinced that a feedback-enabled, quantitative project management approach, one which puts the customer in the driver’s seat, is key to avoiding delays and frustration.

Especially the concept of time-boxing is very powerful: the Scrum team sets their own goals that they want to achieve within a given period of time. In Scrum, this period of time — or iteration — is called “sprint” and usually lasts two to four weeks. Because the sprint deadline is in the not-so-distant future, developers stay on track and the likelihood of procrastination and gold-plating is fairly low.

But there is even more time-boxing in Scrum: Every day at the “Daily Scrum Meeting” the team comes together and everyone tells what they have achieved and what they want to achieve until the next daily scrum. In practice, that’s another 24 hours (or 8 work-hours) time-box.

Still, getting things done is not easy. If you are like me you are distracted dozens of times every day. While hacking away, you are suddenly reminded of something else. Maybe it’s a phone call that you have to make. Or you want to check-out the latest news on “Slashdot“. Maybe a colleague pops by to tell you about the weird compiler bug he just discovered in the GNU C++ compiler…

If you give in to these interruptions, you won’t get much done in a day. You won’t get into what psychologists call “flow“: a highly productive state were you are totally immersed in your work.

Is there a way to combat such distractions? There is, but let me first tell you what doesn’t work: quiet hours. Quiet hours are team-agreed fixed periods of time were you are not interruptible, say, from 9.00 to 11.00 in the morning and from 14.00 to 16.00 in the afternoon. Every team member is expected to respect these hours. Sounds like a nice idea, but it fails miserably in practice. Especially in large projects, people depend on each other and productivity drops if developers are blocked because they cannot ask for help for two hours. All teams I belonged to and which tried quiet hours abandoned them shortly after they had introduced them.

The solution is to make the period of highly focused work much shorter, say 25 minutes. If interruptions occur, you make a note of them in your backlog and carry on with your task. When the time expires, you take a quick break (usually 5 minutes), check your backlog and decide what to do next: either continue with your original task or handle one of your queued interrupts. In any case, you start another period of highly efficient 25 minutes and after 4 such iterations, you take a bigger break (15 – 30 minutes). That’s the Pomodoro technique in a nutshell.

Pomodoro (Italian for tomato) was invented by Francesco Cirillo, a student who had problems focusing on his studies. He wanted to find a method that allowed him to study effectively — even if only for 10 minutes — without distractions. He used a mechanical kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato to keep track of time, and hence named his technique after his kitchen timer. He experimented with different durations, but finally came to the conclusion that iterations of 25 minutes (so-called “Pomodoros”) work best.

I like to think of the Pomodoro technique as “Personal Scrum”. To me, a 25 minute time-box is just perfect. It’s enough time to get something done, yet short enough to ensure that important issues that crop up are not delayed for too long. In his freely available book, Francesco writes that while there are software Pomodoro timers available, a mechanical kitchen timer usually works best — and I definitely agree. The act of manually winding up the timer is a gesture of committing to a task and the ticking sound helps staying focused, since you are constantly reminded of time. However, mechanical timers are a clear no-no if you share your office with others: the ticking and especially the ringing sound would be too annoying.

When I’m all by myself, I prefer a mechanical kitchen timer, but if I share a room with someone else, I prefer something softer. I’ve asked the folks at AudioSparx to implement a Pomodoro kitchen timer MP3 for me: 25 minutes of ticking, followed by a 10 seconds gentle ring (yes, you can download it — it’s USD 7.95 and no, I don’t get commission). I listen to it on my PC’s MP3 player wearing headphones, which has two additional benefits: first, headphones shut off office noise and second, they signal to others that I wish to be left alone, so they only interrupt me if it is really, really urgent.

“I have a deadline. I’m glad. I think that will help me get it done.”
–Michael Chabon