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Pomodoro: A spiritual discipline?

Just after the beginning of the year, a novelist friend of mine mentioned that she’d read about a time management tool in the WSJ and had been using it with great success. I decided to give it a try and—and, well, wow. Not only is The Pomodoro Technique helping me get lots done, but I’m also coming to think of it as a spiritual discipline of sorts.

This simple system was developed by Francesco Cirillo—you can read everything you need to know about the system on its web site—but the basic gist is that you break down your time into sets of four 25 minute increments with five minute breaks in between. Once you finish one set, you take a 15-30 minute break and then begin another set. The system uses two basic worksheets (which you can print off or download from the website) on which you list all of your activities/responsibilities and an estimate of how long each will take (Activity Inventory worksheet) from which you draw to list what you will do on a particular day (To Do Today worksheet).

I’m not the only one finding this tool increases my ability to get things done and be much more organized. Ken has already blogged about it at C. Orthodoxy (and he links to others who’ve done the same). Everyone seems to tweak it a bit, and again, I’m no different. I have a large white board on which I list all the projects, responsibilities and to-dos I need to accomplish—both short and long term. I use the first “pomodoro” unit of every week to fill out my Activity Inventory worksheet, on which I list from that white board all the projects and responsibilities I want or need to accomplish that week along with how many pomodoro units I estimate each activity will take. At the beginning of every day, I use the first pomodoro unit to fill out my To Do Today worksheet from the Activity Inventory. I try to update my white board at the beginning of each day, crossing out those things I’ve completed as well as adding new ones that might have cropped up the previous day.

Due to the nature of my day-to-day life, the number of pomodoros I have available each day varies—but this system works well for that. In my weekly calendar, I estimate the number of pomodoros available each day so that I have an idea of what I can accomplish that week. I find this technique is also affecting how I approach activities that can’t be done in a traditional Pomodoro approach—like grocery shopping, errands, appointments, etc. I am starting to list those things in terms of how many it will take to complete them, which helps me organize those items as well as keep on task and be more efficient with my time while doing them. For example, my number of trips to the grocery store has decreased because I am more aware of how much time it takes to make a trip; in addition, I am more prepared when I do get there and tend to stick to my list rather than browse the aisles.

This technique has also been extremely valuable when I have tasks I’m not looking forward to—especially time consuming ones. The technique suggests breaking up larger tasks into a list of smaller ones. So, by breaking up dreaded tasks into multiple units and interspersing them with other items that I enjoy doing—or, at least, don’t abhor—I am getting done some tasks that have been on my to-do list for months (and even years).

But I’m finding Pomodoro isn’t simply a good tool to get more done; it is also having a broader, more holistic effect on my life. For example, as I’ve used the technique, I’ve become more aware of the things I don’t want to do—and that invites me to confront why that is. Most of the time, unfortunately, it’s because a task is tedious and brings no immediate or short-term benefit to me. In other words, I’m being selfish—and that helps me rethink how I think about why I’m doing the things I’m doing and adjust my attitude to approach those tasks in a more service-minded way to benefit those around me instead of my own desires. I’m finding it is also a useful tool in my quest to be a steward of my time and the resources God’s given me and my family. I’m learning to better prioritize what we need versus what we want or desire. In my larger quest to shrink our footprint, using this tool has helped me become more aware of where I have too much and helping me get rid of what we don’t need and be more aware of what we have to share. And I’m realizing what distracts me from my responsibilities and minimize or eliminate those distractions. And relationally, using this tool has freed me to leave behind my to-do lists when the time is finished and spend focused and undistracted time being present with and paying attention to my family, friends and those with whom I cross paths.

When I started to really reflect on all this, it dawned on me that the Pomodoro Technique could be very useful as a spiritual discipline. Glancing through Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun, I could see many places where this technique works well with more than one traditional discipline. For example, it can be used to help us become more aware of the resources God’s provided and be generous with those “for the benefit and love of God and others” (Stewardship and Simplicity). Or becoming more aware of God “within the flow of the day,” for where we are living out of the Spirit—and where we are not (Examen or Practicing the Presence). I can also see how it could also be useful in disciplines like Service, Discernment, Repentance, Submission and Confession and Self-Examination.

If used with intentionality, this technique can be a tool to help us, as Dallas Willard puts it in The Divine Conspiracy, bring our own personal kingdoms more and more under God’s Kingdom. The disciplines helps us to cooperate with and open ourselves more to God so that he can transform us. Like any other tool, if we intentionally bring it under the rule of God, it contributes to that mysterious nature of the kingdom in which a seed in the ground grows into a rich harvest while the farmer sleeps. It is something God can use to grow the life within me, to help me live the way I was created and am enabled to live. It helps me cooperate with him to allow his truth to become my experience.

While The Pomodoro Technique was not intentionally developed as a spiritual discipline, I can’t help but admit I’m reminded of some other tools I’ve used in the past—in particular, my experience with Neil Cole’s Life Transformation Groups. An LTG is another marvelously simple tool that uses a uncomplicated structure, this time providing an arrangement within which two or three people meet together weekly for confession, accountability and prayer with the intent to multiply as they go. As Neil Cole puts it, “It taps the disciple’s internal motivation and provides the support needed to grow in the essentials of a spiritual life,” empowering “the common Christian to do the uncommon work of reproductive disciple making.” As I participated in these groups, I began to think of the LTG as simple but effective tool that reminds us how to live as and be the people we were created and are enabled to be with each other—to access that life within us and live it out.

Of course, like any other tool or spiritual discipline, one must guard against allowing Pomodoro to become the task master rather than the tool. Spiritual disciplines, say Willard, Richard Foster and the like in The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible, are:
. . . the God-ordained means by which each of us in enabled to place the little, individualized power pack we all possess--the human body--before God as 'a living sacrifice' (Rom. 12:1). It is the way we go about training in the spiritual life. By means of this process we become, through time and experience, the kind of persons who naturally and freely express 'love, joy, pleace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control' (Gal. 5:22-23). . . .

A Spiritual Discipline is an intentionally directed action by which we do what we can do in order to receive from God the ability (or power) to do what we cannot do by direct effort. . . . The Spiritual Disciplines in and of themselves have no merit whatsoever. They possess no righteousness, contain no rectitude. Their purpose--their only purpose--is to place us before God. After that they have come to the end of their usefulness. But it is enough. Then the grace of God steps in, takes this simple offering of ourselves, and creates out of it the kind of person who embodies the goodness of God . . . .
Now, I’m not saying my life is running perfectly smooth now that I’m using the Pomodoro Technique. It’s not. But, like any other tool or discipline I’ve utilized in the past, it is helping overall—both in terms of getting things done and in allowing God’s truth to become my experience.

Now, if I could just figure out how to use it to control how much and what I eat, I’d be rich. And really thin.


Ken Brown said…
Excellent reflections!

So far I haven't done much in terms of trying to organize my pomodoros, since I spend the vast majority of them on my thesis anyway, but I have found that it has made it a little easier to maintain a habit of regular Bible reading.

Basically, I give myself one pomodoro to eat breakfast and check in on things online (and by that I mean a half hour, not two hours!), then devote the second one to reading my Bible before turning to other tasks after that.

At least, that's what I've tried to do; some days work out better than others, but in general I'm doing much better than I was a month ago.
Carmen Andres said…
ken, i've just started using one for bible study/reading as well, and, heh, i try to work one in for exercise three times a week.

like you, while some days are better than others, i'm finding i'm more conisistent. so, cheers to Pomodoro :)
Anonymous said…
Ken's comment helped me see how to correct a big saggy problem in my pomodoro regime. You see, I tend to play on the internet for several hours before I start pomodoring. So now I'm copying his method of starting the pomo as I wake. yes!
--skeexix, susie, carmen's novelist friend