I’ve been experimenting with working on the Pomodoro technique over the past few weeks. (The short version: work for 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break. After the 4th work period take a 15 minute break.)

I first came across it in my reading of the “Uncle” Bob Martin Clean Code books last summer. Since then it’s come up in several other contexts, always with rave reviews of how well it seems to work. So I had to give it a whirl myself.

I’m not sure I can swear that it makes me more productive. I haven’t really been at it long enough, and I don’t have enough data on yet on my productivity. Moreover, I don’t really have any reliable data on my productivity before I started, so there’s no control data for the experiment.

I can say that it has helped me to take stretch breaks at more regular intervals: something I have never been good at doing. As a result, my body feels less tense and tired at the end of the day. If only for that, I’d say it’s worth doing.

All you really need to implement the work-time routine is an egg timer. But why settle when your computer is tuned into the Naval Observatory clock!

I’ve tried several apps available on the Apple App store. Here are my observations in the order I tried them:

  1. Countdown Timer Gadget –By Sergey Vdovenko –$1.99. This is a very cool timer with several slick skins to choose from. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. But it’s just a timer. You can set it for a countdown time and start it. When it gets to the end, it dings until you hit the button. Then it resets to whatever time was set before. If that’s enough to keep you on your break schedule, you’re probably good to go. But I found that (1) I often came back from a break and forgot to restart the timer. And (b) it was too easy to hit the button to stop the ringing and then keep on working through the break. Stronger measures were called for.
  2. Just Focus — by Zhe Yan — free. This timer is a minimal pomodoro timer. You can set the durations of your work periods and of a long and short break period. It blocks your screen with a random cover image (and optionally a random quote) and stops your keyboard when you go to break. (No just clicking a button and working through unless you take a couple extra steps to quit out of the timer. When the break is over it allows you to continue and automatically starts the next countdown. (No forgetting to re-start the timer.) And it records how many work periods you’ve completed for the day. The issue with this one, however, is that it always uses the short break when the timer is cycling. (Pomodoro calls for every 4th break to be longer.) The only way I could find to start a long break was to activate it manually.
  3. Rest — by Dino Angelov — $4.99. This timer seemed to be everything that Just Focus was, AND it had an option to activate the longer rest period every fourth pomodoro. Setting the times for each option, however, appeared to require selecting from a limited number of options from a drop-down menu. So, for example, you could select 5, 10, 15, 30 and 45 minutes. But what about the standard 25 minute work period? Not on the list. So I clicked on the support item in the app’s menu bar and wrote to the author. Within 24 hours I got a reply that one can either select an option from the drop-down or type in your own number. Sure enough, you can set your own times for everything. So aside from the unclear UI on the time settings, the actual operation of Rest is ideal, at least as far as the timer functions are concerned.
  4. !Timer — by LibertyApp Ltd — $3.99. In the interim before Dino got back to me on the Rest settings, I tried a couple others. !Timer had all the required timing settings, but it didn’t block the screen in the way Just Focus and Rest do, so I was back to the problem of working on after the buzzer and then forgetting to set the next period.
  5. Be Focused (and Be Focused Pro) — by Denys Yevenko — free/$4.99. The free version has annoying ads on the bottom of the timer panel, but the pro version upgrade has all the right settings without the nuisances. Again, this timer does not block the screen, but it does allow you to keep track of which tasks you were working on during your work periods, which none of the others above do. So if you’re more interested in keeping track of that within the timer rather than on another app, this may be the one for you.

After having tried these, my current favorite is Rest. It has all the timing functions, and the screen blocking rest enforcement that I need, with a minimal interface that stays out of my way when I’m working. Just Focus runs a close second, and the price is certainly right, if you don’t care about automating longer breaks. Maybe the developer will address that in a future release, and if so, it would be the best of the bunch for minimal footprint, timer function and price.