Four Pomodoro tools tested
The simple Pomodoro technique seeks to improve time management skills and make inroads into Agile programming. We look at four tools that can help your concentration.
Whether you're at work, in the library, or in your home office – distractions are numerous, and many users have difficulty concentrating on completing their tasks. This problem is aggravated by the fact that complex projects can overwhelm people, leaving them stumped. Projects such as "I'm going to write my thesis" or "I'll debug my compiler this evening" quickly collapse in the face of procrastination. Enter the Pomodoro technique , which has helped people focus since the 1980s.
To begin, the user needs to consider exactly what the problem is, then divide it into smaller chunks. The idea is to be able to process each step in a maximum of 25 minutes. The inventor of the technology, Francesco Cirillo, emphasizes that no special tools are necessary for this. Besides pen and paper, he only used one tomato-shaped egg timer, which explains the name of the technique (pomodoro = tomato). Once the timer starts, the user needs to block out any distractions for 25 minutes. Once the task has been completed, you can cross it off the list. Each Pomodoro phase is followed by a short five-minute break, during which users can recharge their creative energies. After four Pomodori (i.e., every two hours), you earn an extended break (15 minutes).
One important aspect is that users learn to protect themselves against external distractions. If they wander off or the phone rings, they make a note of these interruptions and record them for later processing. Another successful part of the learning process is that users become increasingly adept at assessing the time required for a subtask. Anyone facing a mountain of work will benefit from defining achievable milestones. This approach is also used in Scrum  and Agile programming ; thus, it is not surprising that Pomodoro tools for the desktop or smartphone seek to replace the simple kitchen timer – even if the ticking of the clock helps your concentration, according to the inventor.
My test candidates are Flowkeeper , Pomodorium , TeamViz , and Tomate  on Debian 7.2, Ubuntu 13.04, and Linux Mint "Olivia" Cinnamon (all 32-bit). My test team tried out the Android Apps on a Samsung Galaxy Note with CyanogenMod 10.1.3. The intent was for the Pomodoro tools to show how well they can help users allocate and measure time; I also looked at the visuals and the sound effects, whether the tools offer evaluation and statistical functions, and whether they support synchronization with other devices and teamwork.
The first candidate is written in Java and available under a proprietary license, but still free of charge. Flowkeeper  comes from developer Constantine Kulak. The project site provides a Windows installer and a Java archive file (Linux and OS X). Linux users can launch the program by calling
java -jar flowkeeper.jar. Via the main window, users can reach the program settings, current work plans, and task management. Although many Pomodoro tools on the market only provide a timer function, Flowkeeper also helps with the first step: planning the tasks.
Create new lets you create a plan for the current day. You can then go to Add task to define the individual task and select the anticipated number of required Pomodori from a drop-down menu. By default, the work sessions are 25 minutes and the breaks are 5 minutes. Up to four phases are possible. If the user adds another Pomodoro at a later time via the main window, Flowkeeper warns that more than four is not useful for an individual task, but it still lets you do so.
A click on the alarm icon starts the timer (Figure 1). A new window displays the countdown and provides buttons to interrupt the current session (Interruption) or cancel it completely (Void it). However, a break function is missing, making it impossible to stop the timer. The Hide button shifts the window into the notification section; the main window disappears automatically when the clock starts running. The tray icon often appears quite pixelated or as just a black box without any function. Dragging the timer back onto the desktop is thus a matter of luck.
The Flowkeeper interface is tidy and well structured. However, the tasks you create only apply to today; the tool does not carry over unfinished business to the next day. Also, the statistics offered here only help you recap your current daily performance. Entries over a longer period of time are just as impossible as an export. Users can adjust the length of Pomodori and breaks and modify the general behavior of the program in Settings. A reminder function for longer recovery periods is not available.
In the lab, Flowkeeper failed to emit any sounds on Linux. Therefore, only Windows and OS X users can enjoy the slightly tinny ticking noise. The program does not save the simple daily evaluation, so you need to resort to legacy cut-and-paste to keep track of your performance and progress. The statistics include how many Pomodori the user has planned and completed; including unplanned phases and those added later (Figure 2). The tool also evaluates how many Pomodori you canceled and how often you were distracted.
Flowkeeper cannot synchronize your data between multiple workplaces, and it is also impossible for a team to access the same list of tasks. This Pomodoro tool is aimed at freelance warriors who want to design a battle plan when they start work every day and work through their tasks one by one. Development currently seems to be stagnating. The last entry is from January 2011, and feature requests in the discussion forums go unanswered. Thus, it is questionable whether Flowkeeper has a future perspective.
The second test candidate is truly exotic. Pomodorium  was created, so says the unnamed developer, to help overcome enormous abuse of Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG). The developer describes the software as a "motivational game" and packages it as a role-playing game. Users win gold coins for completed tasks, which they can then invest to procure items or equipment for their own Pomodorium character. Only when the figure is strong enough can it join in a small game as a reward, and the figure then goes off into battle.
Pomodorium is also under a proprietary license. Users can test the first 10 days and five levels for free, but if you want to continue using the software after that, you are asked to pay around US$ 20. Pomodorium runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X and makes use of Adobe Air . The use of this platform-independent run-time environment for Linux users is currently still possible with Air 2.6; however, following this release, Adobe dropped support for the free Linux operating system. Thus, it's only a matter of time until the obsolete software no longer works with modern distributions.
On all three test systems, the installation was tricky, although the instructions  solved the problem. After installing Adobe Air, users download the Pomodorium installer (
Pomodorium.air) from the website and then run the installer. The first time the software is launched, it comes up with a tiny window that provides a statistical overview and a timer. You can learn here how many Pomodori you completed in total and how many you completed per day. You can also see how many gold coins you own, learn how healthy your character is, and check out how many experience points your character has collected. You can also see the current game level and the number of cities your character has liberated from monsters.
You can start the Pomodoro timer by pressing Go. A Pomodorium lasts 25 minutes. This is followed by a five-minute break, after which the next Pomodoro then starts automatically. After four phases, the tool interrupts the series, and you are allowed a proper break. Settings for the intervals or other program components are not present, and you need pen and paper for planning and self-checks.
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