The Pomodoro Technique is a popular productivity method created by Francesco Cirillo, of Cirillo Consulting, in the 1980s. It has enjoyed some fresh publicity under quarantine. The PT user sets a small tomato-shaped kitchen timer for 25 minutes and works diligently on a single task. When the timer rings, she takes a small break, and then resets. Four of these intervals (“Pomodoros”) cash in for a longer break. On- and offline systems of astonishing complexity allow PT users to track and compare their daily intervals.
Existential dread is, at a basic level, the motivation to use the PT. In reaching for the timer, or one of its affiliate tomato-themed productivity apps or online clocks, like Pomello, PomoDone, Clockwork Tomato, Pomotodo, Marinara Timer, or Timerdoro, you implicitly acknowledge that the time of your life, which is finite, feels out of your control. You want that control back. Focus on what you care about, the productivity gurus coo. Our product allows you to do what you want in the little time that you have.
Our lifetime is perhaps all that we actually have. This is the premise of philosopher Martin Hägglund’s recent book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom. “What belongs to each one of us — what is irreducibly our own — is not property or goods but the time of our lives.” Our lifetime is ours and finite, and valuable because it is finite. The truth of this constitutive finitude is recognized whenever employers compensate you for your time in the form of a wage. It is the “practical self-understanding implicit” in our custom of trading free time to make a living. Finite lifetime makes other kinds of value possible and intelligible.
And yet, under capitalism, to be wealthy does not mean to have free time, in the sense of having time in excess of that which is spent on survival. Under capitalism, wealth is understood as profit. Hägglund spends much of his book within this contradiction. We take our first steps out of it, he argues, by revaluating value. Wealth ought to be consistently understood as the socially cultivated capacity “to engage the question of what to do on Monday morning, rather than being forced to go to work in order to survive.” To be wealthy — to live a spiritually free life — is, according to Hägglund, to use your allotted time for commitments with which you identify, rather than in the service of maximizing capital accumulation. You do what you care about in a state of spiritual freedom. You do what you want in the little time that you have.
The fact that the marketing material for a productivity hack sounds like the vision of an anti-capitalist philosopher is extremely irritating. But the coincidence isn’t superficial — nor is it easily dismissed. Unacknowledged, it makes existing critiques of the productivity industry feel inadequate. Both the quantified and authentic self have their roots in existential anxiety; there’s an emancipatory quality to both This Life and the Pomodoro Technique. What follows is an account of that coincidence — or rather, an answer to the question of whether a PT user could ever really be spiritually free.
On the face of it, the answer is a swift and definite hell no. The Pomodoro Technique represents the internalized expectation to accumulate as many social, financial, and material resources as possible, to plot and piece our lives into smaller and smaller time slices in order to maximize exploitation. Perhaps you think that you are in control of these minute subdivisions. You are deceived. The answer to the question of what you ought to do with your time has already been given to you. The answer is: Optimize.
Critiques of our efficiency culture usually begin with Frederick Winslow Taylor. In 1911, Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management, in which he observed that someone performing a repetitive manual task tended to work as slowly as the slowest in his group. Taylor called this phenomenon “soldiering.” A better system of management was his solution to employee sloth. Taylor carved large jobs into smaller ones, eliminated superfluous motion, allowed time for breaks, disciplined the individual, not the group, and rewarded fruitful work with pay. To his delight, he witnessed the industrial machine produce more in less time. But Taylor is a more complicated villain than his critics often allow. In the minds of its advocates, scientific management would reduce working (read: billable) hours and eliminate “almost all causes for dispute” between employers and their laborers. There are glimmers of quasi-utopic intention in Taylor’s book, though it’s true that these glimmers seem menacing when set against a century of world war and totalitarianism. “In the past the man has been first,” Taylor writes. “In the future the system must be first.”
The most uncomfortable aspect of Principles is its uncanniness. Bothered by how bicycle factory “girls” would become “nervous” after an hour and a half of inspecting steel balls for defects, Taylor rearranged their work into intervals with short breaks. The workers were affably encouraged “to leave their seats.” “Maximum prosperity can exist only as the result of maximum productivity”: Taylorism, so it would seem, emerged from its dark century victorious, and the banality of the Pomodoro Technique testifies to the conquest of its logic. Beneath videos explaining the PT, people will often comment that they have been unwittingly using the method for years — Taylor’s logic endures, but its mechanism has shifted. For many, what was once an external system of control has been internalized. Factory managers discipline the bodies of their employees; white-collar workers now discipline their own souls. In Nikil Saval’s neat formulation, “the arc of scientific management is long, but it bends toward self-Taylorizing.”
In 2020, “self-Taylorizing” is not about optimizing paid work, but about optimizing everything, including one’s method for optimization. The influential political theorist Wendy Brown calls this contemporary subject Homo oeconomicus. All human activity, regardless of whether it bears the potential for financial profit, is modeled on the market. We understand ourselves as human capital. We self-enhance to “attract investors” and “strengthen competitive positioning.” Before COVID-19, Homo oeconomicus spent his long weekend in Peru for a course on leadership development and posted pictures from Machu Picchu to Instagram. Or, he criticized the course, skipped it, accumulated social capital as a renegade, and still posted pics from Machu Picchu. All returns on self-investment ought to be optimized. And because optimization cannot be established without data, all human conduct must also be quantified. A body that measures calories, steps, heartrate, Pomodoros, sexual potency, sleep, swipes, likes, content output, and optionality is a perfectible body. What’s quantifiable is certifiable and comparable. Humanity’s coarse incommensurability is smoothed into a universal language of winners and losers. For a fee of 325€, it’s possible to become an official Pomodoro Technique Certified Practitioner. The user need only demonstrate how the tomato allowed her to “[overcome] a personal challenge.”
No one should be surprised by what psychologically follows. For the quantified, self-Taylorized self, there is no one to blame when something goes wrong, when productivity and perfectibility grind to a halt — no one, that is, except oneself. For the man who is his own manager is blamed twice-over for a weak growth rate: first, for mismanaging, and second, for being unmanageable. Rather than unionizing, we feel disappointed with our own poor performance. And in an economy of suspended rights, failure to manage or to be manageable could lead to the loss of access to health care and housing.
You may assume that those trained in the arts and humanities would adopt an antagonistic stance toward the PT — if only to maintain that the value of the liberal arts increases the further its patterns of thinking, working, and communicating diverge from STEM, if only to bristle in satisfaction at the suggestion that we are inefficiently executing our superfluous work. And yet, humanists and departments in the humanities are required to quantify their output, and many philosophers use the PT. Its logic has crept, cloud-like, from Ford’s factories into the salaried workplace, the home, and the mind. Taylorism is as close to us as what we care about.
There have been attempts to escape from this governing rationality. But the logic of productivity culture is so ascendant, that arguments against efficiency often appeal to an efficient meta-logic. “The Case for Doing Nothing” is the case that it’s more productive to do nothing. Rest assured that “You Are Doing Something Important When You Aren’t Doing Anything.” “When doing nothing is the right thing” is at the head of the landing page of the Vanguard Group. Inactivity is interpreted and applauded as a strategy to enhance our symbolic and financial portfolios. Optimization requires fallow time.
What grows within and thickens this universal pressure for self-managed optimization is, of course, an industry that profits from it. The products of this industry affirm that you’re feeling bad: stressed, distracted. But distraction is the flip side of efficiency’s coin and the business of productivity is incentivized to encourage it. A Reddit user named Homemadetools once reminded the r/productivity page that “the goal of a productivity app” is “to make you use the app more.” The apps themselves are often distracting. In the words of Joseph Reagle, author of Hacking Life: Systematized Living and Its Discontents, “the profitable paradox at the heart of self-help is that it never suffices.” The more people feel their time-control slipping away, the more people turn to productivity aids. Many of these “free” aids sell data that can be used, in turn, to generate more personalized distractions. Attention itself is commodified. According to Jenny Odell, attention is treated “as if it were an undifferentiated and interchangeable currency.” “The mind is disassembled,” scattered, then gathered up and redirected toward instrumental and commercial activity.
The inherent complicity of the distraction and focus industries is also demonstrated by books like Cal Newport’s Deep Work, which conjures the constant-crisis anxiety that its method then seeks to allay. Many insist that these products are helpful. But like mindfulness in the workplace (Newport: “meditate productively”), the most useful of these apps allow us to function in a fucked-up world. They don’t encourage us to change the world. I asked Reagle if it were possible to be an advocate for social justice and to have an alternative sociopolitical vision and also to hack life. He told me that it is possible. “But you don’t see it often. Life hacking is so rooted in the individualistic ethos of self-help, it doesn’t lend itself to questioning the configuration of the maze or the necessity of running it.” These lifehackers claim, incredibly, that the world is both in constant flux and incapable of being transformed. They offer to help you to keep up the pace. People are exhausted. That’s one reason Anne Helen Petersen’s Buzzfeed article on burnout went viral.
“We didn’t try to break the system, since that’s not how we’d been raised,” Petersen writes. “We tried to win it.” System is the key word, because there is, unfortunately, no wizard behind this curtain. Nothing to punch at. Even those highest up on the economic ladder feel the strain of self-managed optimization, although it’s true that their falls would be exceptionally cushioned. Self-stylized productivity gurus like Tim Ferriss profiteer from people’s escalating anxieties. And yet, Ferriss himself is not immune to this logic. He may dedicate only four hours per week to “work,” but he spends the rest of his life ferociously promoting his brand, which is himself. Every chunk of his lifetime is exploitable. And the aggressively trademarked PT makes that explicit. It is not a tool for achieving spiritual freedom. Quite the contrary. The language of fulfillment and emancipation has been co-opted. The PT is a symbol of the alien expectation inside us that shapes our desires and directs our actions. The expectation is to relentlessly optimize until we die.
Okay. But what about people who just like numbers? Gina Trapani, for example, founder of Lifehacker.com, would suggest that whether one wants to optimize everything is a matter of disposition, an ethically neutral “style” or preference. It’s as a quantified self that Trapani feels spiritually free. Some simply prefer to optimize the little time that they have.
The point, however, is that we’re all now obligated to have this preference. In his tremendously German book Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World, Hartmut Rosa analyzes four factors that produce the motivation to treat everything, including oneself, as a resource. There is currently no definitive answer to the question of what makes for a good life. We are all, moreover, encouraged to answer that question “authentically” for ourselves. Society must go faster to maintain the status quo. Competition is the engine for this escalation. Under these conditions, says Rosa, “devoting one’s energies to accumulating resources becomes nothing less than a categorical imperative if one hopes to have even a chance of leading a self-determined life.” Self-quantifying is required.
But the attitude and behavior that characterize the drive to accumulate is at odds with the attitude and behavior required for establishing what Rosa calls “resonant” relationships to the world. Unsuccessful relationships to the world treat it “as a dead resource and malleable object,” to be either mastered, ignored, or despised. Resonant relationships are, in contrast, “open, vibrating, breathing”: relationships in which we can be surprised and even hurt by what we encounter. In which the unruly world sings to us. In which we adapt. It is the quality of one’s relationship to the world, not the quantity of one’s resources, argues Rosa, that should set the standard for success in life. And while it’s naturally difficult to establish resonance without material security, the good life cannot be engineered — cannot, indeed, be hacked — and attempts are self-defeating. Resonance is not a condition that you can acquire. It calls for a different mode altogether. We are nevertheless systemically encouraged to keep accumulating.
Rosa is not only arguing that Trapani’s analytical “cognitive style” is structurally obliged. He is also suggesting that this instrumental orientation toward the world inhibits human flourishing. What happens when the quantified-self refuses to acknowledge that the world cannot be mastered? That politics can’t be gamified? What happens when the instrumentalized body is sick or in pain? When the world thunders back? Today’s crises are, for Rosa, symptomatic. For while the logic of optimization is still loudly promising to optimize for the good things, like human welfare, relations of resonance have gone mute in the environmental, democratic, and subjective spheres. We are individually maximizing to our individual and collective doom.
But let’s say you meet a PT-using developer who really loves his job. To illustrate, Apple recently endorsed the PT in “Goodnight Developers,” published to YouTube in early June 2019 in preparation for the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC). The two-minute black-and-white video follows a predictable narrative arc. Developers are working into the early hours of the morning. Halfway through the video, they experience a technical crisis. Laptops are slammed in frustration. Jack White tempts them to bed. The developers resist and continue to work. Another interval is cranked on the tomato timer. Victory is shortly achieved. “While the world sleeps, you dream,” says Apple, untying them from the mast. “Welcome to WWDC.”
One of these developers happens to live in your house. You tell him, over breakfast, that he is trapped in capitalistic perceptions of production and consumption and that his relationship to his lifetime is pathological. He is unfazed. He says his job is satisfying. This satisfaction, you clarify, is as vain as Cirillo’s tomato timer. Competition is structurally encouraged. Competition is both the cause and effect of escalation. No no, the developer responds, it’s not about competition. I develop apps in the realm of freedom. Developing apps is, in a formula Hägglund borrows from Hegel, “purposive activity” with which I identify and to which I am “freely committed.” You point to the neoliberal alien. As a knife is for cutting, he says, so am I for application development. He works hard because he enjoys his job. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
Let’s agree, for a moment, that our developer values his work as an end in itself. But he sets the standard for his teammates. His Pomodoros in the supposed realm of freedom expand the realms of necessity for everyone else. Because he works until 3:00 a.m. out of love, in order to keep up the pace, so too must his teammates work until 3:00 a.m. out of love. If, around midnight, his co-workers do not sufficiently love their jobs, perhaps they would be better suited for other employment. Moreover, our developer works for a company that generates profit through the exploitation of wage labor. The people who manufacture the technology that uses his apps do not have the resources or opportunities to explore what work would be, for them, intrinsically valuable. Their time does not belong to them, which is to say that their lives do not belong to them.
(But, replies the developer, you buy the technology! This is a good point. Hägglund describes exploitation under capitalism as systemic, which is why he queries liberal measures like universal basic income. Any form of UBI redistributes wealth generated by the exploitation of wage labor. Hägglund concedes that redistribution may be a means toward an end. It may, he says, have emancipatory effects. But emancipation requires a collective realization that “the measure of value under capitalism is self-contradictory.” While certain products are particularly dirty, no one’s hands are clean.)
Let’s step back. Our developer says that he is freely committed to his work. It is a happy coincidence that he enjoys designing the kinds of things that produce value for his employer: an app that connects to your house’s microwave, for example, and allows you to microwave from anywhere, even your car (someone still has to put something in the microwave) (this is a real product). To test the “freedom” of our developer’s commitment, perhaps you could ask him to imagine that his material and social needs were already taken care of. Imagine the ability to freely dedicate yourself to whatever projects you want, not just the salable kind. What sorts of applications would he develop then, with the little time that he has?
And if — if even after the transition to Hägglund’s democratic socialism, after we overcome what Rosa calls our “modern mode of dynamic stabilization,” which depends on “growth, escalation, and acceleration” as “structural requirements for reproduction,” after we effect this “simultaneous revolution of culture, politics, and the economy” — even after this great transformation, if our developer would still like to build apps for intelligent microwaves, then the conversation seems to have arrived at an impasse. It is unwise to try to rhetorically coerce someone into feeling coerced. You leave the breakfast table.
You leave the table and take a walk and before you know it you’re standing, once again, in front of this irritating coincidence: that the products of the lifehacking industry, which speed us further and faster along accumulative paths, are packaged in the language of spiritual freedom, a state in which we are no longer obligated to orient our time in the service of capital accumulation. You begin to think that this coincidence is something more than a co-optation of language.
Part of the problem — part of why it’s so difficult to criticize the Pomodoro Technique — is that the spiritually free need help shoring up their commitments. Those who have the freedom to commit their allotted time to activities with which they identify are also the ones who can truly fail. To own your life, “[t]o own what you do and what you love,” is according to Hägglund “to put yourself at stake.” “[O]ur fundamental commitments are trembling and may fall apart.” What keeps these commitments intact are things like ritual, habit, and low-order rules, like telling yourself to spend just 30 minutes on a difficult problem, or to practice piano every night after dinner. Far from depriving us of life, these simple rules and rituals can serve as scaffolding for life-affirming activity. The security of our identities can depend on these self-set scaffolds.
It may seem strange that we need scaffolds in the realm of freedom, but life-defining activity isn’t necessarily fun or easy. It’s often stressful and boring. Let’s say, for example, that you identify as a writer. Hägglund reminds us that being a writer consists in the daily struggle to be a writer. The daily struggle to be a writer often looks appalling. “Precisely because [writing] is so important to me, I can become paralyzed by anxiety over the stakes and do something else instead.” To have writer’s block does not mean that you no longer care about writing. Just the opposite: writing is so important that the risk of failing to write or failing to write well is almost inarticulable. It’s easier to write for an hour today than to write your novel today, and there’s a difference between the fruit of a practical identity and its everyday experience. Tedium, however, resists representation, which is why it’s easy to forget that unremarkable hours are at the heart of every breakthrough. A little rule can help you step outside of a vicious loop and begin.
The question is whether the PT can serve as one of these little rules. It’s undeniable that productivity lifehacks have been created, adopted, and revised by communities of neurodiversity and disability, both historically and today. Perhaps the PT could be appropriated to serve as a scaffold that allows the spiritually free to shore up their commitments, to do the practical work of being who they take themselves to be. The answer is no. Or rather, not if the PT remains wrapped in the plastic of productivity culture.
Within this culture, who you take yourself to be (an optimizable self) is already given, as well as the kind of commitments you ought to have (the industrious kind). Use the PT thus-wrapped and you accelerate competition (further and faster with fewer Pomodoros). You also endorse its brand values, like present investment and future payoff, activities that can be graphed with time dashed off along the x-axis. The value of an appreciating portfolio is made in linear time — in a straight, uniform, and privatized shot from nothing to annihilation. Homo oeconomicus cannot enjoy the palliative effects of cyclical time. Life with the PT, as in life under quarantine, brings together to dreadful effect an expansion of the present and a heightening of the sense that value is only made by moving forward. Seconds dilate; days swell out. Swelled time must be put to use. Each of these dilated moments, you realize, can contain more. Lifetime is infinitely divisible. There’s an infinite capacity for meaning, for productivity. The number of days and deaths tick up. The ticking is propulsive and now you’re rolling around more of these circles, and faster. Who wouldn’t want to get as much as possible out of life? Who wouldn’t want each moment to count? You have 120,000 Pomodoros — the true quantified self, just as terrible. How much can you do?
The authentic and quantified self may both have their roots in existential dread, but not all dread is created equal. On the one hand, there is the realization that, in Hägglund’s words, life is “internally bound to what it opposes.” Impermanence is why we care. In the library in which I used to work, there are two large clock-faces on either end of the room and a painted frieze runs below the wall’s molding. Most of the frieze’s images are obscure. The one familiar motif features two hourglasses that suspend a banner above a skull. For extra emphasis, the banner reads “Memento Mori”: remember death. This may seem like a strange aegis for the creation and curation of knowledge, but death is not an obstacle in the path of doing. Now, as in Flemish still lifes, the hourglass symbolizes both virtue as well as the dread that is its precondition. Identifying our future dusty selves with its sand is essential for life. What’s the alternative? Dunbar, of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, who tries to increase his lifespan by pretending to be a corpse.
There is, on the other hand, the dread of productivity culture: in which power, capital, and self-fulfillment have no upper bound; in which what you achieve is only limited by how efficiently you can exploit your time; in which exploitation can always be made more efficient. It’s important to note that the difference between the first and second forms of anxiety is not a difference of degree, but of type. Imagine relating to death as you would a partner, someone who walks quietly beside you. Now imagine relating to death as you would an adversary, someone to rage against and overpower with Soylent. Both relationships are creepy. Only one is carcinogenic.
Because productivity has no upper limit, Oliver Burkeman argues that hacks like David Allen’s “getting things done” (GTD) and “Inbox Zero” exacerbate the anxiety that they claim to alleviate. Try to be more productive and you’ll feel more stressed. Anxiously running around this circle is a neat way to ignore the difficult question of what makes for meaningful work. This is why Burkeman thinks that “time management is ruining our lives.” What ought to be a tool becomes an end in itself, distracting us from “the potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days.” PT in hand, “you’re still Sisyphus,” he says, only rolling your boulder “slightly faster.”
And yet, I purchased my tomato timer in January 2019, and used the PT for the first six months I spent drafting this essay, and thus focused monomaniacally, with the PT, on the question of how I am spending my days. These efforts are Sisyphean in the sense that they can never be completed. Are they meaningless? There is, of course, an element of the absurd in what Thomas Nagel calls “the assiduous pursuit of mundane goals.” The universe is large. But surely some work, like Burkeman’s writing for the Guardian, is worth doing. And surely some work worth doing is hard to do.
And suddenly we’re back at the beginning, staring at that coincidence. What makes the PT difficult to criticize is not simply that we need PT-like scaffolds in the realm of freedom. And not just existential anxiety, either, although dread does explain much of the tenacity of the logic of optimization and the industry that profits from it. The PT is difficult to criticize because authenticity has to be self-reported.
In a culture in which work is always evaluated and rewarded under the iron rubric of productivity, in which the realm of freedom is never safe, and we must always suspect ourselves of utility, in such a culture how do you know that your commitments are authentic? Why do you think your work is worth doing? How can you be sure that your commitment to smart appliances starts and ends with you? Or that you want to write because you’re a writer, not because you need to stand out in a competitive job market? What’s alien in what we want? What’s us?
Both Tim Ferriss and the spiritually free do what they want in the little time that they have. But the spiritually free also — and this is crucial — use their time to ask themselves why they want what they want. Ferris is only free to do what he wants within a universe of options provided by the logic of capital. The spiritually free, meanwhile, would scrutinize their commitments and ask themselves if they still ought to maintain them — and they would do so in a society that makes the very relationship between freedom and necessity into an object of democratic scrutiny, deliberation, and decision. Hägglund calls this our ability to bear a negative self-relation, and he calls a society committed to maximizing socially available free time a democratic socialist society. Scrutinizing commitments is rarely productive (maybe you should give up writing and become a physiotherapist?). And it can never be satisfied. But it can unwrap the plastic from the PT.
If you approach each new interval with a question, not an answer, and god forbid certainly not a task, and if you every day ask yourself why you do what you do, and whether the excellence you’re pursuing is proper to you, and whether pursuing this excellence is worth your time — if you use the PT to bear this negative self-relation, then that tomato timer on your desk may just metamorphose from a productivity hack into a campy hourglass.
Not that a campy hourglass is particularly easy to live with, either. The mood of it, like the mood of most time-management devices, is like the kind of queer weather in which things refuse to stay within their correct categories. We are contained by what we try to contain; we give what is “irreducibly ours” away to be more fully ourselves. The best way to maximize the PT’s use-value is to keep that in mind. Treat it like a small alien sound at the heart of what’s most ours, calling us to create, encouraging us to begin the always-incomplete project of being us, repeating “How did I get here?” often enough, so that on some Monday morning further along, at least we’re not surprised by the question. Here, it rings. Another 25 minutes are spent. Your time is at hand.
Alexa Hazel is a writer and graduate student in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.
Featured image: "Il pomodoro" by Erato is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5.