The Tomatoes of Destiny

1 November, 2011

The Pomodoro Technique worked for me for a while, but recent weeks have been distinctly low on work, and the reboot didn’t help*.


This is a sad tomato.

The problem, as is so often the case, lay with starting. If I started a 25-minute tomato, I’d work reasonably hard on it and get things done. But then I wouldn’t want to start the next one at the end of the break, and I definitely didn’t want to start a block of four tomatoes at the end of a long break, because work is hard. I’d end up in tomato limbo, checking email, checking Twitter**, always on the verge of starting, but not doing any work and not even having any fun either (because, after all, I was supposed to be working).

Last week I was browsing my new favourite website, Less Wrong, and met an intriguing idea: instead of punishing people when they’re caught driving too fast through speed cameras, how about rewarding drivers who were under the limit by entering them into a prize draw?

And that set some neurons firing: our brains respond really well to regular but unpredictable rewards, as exploited by many a videogame (and that explains that email-Twitter cycle too).

Ok, I can use that. Behold my latest strategy: the Tomatoes of Destiny!

Let us have no comments about The Dice Man.

Pebbles stolen from a boardgame.

It works like this: there’s a bag on my desk that contains some glass pebbles, a few clear and the rest brown. I start a tomato timer and then draw a pebble. If it’s brown, I have to work. If it’s clear, I get the whole tomato to do whatever I want.

Thus, starting work is transformed into a game, with the tantalising possibility of a free tomato. That’s twenty five completely free minutes: no guilt, no looking busy***, just long enough to work on something interesting.

And if I draw a work pebble; meh, the timer’s already running, it’s only 25 minutes, and maybe the next one will be free, right?

I am my own lab rat.

* Though it did result in a lot of blog hits from people searching for ‘angry tomato’. What do you want, you people??

** Could be worse, I could still be on Facebook :S

*** This is clearly ridiculous. I work from home, who am I trying to fool?

**** This blog post exists as a result of drawing three clear pebbles in a row. Hmm, maybe the pebble ratio needs some tuning.



  1. Love it! So do you use roughly 1/2 clear, or is that just the way the picture worked out?

    If the pebble approach stops working at some point and you want to reboot again, this guy has a bunch of great posts about timeboxing:


    • Currently there are 15 brown and 5 clear. That’s a bit gentler than Pomodoro Technique’s four tomatoes to one break, but there has to be a reasonable possibility of fun for the whole trick to work 😉 I’ll keep experimenting with the ratios.

      Thanks for the link, interesting stuff! There are plenty of great productivity ideas around, but I’ve felt for a while that there’s a missing link between ‘that’s a good idea’ and persuading my irrational and fundamentally lazy brain to actually *do* any of them. So I’m quite pleased with this pebble malarkey 🙂

  2. There are set of principles (commonly used in games) to tap into the brain’s reward cycle. This a great video that you can watch about the subject 🙂

    Be warned the narrator sounds like Chipmunk (according to Charlotte)

    • Nice video, with suggestions as well as complaints! Are there any games out there that don’t use any operant conditioning, though? And does anyone play them? Taking that to its limit, are there games you’d still play even if there were no points, no wins, no achievements… is that technically even a game any more, or something different?

      “For now, let’s ignore the questionable morality of using Skinner’s theories to create games…” … hmm. I would like to know how the psychologists draw the line between operant conditioning and addiction, but I got mired in some really long boring papers and don’t have an answer. There are plenty of less scientific articles that use the terms interchangeably: http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-ways-video-games-are-trying-to-get-you-addicted.html

      • The game you are describing, with no wins and no points (which games rarely have these days) is probably Heavy Rain (Bafta award winning)

        I think that nowadays the gaming audience is getting older and wiser at spotting satisfying, engaging games as much as the ones that dangle a level-up.

  3. […] this means I’m having some kind of crisis.* Sometimes it just means I’ve actually been doing some work. This time, happily, it’s the […]

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