Every productivity nerd will have at least heard of the Pomodoro Technique. It was invented by Francisco Cirillo in the late 1980s and is a simple way of ‘time boxing’ work.
Pomodoro is the Italian for tomato, and it’s called Pomodoro because the original timer Cirillo used was in the shape of a tomato. This article will take you through 11 benefits of the technique, and show you how you can use Pomodoros to enhance your productivity.
There are tonnes of articles online about specifics of the Pomodoro Technique, and Cirillo even has a book on the subject, but it boils down to the following:
- Identify what the task at hand is and write it down
- Set your Pomodoro to 25 minutes
- Work on the task until the Pomodoro is over
- Take a 5-minute break
- For every four Pomodoros take a longer break (15-20 minutes)
Make the Pomodoro Technique work for you
Before you say that seems too rigid and wouldn’t work for your specific circumstances, it’s important to note that you can tweak the system to suit what works for you. Twenty-five minutes isn’t supposed to be some universal law that will work for everyone, nor is there a set number of Pomodoros you should work in a given day.
Below I’m going to outline the benefits I’ve gained from using this technique, before outlining how people tend to go wrong. If I’ve managed to convince you by then, there’s also a few pointers on how you can get started with Pomodoros.
Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique
- Reducing guilt. This is the biggest benefit for me. Particularly if you’re in an industry where you’re paid by what you produce, rather than the time you put in, getting to the end of the day without doing everything on your to do list can feel unfulfilling. You’re left with the unappetising choices of working longer, or feeling like the day was a failure. But if you tell yourself that you’re going to do a set number of Pomodoros and then stop, you can be happy with that, regardless of the outcome. If you haven’t achieved your goals, then it’s a sign your goals were unrealistic, or that you’re not as productive as you thought you were. In effect, you’re turning time into an ally rather than an enemy.
- Combating Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted. Introducing these short deadlines into your work helps overcome this problem. You can be more or less strict about the deadlines, of course — if you haven’t completed your task, then you’ll need another Pomodoro – but sometimes it’s a good reminder of when 80% done is enough.
- Working faster. If you sit at a desk all day, you’re going to have huge peaks and troughs. On some level, you tell yourself that you can’t work at 100% all day, so you give it way less than your all. If your time horizon is only 25 minutes, chances are you’ll work a bit quicker. Over a whole day, that few percent is worth something. Over longer periods, the benefit is huge.
- Eliminating/reducing your excuses to be distracted. During each Pomodoro, you commit to setting aside any distractions until the break. It’s rare that things can’t wait a maximum of 25 minutes before being dealt with, and committing for that period helps you avoid distractions.
- Beating procrastination. By breaking down huge tasks into small chunks, you make them much less daunting, and that’s especially so when they’re made into 25-minute blocks. ‘Write context paragraph for blog post for 25 minutes’ is much less scary than ‘Write blog post’. Often starting a larger task with a 25-minute burst gives you enough momentum for a much longer wave of productivity.
- Increasing rewards. This benefit is twofold. Firstly, completing a Pomodoro brings its own sense of satisfaction. It’s something semi-tangible you have done which can’t be taken away from you. If you’ve got a Pomodoro app that gives you a nice graph, that’s nice to look back at over time. Plus, you can give yourself rewards after each session to increase the satisfaction it gives you. I don’t listen to music while I’m doing creative work, so I like to reward myself with a song in the 5-minute break. You can even use the breaks to get your email fix if you need to, although moving away from your usual workspace is usually recommended. Over time, making work more rewarding will increase your motivation to do more of it.
- Helping planning. By timing how long things actually take, you get a much better sense of how long future tasks will take. I know it usually takes 15 Pomodoros to write an article, so I’m less likely to put ‘write an article’ on my to do list when I’ve got lots of meetings that day.
- Adding other habits. If you’re also trying to drink more water, for example, you can make sure you drink every time the Pomodoro finishes. Just make sure you don’t make it so hard for yourself that your reward for finishing a chunk of work is having to do 25 push-ups.
- Prompting the subconscious. If you’re strict about not doing anything connected with the task you’re working on during the break, then doing something else can give your subconscious a chance to work on the problem while your conscious mind is having a break. Then when you sit back down, you might be able to more quickly get through a task than if you’d just sat there and struggled.
- Reviews. Having some sort of review period in your work is a critical part of productivity. Tracking exactly how you did spend your time, rather than roughly how you spent it, leads to much more powerful results.
- Co-working. Pomodoros can be great for working alongside other people. It allows you to sync your schedules so you’re all focusing at the same time (and not distracting one another), then all relaxing at the same time. Plus, it’s more motivating to work when others are doing so.
How to get the Pomodoro Technique wrong
There’s also plenty of material online about how the Pomodoro Technique doesn’t work for certain types of people, that it fails after a while, or that it’s too inflexible. I have felt reluctant to get back into it after a vacation, or have forgotten to do it at times. Yet I come back to it because of all the benefits above. Most of these problems stem from doing it wrong in the following ways:
- Keeping going after the timer’s stopped. If you’re in a flow state, it’s tempting to carry on after your 25-minute timer’s stopped. You certainly don’t want to break your focus by working on something else. But the point of your breaks between Pomodoros is not to start new tasks. It’s to give you monetary chance to recharge and do something doesn’t need as much effort, so that you can keep working hard when you return to the task. If you don’t think you can achieve anything meaningful in 25 minutes, then think of it instead of two hours – that’s how long you’re having between long breaks. If you find a different length of time works better for you, then use that – but be cautious of what benefits you might be losing. After all, one of the beautiful things about a 25-minute window is that it’s not scary. Stopping while you’ve still got stuff to write can also keep that flow going – just ask Hemingway.
- Allowing distractions. This is particularly common in busy working environments, where colleagues interrupt your work. Cirillo recommends a ‘inform, negotiate, call back’ strategy to get over this. You inform your colleague that you’re in the middle of something, negotiate a time to respond to them, and then ‘call them back’ when that time comes around. If your distractions are more self-generated, then you could write them down as they come to you on a sheet of paper. Sort them out once your timer’s done.
- Not having everything you need to do the task. Chefs like to get everything out before they start to cook a meal. It’s known as mise en place. Think of your tasks like this too, so you aren’t distracted by having to look for a vital piece of equipment half way through a block of time. The same goes for needing the bathroom, a drink, or snacks.
- Only doing 100% or nothing. As I said above, you can tweak the system to suit your personal working habits. And remember that doing an 80 percent version is miles better than doing nothing at all. Don’t feel like you need to use this for all of your work. Most productivity gurus seem to use it only sporadically, and derive a lot of benefit from doing so. If you work in a call centre and are constantly being interrupted, use it for the small chunks of your work that do need more focus. You could even try 5-minute Pomodoros when you’re starting out.
- Forgetting to do it at all. This is my biggest failing in using the technique, and I always feel stupid when I come back to the system and remind myself how effective it is. A good way of overcoming it is to build it into one of your existing systems that you don’t forget. For example, if you use a calendar to schedule your work, you can plot them out there in advance. Having a physical timer on your desk can help, too.
How to get started with the Pomodoro Technique
- Try it out now. Go to your task list, pick the one that’s most important (not urgent). Set a timer on your phone for 25 minutes and do that task for 25 minutes. Congrats – you’ve done your first Pomodoro.
- Make it into a little habit. Do one Pomodoro a day for the next week – put it into your task management system / to do list / calendar / emails so you don’t forget. Then build on that to do two a day for the following week, and build up at a manageable pace.
- Choose a pomodoro app that works for you, after you’ve learnt enough to want to commit further. Various apps allow you to bend the framework in different ways, and have different visualisations and tones. I use Be Focused Pro for Mac. You can just your phone – or even go analogue.
- Experiment with different ways of doing it. Like I said, some prefer to use it once or twice a day, others (like me) use it for about 80 percent of their work. You may find different intervals work better for you. Just be conscious of what you’re gaining and losing with each tweak.
- Integrate it with your other systems. I find productivity is usually enhanced when my systems work together. Plus it feels nice. Splitting my ‘Things’ tasks into pomodoro-sized chunks makes them much less scary, and helps me plan when and how I’m going to get them done.
If you enjoyed this article on the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique, then you might want to read why you should use a heart rate monitor for exercise.