I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique, off and on, for about 5 years. In using it I have seen some marvelous gains in productivity. I have also come up with some small alterations that I believe improve work quality, help me avoid burn out, and aid in the lifelong quest to defeat the gremlins of procrastination.
Here’s the wikipedia article, but this is the gist:
Take a timer, set it to 25 minutes, then start it. Until the timer rings only work on one thing from your todo list. Don’t use social media, check the news, or talk to anyone else. If distractions come to mind write them down on a piece of paper so you can address them later if they are truly important. Once the 25 minutes is up, set a timer for 5 minutes and take a break. Each 25 minute section of work is called a Pomodoro. Every 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break of 10-20 minutes.
That’s all there is to it.
There is obvious beauty in the simplicity of the system, but beyond that it is one of the most productive work techniques I’ve ever tried.
Things I’ve Learned
Everyone wants to be more productive, and the Pomodoro Technique delivers a massive dosage of it. I notice the difference between my Pomodoro and non-Pomodoro output is huge, perhaps on the order of 1.5 or 2x. Increased productivity on this scale is a life-altering event. With efficiency like this, you can work a shorter day and get more done.
Enjoyment of work
Using the Pomodoro Technique introduces a type of focus into your day which, over time, becomes intrinsically rewarding. I find that it becomes harder and harder to pull myself away from my work when the break timer rings. Sometimes I am so absorbed that I don’t hear it altogether.
I believe the cause of this is a mental state called Flow, which can occur when we work in highly focused environments. It turns out that this Flow state is highly enjoyable, and is characterized by the feeling of time passing quickly and high engagement in what we’re working on.
Get used to doing more by working less
You shouldn’t expect to do more than 12 Pomodoros in a day. If you do, they will be of crappy quality or will deplete you so completely, that you won’t be able to repeat your performance the next day.
I’ve noticed this in my own work. I’ll sometimes set an ambitious goal of doing 12+ Pomodoros in a day and although I’m often able to achieve the target nominally, it’s only by cutting significant corners on the spirit of the exercise. For example, the amount of time that I might find myself in an unfocused or dazed state, simply waiting for the timer to countdown to zero increases. Worse still, this kind of schedule often leads to me abandoning the technique altogether after a couple of weeks of strain. That’s not what the technique is about.
Try 4 Pomodoros to start with. If you do them right, you will witness their power. Choose a lower number to prioritize quality over quantity. Quality is what this is about, and I think each additional Pomodoro you work is subject to a steeply diminishing marginal benefit in terms of output. Therefore, I highly recommend confining yourself to a small number of them to start with, say 4-6. Even when you get more experienced I don’t recommend ever doing more than 12 in a day.
In a world where the number of hours you are at the office is considered a proxy for how diligent you are, it can be tough to avoid feeling like you’re cheating the system when you get most of your substantive work done in half the time. It took me and the people I work with a long time to get comfortable with the fact that productive output is more influenced by quality than quantity.
Communication of any sort doesn’t count
Use Pomodoros strictly for development work and not for communication. Any interaction of a back and forth nature doesn’t allow you to be in constant control of your output as inevitably you’ll spend time waiting for a reply. Do your communication and planning outside of your Pomodoro time.
If you feel the need to get some information from someone during a session, make a note of it and talk with them after the break or, even better, after you conclude all of your Pomodoro sessions for the day.
The technique works best when you are working solo
In terms of mental investment, interruptions are expensive. After an interruption, it may take you several minutes to get back to where you were.
When you can genuinely unplug your mind from the steam of office communication and wall yourself off from people who want to tap you on the shoulder, that’s when the Pomodoro Technique truly shines. If no one can interrupt you, you can get full benefit from highly focused work.
I have tried the technique at home as a freelancer, and in a workplace where I was interrupted constantly and I can say that in both cases I benefit from using Pomodoros. However only when I am free from interruptions do I really experience the full benefits.
Let others know that you need to focus. They will respect you for it.
If you do work in an office which prides itself on open collaboration and high employee interrupt-ability, let your co-workers know when you’d like to be left alone to work on difficult problems. If someone interrupts you during this time, politely tell them, “I’m trying to focus on a problem. I’ll talk to you in a few minutes”. Although it might seem a bit awkward drawing such a stark line in the sand, it’s my experience that colleagues tend to respect your time more if you take it seriously yourself.
Switch off the internet if possible
Oh how insidious those procrastination gremlins are! Even when you convince yourself that you are doing research on the solution to a problem, they may persuade you to click on an especially tempting article, and before you know it, you’re caught in their trap. The surest defense against this is to unplug from the internet if possible during your work sessions. Download everything you’ll need before starting your Pomodoro and try to get as far as you can. While the time is ticking, write down all of the things you need to look up online when the Pomodoro is over.
Get off the computer during breaks
The breaks scheduled between Pomodoros are designed to help you recharge and prepare for another session of concentrated focus. So it stands to reason that the higher the quality of rest we get during the break, the better we will be able to perform during work periods.
With this in mind use your break to do something that doesn’t involve computers, and ideally doesn’t involve much thinking. Take some time to breathe, walk around, answer the call of nature, meditate, have a snack, or tidy your desk.
Beware the long break
If you are of a highly-distractible temperament such as myself, The long break that occurs every 4 Pomodoros is a period where your full powers of self-control should be mustered to strike down the procrastination gremlins who will exhaust their cunning to come up with any justification possible to extend the break “just a little longer”. If it’s going to happen at any time during your workday it’s going to happen during the long break, so be on your guard.
The following are some of the modifications I’ve made to the official system as its creator, Francesco Cirillo, laid it out. These may not work for everyone.
Working on multiple tasks is fine
I don’t worry about limiting each Pomodoro to one discrete bit of work like the official guide recommends. Instead, I simply focus on one thing at a time and if I finish that task before the time is up, I’ll move on to the next one.
The constraint can get pretty annoying when you start a Pomodoro working on a task which has only about 10 minutes left of work to go. After the task is done, don’t take prescribed effort to review your work for the remaining time unless you need to. I don’t see the benefit, just move on to another task.
Use an app
I don’t use a physical timer as recommended by the official guide. The critical error with this is that you have to decide to start a work period and decide to set the timer in order to actually start one. Instead, I use the Tomighty app to take this process out of my hands. The app moves to the next phase of the process (either break, long break, or work period) automatically.
If setting and starting the times is on autopilot, my procrastination gremlins can’t take over by delaying my starting for “just another minute”.
On occasion, I will work for 50 minutes and then take a 10 minute break, instead of the standard 25 minute sessions. If this is the case, I will naturally aim to get half as many Pomodoros done. I don’t really see any difference, except for the sole point that it can be helpful in overcoming inertia to start a work period with a shorter Pomodoro. For work that has a long ramp-up period like programming, a longer period can be helpful.
Give it a Try
It’s gonna help you out if you have any issues with concentrating on your work. It’ll make you more productive, and it may even help you get more enjoyment out of the work you do.