The problem with many productivity techniques is that they introduce undue bureaucracy into one’s workflow. I do not need to be coerced into getting my tasks done, and appreciate simple aids that don’t get in the way of actually accomplishing the goals I’ve set (in other words, tools that grant me the ability to get and stay more organized, on track, and focused).
This is why I use a simple technique for getting stuff done called the Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique gets its intriguing name from kitchen timers, which are often shaped like tomatoes (“pomodoro” means tomato in Italian). The inventor of this technique (i.e., Francesco Cirillo) used just such a timer to keep track of his time as he focused on his university studies, and this fact inspired the Pomodoro’s moniker.
This productivity hack is extremely simple, and can be used when programming, writing, or doing any task that’s important to you.
How the Pomodoro Technique works
The basic idea is that each of us can only focus on a given task for so long before we become distracted. This time management technique also weaves in the fact that it’s important to take regular breaks as you work (both for the sake of helping you stay focused and for your overall health and well-being). The Pomodoro Technique regulates when you are to diligently focus on a task and when you should take a breather.
This technique is centered around breaking your time down into pomodori (one pomodoro is equal to 25 minutes). You log a specific task you are going to work on and then sprint your way through that pomodoro. After 25 minutes of dedicated work, the timer goes off and you take a nice 5 minute break from your work.
You must name a pomodoro before starting the timer
Once your break is over, you start another 25 minute long pomodoro. This new pomodoro can be dedicated to the same task as before (if you didn’t complete it during the previous pomodoro) or a new one. After every 4 pomodori (plural for pomodoro), you can take a longer break, if you’d like (such as for 15 minutes).
While you’re working your way through a pomodoro, you can temporally interrupt it for up to 45 seconds, if need be. If the interruption last for longer than that, your dedicated focus on the main task is viewed to be lost, and thus the pomodoro is reset (having to start over at 25 minutes) again.
The defaults of 25 minutes per pomodoro, 5 minutes per regular break, 15 minutes per longer break, and 45 seconds per interruption seem to work well for me and most people I know who’ve tried this handy technique out. However, that said, those arbitrary allotments of time can be changed depending on you personal habits and schedule, so as long as you consistently stick with the allotments that you’ve laid out. For example, some people may prefer to work “in the zone” for 50 minutes, and then take a 10 minute break.
It’s important not to ignore breaks, as they really help you to stay refreshed as you jump into your next 25 minute Pomodoro sprint.
Advantages of using this productivity technique
In trying out this simple, but highly effective technique, I’ve discovered several benefits that have lead me on to keep using it for a long time.
The Pomodoro Technique forces you to think in terms of actions that needs to be taken in order to effectively get things done. It also imposes that you prioritize and decide which action you’re going to work on right now. By helping to limit your attention span to a single activity, this technique aides you in staying focused (instead of hopping between a handful of different tasks and/or distractions).
Revisiting your daily or weekly pomodoro logs will clearly highlight where you spent your time and how productive you were throughout a given time period.
Armed with the Pomodoro Technique, you’ll start to think in terms of the number of pomodori that a given task might require. As you gain experience, you’ll soon discover that even challenging tasks can often be taken care of in a handful of pomodori sessions.
For example, I once replied to about 100 personal emails that I had been putting off for a while. I was worried it would take me a whole weekend (or longer!) to catch up on this backlog, however in reality it only took six pomodori during a Saturday morning to reach the mythical state of Inbox Zero.
If you do the math, that’s an impressive average of 90 seconds per email, Once I started replying, it was clear that I’d really gotten the ball rolling and thus felt more inclined to send “short and sweet” email replies as I productively worked my way through each pomodoro.
In my experience, the advantages above, help you beat procrastination by reinforcing how these distraction-less pomodoro sprints can aid you in completing huge tasks in easy-to-manage blocks of time. Once you’ve established a track record of accomplishing tough jobs in a handful of pomodori, you will be less apprehensive of approaching seemingly huge jobs in the future (and thus less likely to put them off for later).
Using the Pomodoro Technique also helped me better quantify the level of distraction present within our interruption driven workplace. If you’re determined to get a pomodori done, you’ll find a way to limit the number of unnecessary interruptions and actually focus on the task at hand. If you don’t, you’ll quickly see how there is a huge discrepancy between the number of pomodori you are supposed to complete in a productive work day, and how many you actually finish as a result of all the interruptions from colleagues, notification programs, and the attractive muse we call Internet.
While doing numerous highly productive 25 minute sprints in one day will drain your energy more than if you just causally jogged your way throughout the work day, it is seriously rewarding to see just how much you can get done in so little time.
Pomodoro Technique software
The Pomodoro Technique could literally be executed with any (household or computer based) timer and a piece of paper (on which to track and log your pomodori). It is however much more convenient to use software that’s been specifically designed with this (increasingly popular amongst developers) technique in mind.
Personally I use Pomodoro for Mac, which costs $4.99 from the Mac App Store (older versions are available for free, but don’t offer the same range of features). Pomodoro for Mac is extremely customizable, and even integrates with iCal, Things, OmniFocus, Twitter and so on.
If you are not on a Mac, there are other applications for virtually any platform (including Android and iOS) out there. While some of these are less polished and have less features than the Mac app, it’s important to remember than even a simple timer application and a text editor would do the trick, so you don’t actually need all the bells and whistles of the Mac version.
I found that my mind naturally adopted the Pomodoro Technique quickly, welcoming the chance to solidly concentrate on a certain task for a set period without the time anxiety or the shiny allure of distractions and excessive multi-tasking hovering around me. I use the Pomodoro Technique frequently and credit it with helping me to better manage my time and get more out of my work days. It’s simple to try and is well worth test-driving if you’re looking for a productive way to stay focused and really make the most of your time.
And last but not least, for those who might be wondering, this article was written and published in two pomodori.
Antonio Cangiano is a Software Developer and Technical Evangelist at IBM. He authored 'Ruby on Rails for Microsoft Developers' by Wrox (2009) and 'Technical Blogging' by The Pragmatic Bookshelf (2012). He is also the Marketing Lead for Cognitive Class, an IBM educational initiative which he helped grow from zero to 1 Million students. You can follow him on Twitter.