The Pomodoro method for increased productivity was first popularised in the early ’90s by the book “The Pomodoro Technique” by Italian entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo.
The simple time-management method, which Cirillo developed when he was a university student, has become one of the most practiced productivity hacks of the past few decades due to its simplicity and effectiveness.
A few years ago, it was named the most popular productivity method by Lifehacker.
I decided to see what all the hype was about and spent last week attempting to follow it.
After reading through Cirillo’s manual, I stripped the technique down to its most basic form:
- Each “pomodoro” is an interval of work. It’s broken down into two segments: 25-minutes of pure work, followed by a five-minute break.
- After setting a timer for 25 minutes, dedicate yourself to intense, distraction-free work. This means no checking your phone, answering email, or opening a new tab in your web browser. Avoid anything that would interrupt the task at hand.
- Once the 25 minutes is up, stop working immediately and take a three- to five-minute break to disconnect from your work. Cirillo recommends stretching, getting a drink of water, doing a brief organizational chore, or anything else that does not require much mental effort.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer 15- to 30-minute break.
The manual is extensive and provides several more guidelines, but those are the core principles.
I opted out of purchasing the tomato timer and chose to use the clock on my computer. I chose to take 15-minute breaks after four pomodoros and defined “deep, distraction-free work” as no email, no Slack instant messaging, and no phone.
I also limited my pomodoros to the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and contrary to Cirillo’s advice to engage in 30-minute pomodoros, I tried 60-minute time intervals on Thursday and Friday.
After a week of pomodoros, here’s what I loved about the technique:
- It allowed me to understand exactly where my time was going and how long certain tasks took to complete, which was eye-opening. Oftentimes, days will fly by and the amount of work that does not get done is surprising; the 25-minute chunks allowed me to evaluate the structure of my day and determine which tasks I needed to do quicker and which ones should be allotted more time.
- It made me work much faster. Completing tasks before my time was up became a heated competition. To “win,” I had to finish the specific task I was working on within my 25-minute work interval. Particularly during the second half of the pomodoros, I found myself working significantly faster than I normally would. I had this constant pressure — time — breathing down my neck. It was stressful, but motivating.
- I got a lot done during the five-minute breaks. Headed into the week, I thought the concept of the five-minute break was silly. What could I possibly do with five measly minutes? While I never felt like I needed those five minutes to step away from work and regroup (partly why I increased my pomodoros to 60 minutes on Thursday and Friday), I was able to use that time in a much more productive manner than expected. I ended up crossing off several items from my personal to-do list, such as scheduling appointments or responding to personal emails, cleaning my desk space, and giving my legs a much-needed break from my standing desk.
- Free of distractions, I got much more done. It takes an average of 25 minutes to return to your task after being interrupted. The strict zero-distraction guideline of Cirillo’s method completely eliminated the danger of being side-tracked for 25 minutes. Setting email and Slack aside was not only liberating, but it kept me narrowly focused and significantly improved my efficiency.
I loved several aspects of the technique, but what I didn’t like about it was that I couldn’t sustain it for an entire workday, let alone a workweek. I failed miserably on two of Cirillo’s fundamental guidelines:
- Technically, at the end of a 25-minute segment, “you’re not allowed to keep on working ‘just for a few more minutes,'” Cirillo emphasises in the manual. This is where I struggled most. If I “lost” the race against the clock and hadn’t finished my task, I kept working. Or if I was completely in the zone and on a roll when time was up, I refused to break the creative surge. I did have many “pure” pomodoros, but I also had several others that Cirillo would have asked me to “void.”
- The five-minute breaks are meant for you to completely disconnect from work. While many of my breaks did consist of non-mentally straining tasks — completing small personal to-do list items, tidying my desk, snacking, or taking an office lap — I dedicated several of my “breaks” to responding to work emails. Taking several breaks, no matter how short, is a difficult thing to establish as routine.
If I were to do my pomodoro week over, I would buy the tomato timer. It seemed trivial at the start of the week, but it would have helped with completing more “pure pomodoros.” I would be more inclined to halt work if I had a timer screaming at me, rather than a clock silently changing to a certain time.
The “ticking” sound of the timer as time passes serves a purpose; it allows us to “practice feeling time and stay focused,” Cirillo says. And the physical action of winding the tomato timer is significant: “It is a declaration of your determination to start working on the activity at hand.”
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