In Praise of the Pomodoro Technique

You might’ve seen one before – a little red timer disguised as a tomato. Well a tomato is a pomodoro, and the tomato timer is the inspiration behind the Pomodoro Technique. Created in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the technique is designed to make time our ally as we manage it better and become more productive.

This is a pomodoro timer. I just used the timer on my phone though.

To Do Today
“To Do” lists. We all have them. Some of them may be indescribably long. Sometimes they may simply include one item. A big item. An item that takes a week or two to complete. (Or a semester, e.g., “Complete dissertation”). At any rate, many of us set about the tasks at hand pretty clear about what we’d like to accomplish, but not going about them in a strategic way. Before we know it, time is passing and at 3 p.m. we’re wondering where noon went.

Chunking larger tasks into smaller, bite-sized pieces is invaluable. I did it to great effect to build momentum and finish said dissertation in a timely fashion. I went from feeling overwhelmed at the enormity of it all, to excited and energized every time I completed a task successfully.

Pomodoro Basics
The Pomodoro Technique takes that idea a step further. Take your same “To Do” list and figure out specifically what tasks you plan to accomplish in one day. No, seriously. Then follow these steps:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  4. Take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (15-30 minutes)

There are a few more rules and tips, and you can consult the .pdf cheat sheet here.

Proof in the Tomato Pudding
I tried it today. I really had to get a project done. It’s one I’ve been putting off, literally for weeks, because other things kept taking priority. But time does eventually run out and the clock was ticking. I chunked the whole project into five tasks and started the timer for “round one.” I was amazed and encouraged at how easy it was to bat away my typical distractions knowing that a break was imminent. For the same reason, I pushed myself to focus as I wanted to see at least a little progress by the time the bell rang. The cheat sheet says the “next” pomodoro will go better, and, ladies and gentlemen, the cheat sheet doesn’t lie.

Productivity begat more productivity and I was on a roll. Turns out, I chunked my tasks pretty well. The first one was most difficult, taking 4 pomodoros (2 hours) to complete. But the other tasks took one pomodoro each, with seconds to spare each time. A project that seemed to take forever, only took four hours to complete. And I still had time to check email and tweet on breaks!

Any Drawbacks?
Yes! The momentum can be tiring. It’s really important to take those “longer” breaks every two hours. You’re basically moving at top speed constantly. I would recommend mixing in all sorts of tasks so you can sort of relax in between harder ones. And by relax I mean doing something that doesn’t require as much mental work – organizing, filing, returning a call, etc. Things we do have to accomplish anyway.

At any rate, shout out to Amanda for reminding me of the technique. I heard about it years ago, but for whatever reason, chose to stick to the Nicole Technique – working for 60-90 minute blocks on long assignments, with 15-30 minute breaks. That worked fine, but I’m really glad I now have this tool in my toolbox. And now, so do you! If you try it out, please let me know how it goes for you. Happy timing!

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17 thoughts on “In Praise of the Pomodoro Technique

  1. I’m glad to see your post on the Pomodoro Technique. It’s simple, and it works. I’ve had times when either clients, or myself, couldn’t manage the full 25 minutes, so we took Pomodoro baby steps, using 5, 10, and 15 minute task periods until 25 minute durations could be sustained. Most of the time, I find 25 minutes an ideal duration.

    Ultimately, I think the Pomodoro’s genius is its simplicity (as in simple, not simplistic), which enables it to cut through a number of the reasons – both conscious and unconscious – which lead to people being stuck.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment! I agree with you about the simplicity of its method slicing through the barriers that keep us from productivity. I really enjoyed trying it out today and I really needed that breakthrough.

  2. I don’t know how much the pomodoro technique is efficient. If you’re taking about an hour break for every hour of work, then your productivity will be around 4 hours to 5 hours a day max.

    In any case, I’ll try this technique today myself!

    1. Thanks for reading! I’ve heard that in a typical 8 hour day, the average person is only productive 1/2 of that time. I’m not sure about the hour per hour though. Seems for every 200 minutes of work, you also have ~60 min of breaks depending on how long your breaks are. I think that’s pretty realistic – especially considering how much more focused you are sans multitasking.

      But it wouldn’t work for every kind of job or series of tasks. Sometimes I teach, and right now I’m an educational researcher. I can’t use this technique while teaching or while observing teachers. But I could use it while grading papers or cleaning up my fieldnotes. Neither are tasks I would plan to do all day long.

      Some people are just naturally more productive than others. Some days I’m very productive and wouldn’t need any support like this. Other days, when hours are ticking and I’m gaining no traction, this is a good remedy. I do hope you let us know how it works for you if you try it one day.

    1. Thank you for posting this. There seem to be quite a few people interested in this method. Some of the more serious theorizers among them will likely be glad to read critiques. The rest of us who are just procrastinators and/or stuck in a rut, just need a little boost to keep it moving.

      It’s an interesting critique, yet probably more useful in the realm of theory than practice. I think if one’s only goal is to “beat” the timer, some of what it says could be valid. My personal goal is not to beat anything other than inertia. Quality is a separate dimension – at least for me as a trained journalist and one who separates “writing a rough draft” from “revising” from “editing” for instance. I’m also not an “official” student of the trademarked method. I’ve never read the book and don’t plan to. I’m a casual adopter only. Although my doctorate is in instructional design, I don’t generally theorize, research or debate aspects of Scrum methodology or Agile philosophy. I’d much rather engage in praxis around social justice issues and literacy. 🙂

      1. That’s what that article ways: in order to fight procrastination, do use timeboxing.Timeboxing is great.
        You don’t need the whole, fluffy Pomodoro Technique

      2. I’m not sure where the truth is. That article gave me to think, anyway.

        As written in the post against Pomodoro, a lot of people who claim to use Pomodoro didn’t read the book (and so you didn’t, me neither) and, actually, is not using Pomodoro: they are just timeboxing (hey: I’m saying: timeboxing **IS OK**, it’s a great technique).

        Still they claim “pomodoro technique works!”.
        Nop, that post says: if you read the pomodoro book you’ll discover that Cirillo built a completely fluffy methodology over timeboxing, and it’s deeply different and invasive. It is *not* what you are describing in this post.

        I did read the pomodoro book *after* reading that article, and I must admit that I was using timeboxing, not pomodoro. Pomodoro, as described in the official book, is now much less reliable to me.

        That’s why now I’m proud now to use timeboxing, not pomodoro. And to tell the truth, everyone I know who claim “I’m using Pomodoro” is actually using timeboxing,

        Never seen a real pomodoro adopter, besides Cirillo

    2. i agree with nicole. the author of the post highlighted here seems to take things über literally. i also haven’t read the official book, but when it comes to reading 400 dense pages on the history of social work, breaking things down into 25 minute chunks has helped me immensely. not to mention my propensity to self-distract…

      i also don’t like the idea that anyone who can’t concentrate for more than 25 minutes is off-kilter. work methods are very personal; who’s to say one method is great for everyone? if a person can be most productive in 25 minute chunks, then by all means, let ’em at it!

      as for the matter of interruptions, cirillo is not the only one who thinks they’re detrimental to productivity. tim ferriss of the 4-hour work week (http://ht.ly/7btC5 ) devotes an entire chapter on how to rid oneself of interruptions. most of the time, these things are issues people can handle themselves, anyway.

      in the end, nicole & i merely wanted to share a technique that we think works for us. i know i don’t follow it to the point of devotion; i agree with the author of that post with respect to that. but am i about to set my phone timer to 25 minutes & get reading for my midterm papers? i surely am!

      1. “but am i about to set my phone timer to 25 minutes & get reading for my midterm papers? i surely am!” <=lol. and good luck! tomorrow i'll be using it to get some data cleaned up. i haven't tried it with reading, so we'll see how that goes.

  3. Thanks for this post, Nicole! I have so many ideas and so many tasks to make these ideas a reality that I need something to help me get through feeling overwhelmed. I will try this technique and let you know how it works!

  4. I kind of like this idea, and the idea of taking breaks and breaking a huge task into smaller ones. I think sometimes we can just “overload” on doing just one thing, and so when we continue working on this one task, we become less creative, and also, less productive. Thanks for this post, Lady Buddha!

    1. my pleasure!

      @everyone – i’ve used this technique a few times since the initial post. i realized i am much more successful when i’m clear about the task AND wanting to do the work. just setting the timer, as if it has some magic abilities to set me in motion doesn’t do anything. lol. but if i’m ready to work and using this technique, it’s great.

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