Rediscovering the Pomodoro Technique
Much of this column’s raison d’être since its conception has been about bringing focus and efficiency to most aspects of everyday life. Especially, but not at all limited to, work. Thus, in previous instalments, we have spoken about gadgets, apps, and combinations of those two things that can help people work in better ways.
But what about the mind? Tools and apps are all very useful things. They hold powerful potential to make you better at getting things done. The mind, however, is a slightly more complex thing. The mind is not so easily replaced or conveniently upgraded. It is capable of the most deep thoughts and stunning insight, but it can also be prone to relentless distractions and crippling worry.
Thanks to all the technology around us, many of them arising out of the very tools and apps we have lionized in these pages, there is no dearth of distractions, worries and reminders of worries.
As I sit and type these words, I can feel the phone on my table vibrating. It reminds me of countless unread WhatsApp messages. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the Gmail tab open on my second monitor, unread emails taunting me. Out of the corner of the other eye, I can see a mini-avalanche of white where the envelopes have fallen into my house through the slot in the door. Around my neck is a pair of Bluetooth earphones, a blue light pulsing gently. Reminding me that I have yet to finish listening to the audiobook version of Dan Brown’s latest novel. Oh wait. There buzzes my phone. How does one even get anything done? How does a person zone in on one activity and do it well?
Me? Right now, as I type this, I am using something known as the Pomodoro Technique. For the next…let me check the timer…19 minutes I will do nothing but type into this document. I will not pick up my phone, play my audiobook, or check my post. And then in…18 minutes…I will give myself 5 minutes of total debauchery.
That, in essence, is the Pomodoro Technique. The history of the Pomodoro method is well told online. It was developed in the late 1980s by software consultant Francesco Cirillo, who, as a student at the Guido Carli International University in Rome, sought to find ways to focus better on his work. The method is simple enough. You focus completely on a task for 25 minutes, then take a break for 5, then go back to focus for 25 minutes, and so on. And every fourth break is 15-30 minutes long instead of 5.
Simple. And extremely effective. Provided, that is, you can trust yourself to stick with it. But more on that in a bit.
This is not the first time I’ve tried to use this technique. Some years ago, I tried very hard to work in these focused 25-minute intervals, or “pomodoros”, and could never get the system to stick. Somehow I found myself worrying that something terrible was happening in my inbox or on my phone whilst I worked with complete focus.
But last month, faced with some daunting deadlines, I decided to give it a second shot. And this time it worked. The sight of that timer ticking away somehow nudges one into staying on track. I am happy to report that the system radically improved my productivity.
Why does it work? I think it is because the 25-minute intervals are just long enough to be effective, but short enough to not drain you. You might think that 25 minutes is too short. That the mandatory break at the end of 25 minutes may come at a moment when you are being super productive, thus breaking your concentration. On the contrary, I found that the scheduled breaks kept me creative and the work flowing smoothly (taking a break in the middle of a sentence or a piece of code or a report is a great way to make sure that when you come back from a break you have no starting trouble).
Within a day or two I was putting away eight Pomodoros before lunch without breaking into a sweat. I suspect many readers may be taken aback at how much they can get done in 25 minutes of focused work and 5-10 minutes of focused breaks (both are important. You can get a LOT of emails sent in 300 seconds).
There are a variety of apps, browser extensions and timers to help you with the technique. Whether you are a newbie or a lapsed Pomodoro-user like me, the timeless system is well worth another look at any time.