Using the Pomodoro technique to achieve productivity superstardom

In June 2020, midway through a global pandemic that wreaked havoc on most people’s productivity, the New York Times published This Time-Management Trick Changed My Whole Relationship With Time. In the story, Dean Kissick explained how he was able to “descend into a pomodoro-fueled delirium of work, creativity, household chores, tasks I’ve been avoiding for years, self-betterment and random undertakings from morning to night.”

Sounds great. But what the heck is a “pomodoro?” Read on to learn what the Pomodoro technique is, how it can supercharge your productivity, and how it relates to Focus Time.

An extremely brief history of the Pomodoro technique

In the 1980s, Italian business student Francesco Cirillo tried working for 25 minutes straight, taking a short break, then working for another 25 minutes. After three rounds, he’d take a longer break. He found this made him far more productive and efficient. Cirillo named his technique after his tomato-shaped kitchen timer, pomodoro, meaning “tomato” in Italian.

Pomodoro technique illustration

The benefits of the Pomodoro technique

Research shows the Pomodoro technique can help you work more efficiently by combining a few different time-tested productivity techniques. There are four main ways the Pomodoro technique can help you get more done in smaller amounts of time.

1. Pomos promote single-tasking

Part of the purpose of using a pomodoro timer is to do one thing for 25 minutes straight without getting distracted by incoming notifications or any other tasks. A pomodoro or pomo is a 25-minute block of uninterrupted work. One study showed people who used the Pomodoro technique did less multitasking than those who didn’t use it.

This matters because multitasking kills productivity. In fact, single-tasking was our top time management skill for Software Engineers in 2021. Multitasking is a myth. Humans can’t actually perform two or more tasks simultaneously. What looks like “multitasking” is, in reality, switching very quickly between tasks.

For example, if you’re watching Game of Thrones while coding, you’re just tuning into the plot for a bit and then switching back to the coding over and over again. Switching between tasks obliterates focus because part of your attention is still on the previous task. It also eliminates the potential for flow.

2. Pomos force you to take productivity-boosting breaks

The Pomodoro technique has regular breaks built in. When the timer rings, you’re done and it’s time to take a break.

You might wonder whether taking more breaks reduces productivity. The research says that’s not the case. Workers who regularly take breaks during their day produce as much or more than their teammates who don’t take breaks. Plus, workers who take regular breaks feel less tired at the end of the day.

Pomo work sessions can also improve your breaks. Kissick found that having a set amount of time for his breaks motivated him to make them count. Instead of “flopping on the sofa, scrolling on my phone, becoming annoyed,” he would “make a sandwich, do a quick French lesson, reply to a few texts, have a shower, go to the laundromat. Such humdrum activities, now that they’re restricted, have become sources of great pleasure.”

3. Pomos facilitate task chunking

Task chunking is a popular time-management and productivity method. It’s where you take a larger task and break it down into smaller tasks. For example, let’s say you need to do your taxes. You could just add “do taxes” to your to-do list with a due date and dread getting started, not knowing how long it will take. Or, you could break the big task down into its component parts before you start working on it. You might add micro-tasks to your to-do list such as:

  • Find your W2s and other required tax information, and put it all in one place
  • Research whether it makes the most sense to use software, do it yourself, or hire a tax accountant.
  • Make a decision
  • Make an appointment/sign up for tax help if needed
  • File your returns

Micro-tasks are more approachable than macro-tasks. You’re less tempted to procrastinate because it’s easier to accurately estimate how long small tasks will take to complete. You also get the satisfaction of checking off more items on your to-do list.

Using Pomodoro sessions means you’re working in smaller chunks already. This gives you an incentive to break your big tasks into smaller micro-tasks.

4. Pomos help you timebox

A new study shows workers who went remote for COVID saw a 30% drop in productivity, on average. They worked more hours, but got less done. “We waste hours keeping on going when our concentration’s long gone, caught in drowsy, drawn-out moments staring glumly at a screen, and not only when we’re supposed to be doing our jobs,” Kissick writes.

While it can’t cure COVID, timeboxing is another popular technique for boosting your efficiency at work. You can’t use pomodoros without timeboxing. “A pomodoro, once started, must not be interrupted, otherwise it has to be abandoned,” Kissick explains. “But in this stringency, there is relief: You are not allowed to extend a pomodoro, either. After a set of four 25-minute intervals are completed, you’re supposed to take a longer break of 15, 20, or 30 minutes before continuing. Those are the basic rules of Pomodoro technique. It tells us when to start, and also when to stop; and now, more than ever, we have to be told when to stop.”

Timeboxing vs pomodoro compared

Focus Time versus Pomodoro

All this is great, but it leaves open the question of how to square the Pomodoro technique with staying focused. After all, switching tasks costs you productive time. We define Focus Time as two or more hours of uninterrupted time to work exclusively on a single task. The Pomodoro technique basically forces you to switch tasks every 25 minutes.

How much does switching tasks often cost? When we surveyed 152 Engineering Managers about how Focus Time correlates with productivity, speed, and revenue for their teams we found:

  • 90% of Engineering Managers said they’re more productive when they have more Focus Time
  • 80% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps them finish projects faster
  • 76% of Engineering Managers said Focus Time helps their company bring in more revenue

There are at least two ways to plan your days to use the Pomodoro method while also reaping the rewards of Focus Time. First, you could extend your pomos to two hours at a time. So, you could work on a task for two hours straight, take a 30-minute break, then start another two-hour chunk. This might take some working up to. Starting off, you might work in 25-minute chunks. Then, you could graduate to 30 minutes straight. Next, you work for 45 minutes. And so on.

The other option is to combine Focus Time with the Pomodoro technique by working on one project over multiple consecutive pomos. Instead of working for 25 minutes on one task, taking a break, then working on something completely different, you would devote three or four pomodoros to the same task so you’re doing less context switching. You could reduce the context switching even more by doing the same thing during each break.

Going forward

Kissick ends his article about Pomodoro with an existential reflection that speaks to the power of this technique:

By changing my relationship with and appreciation of time, the technique has brought me to some profound existential questions about whether I’m wasting my life — my fragile, fleeting life — on activities I neither care about nor enjoy. It has forced me to think about what I’d most like to be doing every day instead. It has made me see time afresh — as something we really don’t have enough of, as something precious precisely because it’s ephemeral.

Even if the Pomodoro technique doesn’t bring you any profound existential questions, it can still offer some compelling benefits. Research shows the Pomodoro technique can increase your efficiency through single-tasking, help ensure you take regular breaks, can help you break your big tasks into smaller more manageable chunks, and more.

To get the most out of the Pomodoro technique, try using Clockwise to give you more Focus Time. That way you can work on the same project for three or four pomodoros for less context switching and more focus and productivity.

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