Using the Pomodoro technique to achieve productivity superstardom

pomodoro technique

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 article, 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 does it mean to be in a “pomodoro-fueled” workflow? And isn’t pomodoro a type of Italian tomato? Read on to learn what the Pomodoro Technique is, how it can supercharge your productivity during your workday (no matter if you’re a freelancer, corporate employee, or university student), how it relates to Focus Time, and where you can find Pomodoro apps.

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A brief history of the Pomodoro Technique

In the late 1980s, Italian business student Francesco Cirillo experimented with time management methods to figure out the best way for getting things done. Eventually, he tried using a kitchen timer to break up his projects into 25 minute work intervals, with five-minute breaks. After three rounds, he would take a longer break for 30 minutes.

Pomodoro technique illustration

Cirillo discovered this method allowed him to study and concentrate best. He named his technique after his kitchen timer, which was shaped like a pomodoro, meaning “tomato” in Italian.

The benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

So, this technique seems simple enough and sounds nice in theory, but does the Pomodoro Technique work?

Research shows that yes, the Pomodoro Technique can be an effective time management technique! Breaking up work sessions into short sprints can help with… 

  • Focusing on a single task
  • Encouraging productivity-boosting breaks (and consequently, increased motivation)
  • Facilitating task chunking and mediating procrastination
  • Supercharging time management, especially when used in conjunction with timeboxing

Let’s get into more detail on how the Pomodoro Technique can help get more done in a shorter amount of time. Here are some of the main benefits:

  1. Pomodoro sessions promote single-tasking

One of the main purposes of using the pomodoro method is to do one important task for (at least) 25 minutes straight, without getting distracted by notifications, social media, or other to-do list items. As Francesco Cirillo writes in The Pomodoro Technique: The Life-Changing Time-Management System, the 25-minute intervals are solely reserved for uninterrupted work. This promotes single-tasking vs multitasking, the latter of which is well-known to be a myth and productivity killer. Though there are many out there who will claim they can multitask efficiently, 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 Squid Game while coding, your brain plays tug-of-war trying to figure out which task to focus on, making it difficult to truly pay attention to what’s going on. Switching your focus between Squid Game and coding means you’re not 100% paying attention to either task. This can lead to missing something from the plot or making an error in your code. In other words, switching between tasks obliterates focus because part of your attention is still on the previous task. Researchers call this phenomenon “attention residue,” and it eliminates the potential for flow.

So while focusing on one task at a time seems like a tall order — given that we live in a world where social media notifications and emails constantly call for our attention — 25-minute intervals are short enough to keep our attention on just a single task. In fact, one study demonstrated people who used the Pomodoro Technique multitasked less and got more done than those who didn’t use it.

  1. Every Pomodoro break helps with productivity and motivation

The second benefit of using the pomodoro time management method is the timer intentionally includes productivity-boosting regular breaks! When the timer rings, you must stop and take a five minute break or 30 minute break, depending on where you are in your sprints. 

It seems counterintuitive that breaks boost productivity, but the research supports this idea. Workers who regularly incorporate break time into their day produce as much — or even more — than their teammates who don’t take breaks. Plus, workers who take regular breaks feel less tired at the end of the day. (Take this as your sign to start a team pomodoro group at your work for that camaraderie and extra benefit of body doubling!) 

Incorporating the Pomodoro method into your work sessions can also improve your breaks. Kissick, the author of The New York Times article, 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.”

  1. The Pomodoro Technique facilitates task chunking and mitigates procrastination

Task chunking is a popular time-management technique where you take larger projects and break it down into smaller steps. This makes tackling important tasks much more manageable.

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 give into procrastination 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, which can promote motivation even more.

Using the Pomodoro Technique works in small chunks as well. This gives you an incentive to break your bigger tasks into smaller, micro-tasks. 

“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.”

4. Pomos help you timebox

A study recently published demonstrated workers experienced a 30% drop in productivity by working from home due to COVID. The minutes of work piled up, but workers found themselves getting 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 wrote in his article.

It’s something most people can relate to these days as we navigate working from home — staring at a Mac screen, getting lost in thought, and trying not to get distracted from work time because of kids, chores, and/or partners. So while we wait to go back into the office (if that’s your jam), implementing productivity systems, like timeboxing (aka the number of Pomodoro sessions you pre-determine for yourself), can help with getting things done.

Timeboxing vs pomodoro compared

Using timeboxing can help you use your Pomodoro hours wisely because you’re setting a limit for yourself, which can prevent you from getting burnt out on a task.

“When people sit down to do a task, they’ll put in a lot of effort initially,” writes Elizabeth Tenney, Assistant Professor at the University of Utah’s Eccles School of Business and author on time pressure and productivity. “At some point there’s going to be diminishing returns on extra effort. To optimise productivity, you need to maximise benefits and minimise costs and find that inflection point, which is where you should start to wrap up.”

Though it might be challenging to pull yourself away from an important task, in the long run, doing so helps with productivity and efficiency. Important note: this isn’t the same as multitasking because you’re not constantly switching from one task to another. Instead, you’re giving your full attention to one task for a number of Pomodoro sessions, and then intentionally transitioning over to another to give your brain a “fresh start.”

“[The Pomodoro Technique] tells us when to start, and also when to stop; and now, more than ever, we have to be told when to stop,” Kissick said.

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, while the Pomodoro Technique basically forces you to switch tasks every 25 minutes.

How much does switching tasks 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 set your Pomodoro focus sessions 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 Pomodoro sessions. 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 sessions to the same task so you’re context switching less. You could reduce the context switching even more by doing the same thing during each break.

Where to find Pomodoro apps

While you can certainly try and find a tomato timer to begin using the Pomodoro time management technique, there are a number of Pomodoro apps you can use on your Mac, iPhone, Windows PC, or any other device you work on. Here are some of the most popular apps that include both a short break and long break, customizable templates (so you can set your own work/break sprints), and web browser notifications to tell you when to start working and when to take a 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 sessions for less context switching and more focus and productivity.

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