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)

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!