Exploring The Pomodoro Technique and Timers to Improve Productivity and Write More
I’m a productivity junkie. For a long-time now I’ve been obsessed with squeezing the most out of the day and optimising the way I work. In a world full of distractions and technology maintaining focus can be difficult, but for many of us it’s absolutely necessary. I’m a writer, editor, podcaster, publisher and teacher. Without a system in place for getting the work done I’d crumble—losing my job and whatever dignity I still have.
I recently stumbled upon the Pomodoro Technique, a time management system that claims to improve productivity whilst being both easy to use and fun. Pretty persuasive, huh? What’s more it’s free to implement, too, though for those who love spending money you can fork out nearly $50 on an artificial tomato. More on that soon. What follows are my results from using the Pomodoro Technique for the last few months, the pros and cons, key takeaways and lessons learned. Let’s begin.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique couldn’t be simpler.
- Choose one task you want to work on.
- Set a timer for twenty-five minutes.
- Work exclusively on that task until the twenty-five minutes is up.
- If a distraction or idea pops into your head, quickly note it down but don’t act on it.
- When the time is up take a five-minute break.
- Every four Pomodoros (that’s the twenty-five minute work session) take a longer break of 20–30 minutes.
As you can see above the only tool you need is a timer, so if you’re on a zero budget chances are you already have a watch, clock or other timer that will do the job with zero expenditure. I used a few other things to help which you may find useful too.
A Timer and Task Recorder
I started off the experiment using a simple app called Focus Booster. There are free and premium versions of the app available, although the free version limits you to just twenty Pomodoro sessions per month, so if you plan on using it regularly you’re going to run out of Pomodoros in a matter of days. Luckily you can trial the ‘professional plan’ for thirty days—usually billed at $5 per month—to get a taste as to whether the app and method is for you. I used Focus Booster for the entirety of the free trial and found it to be a simple and easy to use app. What I liked most of all was the ability to record and label your sessions. You can then view exactly how long you’ve spent on different tasks in a given day. For example, I can see that on Saturday 30 April I carried out ten Pomodoro sessions for a total of four hours and ten minutes. With Focus Booster you’re not restricted to traditional twenty-five minute Pomodoro sessions, so you can set the timer for anywhere from one right up to ninety minutes. Unfortunately you have to go into the preferences to change the session and break length, but as the application is minimalist in its approach and design this is easy to do with little hassle.
After the free Focus Booster trial was up I thought I’d explore other options and started using PomoDone in combination with Todoist. This was a real game-changer. PomoDone looks fairly similar to Focus Booster but has a little more functionality, including the ability to pair it with a wide variety of other popular apps such as Trello, Wunderlist, Evernote, Asana and the aforementioned Todoist. In fact, it’s compatible with over fifty sources. The free version of PomoDone enables you to historically view your tasks for the last three months—recorded in much the same way as they are in Focus Booster—and to integrate with three other programmes (for me just Todoist is great). So I can see that on Monday 16 May I spent one hour forty-six minutes and ten seconds writing contracts, fifty minutes writing fiction and ten minutes paying bills, amongst other things. Todoist is one of the smoothest project management applications I know, so while PomoDone is great on its own, combined with Todoist it’s an unstoppable partnership of productivity magic (if you want to know more about Todoist find me in the comments).
Headphones and Music
When I’m concentrating on distraction-free work I like using big over-ear headphones. They serve two purposes. First and most obviously they enable me to block out the outside world and absorb myself in the music. This is an important part of my work ritual as I have no aural distractions, and if I play similar music I send a signal to my brain to say “hey this is work music—so let’s get things done” (not actually a scientific explanation). Secondly I like to think of the big obtrusive headphones as a visual indicator that says “I’m working hard, don’t distract me.” Obviously make sure this is agreed upon with your family to avoid domestic squabbles and—if there’s an actual emergency—remember some rules are meant to be broken.
As to what music or sounds you should listen to, I suggest seeing what works best for you. Ever the experimenter I gave a couple of applications a try, both of which made big claims. Firstly there was Focus@will, a website that claims to provide “scientifically optimized music to increase your focus and stop your brain from wandering”; secondly I tried Brain.FM, which boasts of its ability to “dramatically improve focus, relaxation and sleep”. (So both are very humble and modest about what it is they’re doing.) They provided pleasant enough background noise and certainly helped me get into the zone, but I’m unconvinced they were any better than listening to music via Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music or any of the other music streaming services. I’d rather put my money towards a music streaming service (right now I recommend Spotify for their excellently curated playlists) and gain access to a much wider variety of songs than the rather limited selection of sounds either of the aforementioned apps provide. Right now I’m listening to their ‘Electronic Concentration’ playlist, and it’s working just as well as either of the apps did.
One Do and Don’t for Pomodoro Success
- Do maintain concentration on one task for the entire Pomodoro.
- Don’t decide to glance at your phone, emails, Facebook, BuzzFeed, Tinder etc. mid-Pomodoro.
The Pomodoro Technique for Long Boring Tasks
I find the Pomodoro Technique works best for tasks you don’t really want to do. Whether you’re scared to just do the work, find the task boring or have other reservations—such as knowing it’s a real time-suck—this is where the Pomodoro technique excels. In breaking the task up into simple twenty-five minute blocks it’s less daunting. It also means you can justify making a start on these long, time-consuming tasks when previously you may have put them off knowing you didn’t have the four or five hours of sustained concentration required. Let’s say you’re working on your financial accounts or tax return. Sitting down and working on accounts for the entire morning, or even the day, is a pretty energy-sapping prospect, but if you know you only have to commit twenty-five minutes it doesn’t seem as bad. Even editing the This Is Horror Podcast is a rather tedious back-and-forth task, but if I divide it up into segments with regular breaks it’s a lot easier to just get on with it.
What Should You Do During the Break?
The most important thing is to step away from your work and ensure you’re doing something other than the one task you were working on during the Pomodoro. If I wasn’t working at a standing desk (FYI, I’ll often alternate Pomodoros so I’m sitting for one, standing for the next, switching throughout the day) I’ll take the opportunity to get up. Perhaps I’ll stretch, do some exercise—a few squats, push-ups, kettlebell swings—replenish my water, grab another cup of tea or coffee, or even listen to five minutes of a podcast (on double speed so I get ten minutes of content) and do some washing-up. Whatever I do I’m cautious of checking social media or email because it’s very important you stick to the five minutes and we all know how five minutes can become ten can become twenty and before you know it you’re knee-deep in cat pictures, sinking further and no one’s got a life buoy to save you. If you have the self-discipline—and if you’re serious about productivity you should—consider scheduling email and social media sessions. Even if you don’t schedule them, record them using your timer. If you find out you're spending hours of your day on social media you might feel so sick it’s enough impetus to stop (of course, if it’s purely for social media marketing that’s another story but it rarely is … oh look now that cat’s playing a piano).
The Pomodoro Technique for Writing
Self-doubt’s a killer, and sometimes it can be so paralyzing that you don’t even want to get started, especially when it comes to writing fiction. With that in mind the Pomodoro Technique can be a great last-ditch effort for motivating you to “at least try to write because twenty-five minutes really isn’t much to ask for, is it?” So if it’s a bad day and all the voices in your head are conspiring against you (and let’s face it, sometimes they are) the Pomodoro could be your lifeline. But if you require no motivation, if you’re already feeling the project then twenty-five minutes is agonisingly short. I find that at the ten, fifteen or (on a slow day) twenty-minute mark the gears are turning and I’m warmed up and really into my story. When the Pomodoro timer goes off at twenty-five minutes (loud in my ‘do not disturb me’ headphones) I find myself jarred out of the story and pretty vexed. It then takes ten minutes or so, post-break, to get back into the work and the cycle repeats itself. It’s a similar story for non-fiction work but by no means as bad.
What does seem to work much better is anywhere from fifty to ninety minutes for both fiction and non-fiction projects. Case-in-point, at time of writing, I’m thirty-five minutes into a sixty-minute session, and while I’d quite like to replenish my water (because I drank too much coffee and now I’m dehydrated #RealLifeStories) I know if I were to take a break now I’d disrupt the flow of the article and ultimately it would take longer to complete. If I’m editing, however, I’m far likelier to do so using Pomodoros. As a trend I find the more attention-to-detail required the shorter the sessions for optimal performance, but with more creative tasks slightly longer sessions are best.
Timers are the Key to Success and Productivity
I should edit that to ‘timers are the key to my success and productivity coupled with a good project management system’, but it doesn’t make for a great subheading. See different tasks require different amounts of time, and giving ourselves a strict time limit allows us to squeeze more out of the day and often out of ourselves. There are 1440 minutes in the day and I’d like to know where the bulk of those go, so I’ve become quite meticulous in what I time. Regular breaks for exercise, water and movement are all key to ensuring you’re physically and mentally alert, but as we’ve established, above twenty-five minutes just isn’t enough time for some tasks and may result in the task-at-hand taking longer. Equally twenty-five minutes is too generous for other work so it’s important the time set is appropriate to the work. I’ll often set five or ten minutes for a quick bit of administration or an email and carry out a few of those tasks in a row without a break (you can’t really have five minutes of work and five minutes of break throughout the day on repeat). For a daunting task I’ll go for the tried-and-tested Pomodoro to sustain concentration and focus, but for a long task that I’m well-versed in, unfazed by, or simply really motivated to do, I’ll go for 50–60 minutes. For creative writing 50–90 minutes is my sweet spot. I would caution against going over 90 minutes without a break as you’ll often find the boost of energy the break affords—even when in the zone—pays for the small interruption.
Remember, too, if you track everything and can look back at just how much time you spent on each task you can see how that correlates to the value derived (monetary or otherwise). This enables you to cut from your life all those tasks that take far too long with too little reward. Invaluable for entrepreneurs, freelancers and small business owners.
So, before we go, let’s recap what I’ve learnt.
- The Pomodoro Technique is a great method for long, repetitive and boring tasks
- The Pomodoro Technique can kick-start an otherwise intimidating writing project
- Twenty-five minutes is generally too short for fiction writing
- Fifty to ninety-minute writing sessions is the sweet spot for creativity and health benefits
- Pomodoros make work less daunting and easier to commit to
- Timers and tracking help you get more work done—and see if time spent correlates with value derived
- Only concentrate on one task at a time
- Breaks are a great time for physical exercise, movement and stretching
- Be mindful of checking social media and emails during breaks
These are just my takeaways and this is merely my approach to work and writing. Perhaps you’ve had a completely different experience. Let me know how you stay productive and what experience you’ve had with timers and the Pomodoro Techniques. See you in the comments!
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