Lots of people have tried the Pomodoro Technique already, some have heard of it but never given it a shot, and others go “Say what?” Yes, Pomodoro. A helpful time management tool in knowledge work in particular, but also ingenius for something you loathe doing at home. Oh the possibilities :) We will discuss how it works, the psychology behind it, options for tracking your results, whether on paper or digitally, so let’s jump right in!
How It Works
The Pomodoro Technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo, who happened to have a tomato-shaped kitchen timer available. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato and he decided one such increment would be 25 minutes.
Before the next Pomodoro he would take a 5-minute break.
After four Pomodoro sets, the break would be longer, 20 to 30 minutes according to his own website, but 15 or more mentioned elsewhere.
The Psychology Behind It
While developed in the 1980’s, the Pomodoro Technique has stood the test of time. Turns out (“Learning How to Learn”, free course, Coursera) that the Pomodoro set puts the brain in a mode of so-called focussed thinking whereas the break switches it to diffused thinking.
If you’re doing knowledge work, it is crucial to let the brain think in meandering ways, freely and creatively if you will, in between sets. Otherwise you decrease your chances of building strong memories in an organic way. It’s for a good reason that school children here in Finland have 15-minute breaks every hour with the lessons lasting for 45 minutes only.
Tracking Your Work On Paper
There are digital options available today, which we will get to in a bit, but first let’s talk about tracking your work and its progress on paper.
The easiest option is to keep a running list with date, time and task mentioned, possibly categorised into some context, too, such as:
- work or private
- admin work on alternatively in your own business, or client work
- task type within same project
What I prefer, however, is to draw a rough estimate of circles, one for each corresponding Pomodoro. Once I’m done with one 25-minute set, I fill out the circle.
Up until this point it hasn’t been necessary for me to track different contexts, but I would most likely track my Pomodoros within their correct context in notebooks such that it would be self-explanatory what a particular filled circle denotes.
Tracking Your Work Digitally
There are apps galore! That is if you want to track your work on a smartphone. They are rather fancy these days with their own basic project-management functions as well as billing features for client work built in.
I have one called Focus To-Do for iPhone as I like its feature of showing the seeds of a tomato turning progressively more yellow as time circles around a 25-minute circle. It’s a bit tricky to explain, but you see both a countdown ticker as well as the seeds for a more visual version of time.
The numbers are faint so nothing annoying if you’re working in a library next to someone else. Once the Pomodoro is done, the screen goes from red to blue, and then back again. The shift is subtle and possible to catch from the corner of your eyes.
You also have the option of no white noise or one of twelve supposedly soothing sounds, either from nature or relatively unintrusive urban sound landscapes (café or library).
The nice thing about this app—and I assume many like it—is how you can change the length of both Pomodoro sets and pauses, short and long alike. This is particularly useful if you’re doing household stuff such as cleaning or ironing for a slightly shorter burst of time.
But what if you don’t want your phone next to you constantly? My Firefox browser has two Pomodoro extensions installed these days, Pomodoro and Tomato Clock.
Here is where they sit once installed:
The Pomodoro extension has pros and cons:
- I like the ease of changing the length of both set and break.
- Once you start a Pomodoro, a second square pops over the green, square icon. During a Pomodoro it is red, during a break green.
- I don’t like that I have to click open the extension window to see how much time is left during each event.
- Once the extension window is open, however, the countdown clock is large and reasonably easy to keep track of if you happen to vacuum the room.
- There is no tracking of your work.
- Click on the wrench icon to edit the sound settings. I find the 100% pretty shocking after having worked in silence, but you might be less sound-sensitive.
The Tomato Clock extension also has pros and cons:
- I like that I see the countdown time in minutes hovering above the extension icon, so no need to open anything up manually during sets or breaks. The extra sqare is red during a Pomodoro.
- I don’t like that the increments are set (25 minutes for Pomodoro, 5 minutes for short break and 15 for long) without the option to edit.
- But there are stats! While rudimentary (see below,) it might be the only motivation you need to stay on track with your work.
Now it should be evident why I have two extensions installed :) Options, people!
I was in a rut a few years ago in terms of cerebral work and felt I got my brain back after taking the Coursera course on learning and giving Pomodoro a shot. I still easily enter a mode of “just do it” when starting up a clock. It’s something you have to choose though, because no method, tool or technique is a holy grail unless you decide it is.
The beauty of the Pomodoro Technique however is that no Pomodoro police is coming after you if you deviate from the traditional 25 minutes. Please try to respect the breaks if at all possible, because your brain needs it to deliver maximum output the way you wish it would.
And if you experience anxiety like I do from time to time, start small from just a few minutes. Those few minutes are more than nothing and have power to create a domino effect once you feel quiet pride in having managed something difficult. The brain also asks for carrots rather than the whip, so this technique is a great way to cajole some work out of it in a most gentle way.
Now, tell us of your own experiences! Have you tried Pomodoro yet? Did it work fabulously or was it a disaster?
Photo credit: Leilani Angel.