The most productive people don’t work longer; they work in a more concentrated way. This means that we can improve our productivity without having to spend more time in the office (in some cases, perhaps even by spending less time in the office). Working in a more focused way sounds exciting. But how do you do it? In this post, I explain how I use THE method that rocked my world and tremendously increased my productivity: The Pomodoro Technique.
What’s a Pomodoro?
A Pomodoro refers to the tomato-shaped kitchen timer (“Pomodoro” in Italian) that Francesco Cirillo used to measure time when he created the technique. In the technique, the term Pomodoro is also used to refer to a unit of time: One Pomodoro corresponds to 25 minutes of work followed by a break of 3 to 5 minutes.
How does the Pomodoro technique work?
1. Start each day by making a Things To-do-today list
The first thing I do in the morning is to make a list of all the things I want to do that day. It’s a great way to sort out my priorities, put myself in a working state of mind and it gives me a sense of control over my day.
My “To Do Today” list starts with the date and the number of Pomodoros (i.e., 25-minute working session + 5-minute break) I have available to work on that day. Then, I write down all the tasks I would like to accomplish, starting with the most important ones. Next to each task, I indicate the number of Pomodoros I think I will need to complete it by drawing a square for each Pomodoro.
If a task requires more than 5 Pomodoros, it is best to break it down. For example, I am currently writing the method part of one of my papers. I will certainly need more than 5 Pomodoros to finish this section. So I’ve broken it down into smaller tasks. Instead of putting on my list “write the introduction of my article”, I indicated the first step that I would have to undertake to reach this bigger goal, namely “Read the journal guidelines and write down the points I need to remember” (see picture below).
2. Start with the 1st Pomodoro
Once, I’m ready to tackle the first task on my list, I set my kitchen timer to 25 minutes or I use an application on my phone, such as the Focus Keeper https://apps.apple.com/us/app/focus-keeper-time-management/id867374917, which has a free version.
From then on, I only work on the task I’ve started until the timer rings. It’s my job to do everything in my power to avoid interruptions. I am the keeper of the Pomodoro!
During a Pomodoro, one is often tempted to do something else. For example, as I am writing this post, I feel a strong urge to go to Zalando and check whether any item on my wishlist is on sale (that’s my guilty pleasure). Thus, when I start a Pomodoro, I make the firm resolution to not do anything else until the Pomodoro rings. ANYTHING! (except if something really bad is about to happen).
If the urge is nevertheless very strong or if another important activity comes to mind during a Pomodoro, it is also possible to add this new activity to the to-do-today list in a new section called “Unplanned Activities”. Then, one continues with the Pomodoro and when it is finished, one decides if the unplanned task should be done today or if it can wait.
When I start a Pomodoro, I put my mobile phone in silent mode, I close my e-mails, I close my door, and, if there are people around, I put on headphones so that they are not tempted to talk to me. If an interruption nevertheless occurs, for example, if someone comes to talk to me, I politely reply that I am currently busy and ask if I can get back to the person later.
4. Take a break
The Pomodoro technique makes you work like an elite athlete, alternating intense training and rest. It’s an excellent formula for managing effective work and intense concentration over long periods of time.
At the end of a Pomodoro, you take a break of 3 to 5 minutes and every 3 or 4 Pomodoros, a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. The purpose of the breaks is to recharge the batteries. So one should not use a break to work on something too complex or intellectually demanding. I use short breaks to go to the bathroom, drink a glass of water, stretch, or look out the window. I try to avoid any activity that takes more than two minutes or that can be too distracting (e.g., social media) because I know that then the break will not last 5 minutes but 30. During long breaks, the best thing to do is to go out for a walk, chat with a colleague, have a bite to eat, clean my office or apartment if I’m at home, and so on. But I also use longer pauses to consult social media. That’s my reward for having worked well so far.
Cirillo recommends that when the timer rings, you stop the task immediately. You should not try to finish what you are doing. You simply stop where you are. What if you’re in the flow? Should you also stop yourself? For me, the answer to that question depends on my ability to easily return to that state of flow after the break. If I’m in the middle of a task that seems easy to me, I often find that it’s good to stop when the timer rings. I look forward to getting back to the task and the break will help me maintain better focus in the long run. Most of the time, I also like these breaks because they make me wonder if I am working on the right task. Sometimes I feel in flow, I enjoy a task, but it’s not really effective. For example, I’m reading my article for the twelfth time, polishing up details that don’t really matter. A break can then be the best thing to take some distance from the task and realize that I should do something else.
Every once in awhile, however, I know that a break will take me out of a super-productive moment and state of mind. This happens especially when I’m writing and I’m in a really good place. I’m working on a difficult part, but I’m inspired and the words come easily. I feel that these moments are magical and should not be altered. So in these cases, I keep going until the inspiration fades.
5. Record your activity
After each Pomodoro, I cross the corresponding box in the To-Do-Today list, and when I have completed a task, I cross it off on the list. I love this moment! It gives me such a feeling of accomplishment. I feel that this one of the best things in the Pomodoro technique: One experiences small successes the whole day, each time one achieves small goals on the list. It’s a rewarding and motivating feeling! (for more on that topic, see this post)
It’s also possible at the end of the day, to transfer your record to an archive, such as an Excel sheet. In this way, you can accurately measure the time required for each activity and see how much work you have done over the week or the month. Besides, you can use this record to plan your work more accurately in the future and think about ways to improve your efficiency.
Monitoring activity is a key element of productivity. However, I do not monitor all my activities because I feel it takes too much time and is not useful. So I only do it for the most important one, which is writing.
The Pomodoro technique has done wonders for my productivity. I love it because it is simple to use, and it works if you respect a few rules.
Rule 1: A Pomodoro is indivisible. If a Pomodoro starts, it must ring. If the timer does not ring, the Pomodoro does not count. If you are finished after 15 or 20 minutes, use the rest of your time to revise what you have written or to plan the next task.
Rule 2: Your job is to protect your Pomodoro and avoid all kinds of interruptions (internal and external).
Rule 3: If an activity requires more than 5 Pomodoros, break it down. If less than one Pomodoro is needed, add it to other short activities to get one Pomodoro.
Rule 4: Once the timer rings, the Pomodoro is finished.
I hope you’ll enjoy this technique as much as I do. If you have any question don’t hesitate to post it in the comments.