The Pomodoro technique
Some time back I worked with a certain manager who remarked on the excellent results of his using the Pomodoro technique, and so I asked him to give me an exact description of his productivity before and after its application. He responded more or less thus:
I was replying to an e-mail. I was writing a few sentences and needed to add an attachment that I had been sent in another mail. So I switched to the mailbox and saw that two new messages had arrived in the meantime. I looked at them and said “Nothing urgent”. And for a moment I forgot what I had been doing. So I returned to the e-mail that I had been writing and finally remembered that I had wanted to find an attachment. And I switched back again to the mailbox again and […]
Does this sound familiar to you? Distractions everywhere, doing many things at once and frequent changes of context not only cause our productivity to drop, but also completely deprive us of satisfaction with our work. If you have found yourself in this situation, the answer to your problems could be the so-called Pomodoro technique, named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the Italian Francesco Cirillo suggested should be used as an aid in the technique.
What exactly is Pomodoro?
When people read about the Pomodoro technique, they are surprised by how straightforward it is, and therefore many consider it unreliable!
Put very simply, it is concerned with:
- Creating a clear list of tasks that are to be performed in the immediate future, e.g.: I will write back to Chris, make a list of groceries, clean up my desk, and vacuum the room.
- Then you set the timer to ring in 25 minutes. But you can use any old kitchen timer, an alarm clock, or even a special application.
- You shut out everything that causes you to lose concentration and work on the tasks in your list. If a new idea pops up, or anything that distracts you, you write it down – in order not to forget – and resume your activities as soon as possible.
- Finally, when the alarm clock rings, you stop your work and take a 5-minute break. Preferably, the break involves some sort of physical activity.
- Afterwards, you can do another Pomodoro, i.e. 25 minutes of focus and concentration, but after four Pomodoros in a row you must take a longer pause.
To make it short, we make a plan, limit our time, switch off all distractions and start doing what we have planned, concluding with a break.
Some people have a few such 25-minute Pomodoro sessions a day, while others find that just one is completely sufficient.
How does the Pomodoro technique work in practice?
A host of applications have been created supporting the technique, so you can easily find one for virtually any device and operating system (the simplest that I know is pomodoro.cc); there is also a “browser” version. And tomato-shaped kitchen timers with the 25-minute mark specially highlighted are available in equal abundance.
But in actual fact the tools are of secondary importance only – in order to get on with your first Pomodoro, you can jot down the list of tasks on a piece of paper and use an alarm clock – or the pomodoro.cc application – as a timer; the most important thing is to concentrate on your activities and react rapidly and decisively to distracting factors as they appear.
If you have never heard of the Pomodoro technique, perhaps you would like to take your first session now, and only then continue reading?
First of all, and this step is the easiest, you must write down what exactly it is that you have to do, so that you do not have to preoccupy yourself with this later. It may be one larger task (in my case writing an article), or a few smaller things (e.g. replying to e-mails – mentioned above, cleaning up your desk, or making a list of groceries). Next, you set the alarm clock to go off in 25 minutes and set about your work, starting with the first task on the list. This too should not prove difficult.
The single major problem that you will definitely encounter during your Pomodoro sessions will concern coping with distractions. After a few minutes you may receive an SMS (will you read it?), get a phone call (will you take it?), someone will come up to you to chat (will you tell him or her to go away?), a new e-mail will arrive while you are busy replying to one received previously (will you resist the temptation and not take a look?), your phone will vibrate signalling a new incoming message (again, will you resist and not take a look?), or a brilliant idea will come to your mind (will you not open your browser and start looking for information?).
If you want to use this technique – or indeed any similar technique – successfully, you will have to deal with the issue of distractions at the very start, and thereafter patiently and systematically improve your responses. Many people who have just started using the Pomodoro and noticed the results either uninstall some of their telephone applications – to avoid the flood of messages – or mute their devices for the duration of the session. Working in offices, people make arrangements not to disturb their colleagues during certain hours or when they see that specific objects are present on desks.
Pomodoro – the evolution of usage
The majority of people with whom I have discussed the issue of Pomodoro’s practical usage have frankly admitted that they have tried it and that it just “did not work” for them. When you use it in its “classic” form, you either apply it in full, or not at all. And so people make a list, set a timer to 25 minutes and give it a go, but although they soon see enormous progress, they are unable to cope with the distractions and give up after a few Pomodoro sessions.
My observations show that we are dealing with two fundamental problems: first, people fail to see the whole picture, while second, they have obviously not made clear-cut decisions as to how they will react to distractions.
The Pomodoro technique is only a tool, which in the broader perspective is intended to teach us how to focus on tasks without getting distracted. Not only are we able to get more things done, but we also achieve a far greater level of satisfaction with our work. Therefore before you start selecting tools and determining the duration of your Pomodoro session, you really must ask yourself about the bigger picture.
The question “Should my Pomodoro last an hour instead of 25 minutes?” should actually be rephrased as “Will I be able not to read incoming messages for an hour and will I be able to cope physically?”. In the majority of cases, if you do not reply to an SMS or call back in 15 or 25 minutes, nothing of consequence will really happen. But what if you extend the time to an hour? This will be too much for many people, although I do know some who can easily resist the urge to respond for two hours.
The issue of your reacting to distracting factors requires a radical decision. It is obvious that some situations that interrupt our work have to be dealt with immediately – it is difficult to imagine that we would not open the door for a courier just because we were in the middle of a Pomodoro session! The decided majority of situations, however, can be bent to one’s will, although you do have to ask yourself a few important questions and agree on certain rules with your co-workers.
And what do certain people do in practice?
- They uninstall Facebook and similar applications from their telephones (thereby avoiding a deluge of messages; they can access their accounts through a browser if they feel the urge) (and as a counterpoint: a list of free Android applications which I recommend – only in Polish)
- They close their mail programmes and work “off-line” (in order not to see – and get unnecessarily distracted by – incoming e-mails)
- They switch all their internet communicators to the “do not disturb” mode (so that they do not “flash” when a new message arrives)
- They mute their telephones (thus avoiding SMSs and calls – they can write or call back in a while)
- They install applications that check the time they spend on specific websites, for example blogs, news portals, forums, or social media sites (in order to better cope with the impulse to log on).
- And, whenever their work does not require it, they disconnect their laptops and other devices from the internet so as to eliminate any “itch”.
- They arrange their “distraction-free” working hours – during which interacting with others or disturbing their privacy shall be limited to a minimum – with their co-workers or household members.
In my opinion, Pomodoro evolves with man and his current circumstances. If I can cope physically and remain focused for 90 minutes, enjoying the experience, being able to ignore the majority of SMSs, telephone calls, messages and e-mails, and even not requiring any close cooperation with my fellow humans, then there is no reason why my Pomodoro session cannot last 90 minutes. In practice, however, this will be exceedingly rare.
What does Pomodoro teach us?
The message of this technique, or so I see it, is thus:
Have a clear plan, limit your time, get to work and eliminate all distractions from your path – you will be surprised at how much you will be able to achieve!
In practice, Pomodoro teaches us a few things (my very subjective list):
- You will be amazed at how much you can achieve and with what immense satisfaction if you work for even half an hour without getting distracted!
- But do not go over the top! Sometimes, even one or two Pomodoros a day will be enough.
- Without properly planning your session, however, you will not attain much – just thrash around and get frustrated.
- The tool used for measuring time is of secondary importance only.
- You can extend or shorten the duration of your session depending on the situation.
- Distractions require radical decisions and radical counteraction.
- While working in a group or at home, in the presence of other household members, you need to agree on a few rules so that everyone’s needs are respected; otherwise, the technique will not work.
What are the results of Pomodoro?
First of all, the technique allows you to achieve more. Sometimes VERY MUCH more. Complete concentration and a clear plan can work miracles!
Furthermore, people who use Pomodoro are often more relaxed and happy. Firstly, they see the results of their work and this helps to soothe them, while secondly – by working with complete focus – they gain huge satisfaction.
Another extremely important effect is that you learn how to react with greater calmness to all and any messages and other potential distractions. Initially, you would not think it possible to ignore certain phone calls, and not check your SMSs – or Facebook account – at once (although the itch is strong!), but once you see what you can achieve through complete concentration, you will get over your surprise and soon consider the new circumstances as something normal.
When properly applied, Pomodoro can help change entire teams. Used in a group, Pomodoro teaches that while time spent together is very important and helps creativity, everyone needs a few moments alone, when he or she can focus 100% on his or her work.
I can recommend Pomodoro to everyone. It is an excellent technique that teaches you how to take a closer look at your own productivity and the ways in which we most often get distracted, and also how to plan the next half hour or hour with ever greater efficiency.
If I were to advise on a painless way to start, I would say you should begin with a single Pomodoro session a day, preferably at a fixed time and prearranged with your household members or co-workers. After the session it would be worth writing down a note – How do I feel? Was the time sufficient? What was most difficult? Which distractions caused the greatest problems? What can I do to ensure that my next session will be better?
For many, Pomodoro is a good technique to begin with – it teaches how to plan short spans of time properly and wisely, how to cut yourself off from distractions, and also generates a strong feeling of success. And lastly, do not be afraid to venture outside the limits of the “classic” version – use everything that the technique has to offer, taking a closer look at yourself and your surroundings in order to determine what brings you the best results.