What's hardest for you? Getting started or focusing on a single task? Cycles of focus and rest can be helpful with either of these barriers. Using a timer to focus on a single task for a short period of time is my favorite motivational tool. Add to that, cognitive research that indicates taking breaks increases productivity. Put those two together and Pomodoro sounds like the perfect solution. But is it?
Here's how it's supposed to work (straight from the originator)
Although "pomodoros" conjure images in my mind of gorgeous red Italian tomatoes, a Pomodoro is a specific time management strategy created by Francesco Cirillo. I've written about this before, but let's do a deeper dive today.
Here's how Cirillo himself describes it:
1. CHOOSE A TASK YOU'D LIKE TO GET DONE Something big, something small, something you’ve been putting off for a million years: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s something that deserves your full, undivided attention.
2. SET THE POMODORO® FOR 25 MINUTES Make a small oath to yourself: I will spend 25 minutes on this task and I will not interrupt myself. You can do it! After all, it’s just 25 minutes.
3. WORK ON THE TASK UNTIL THE POMODORO® RINGS Immerse yourself in the task for the next 25 minutes. If you suddenly realize you have something else you need to do, write the task down on a sheet of paper.
4. WHEN THE POMODORO® RINGS, PUT A CHECKMARK ON A PAPER Congratulations! You’ve spent an entire, interruption-less Pomodoro® on a task.
5. TAKE A SHORT BREAK Breathe, meditate, grab a cup of coffee, go for a short walk or do something else relaxing (i.e., not work-related). Your brain will thank you later.
6. EVERY 4 POMODOROS, TAKE A LONGER BREAK Once you’ve completed four Pomodoros, you can take a longer break. 20 minutes is good. Or 30. Your brain will use this time to assimilate new information and rest before the next round of Pomodoros.
Right now, I have a timer set at https://pomodoro.francescocirillo.com/. Since I'm writing on my laptop, this is a convenient way to use a timer, and the tab at the top of my screen (I use Chrome; I haven't tested it on other browsers) tells me that I have 8:51 minutes left. This article will take me more than a few cycles to complete, and I am resisting the urge to get up for another iced tea until after those 8 minutes are up. I'm also resisting the urge to open another browser window to outline an article about finishing what you start or another one on using Chrome tabs for productivity. I have written both ideas down in my Messy Planner, however.
See how that works? If you have a Messy mind, it flits from place to place even while you are doing something. Sometimes, that's a superpower--we Messies have a lot of Big Ideas, after all--but it is a drawback to actually DOING things. The timer helps you do one thing before you move on to something else.
Break Time: Pitfalls Discovered
In my first Pomodoro today, I realized that I had my laptop speakers muted. That meant I missed the beginning of the break.
When I went to the kitchen to get my tea refill, I remembered that I'd filled my hummingbird feeder this morning and hadn't taken it outside. But I couldn't remember where I put the feeder (it was in the fridge; I wanted it to cool a bit before I put it out for the birds). Then I added seeds to my cat grass pot, another project I started before writing. And I talked to my spouse, who was doing his exercises.
More than 5 minutes had passed when I returned to my computer. No surprise, that.
I rewound the timer, turned up the volume, and started writing again.
Make a small oath to yourself: I will spend 25 minutes on this task and I will not interrupt myself. -Francesco Cirillo
I Interrupt Myself
Just after I reset the timer, my beloved brought me my ringing phone. I broke all the rules.
I looked at who was calling--it was to my Messy Desk number, so I tried to call back. No answer. So I texted. Then I saw I had a response to an email I sent this morning. Answered that. The next thing I knew, the 25 minute timer was reminding me that I was supposed to be working. Oh, yeah. At least the timer brought me back to reality. I have 20 new messages in my email that I would have worked through if I hadn't heard the alarm. It would have been suppertime before I came back to this post.
I Return to a Work Cycle
So, back in my 25-minute work cycle, I take the first couple of minutes to think about where this article should go during this cycle. The timer has a nice quiet bong to allow for that planning time. It also bongs once at the mid-point and at two-minute and one-minute warning points at the end of the cycle.
I decide it might be a good idea for me to go to Cirillo's Pomodoro Technique book and see if he says anything about dealing with distractions. The first thing he tells me is comforting:
In any case, if you find yourself writing messages instead of focusing on your goal, do not worry: The next Pomodoro will go better. Be gentle with yourself. -The Pomodoro Technique (p. 14).
It's important to think of the Pomodoro as a non-negotiable time unit. Any full-stop interruption, even in the case of an emergency, requires resetting the Pomodoro and starting over.
I make the promise to myself that I will not allow myself to be distracted during the coming cycle. I read and take notes for the next 25 minutes. Then I stop for a 30 minute lunch break.
Dealing with Internal Distraction
The first objective in cutting down on interruptions is to be aware of the number and type of internal interruptions. Observe them, accept them, and schedule them or delete them as the case may be. -The Pomodoro Technique (p. 49).
My internal interruptions tend to be Big Ideas, or a need for more information than I actually need. I could have read the book later and added information to this piece in the editing phase, for example.
Cirillo directs us to "Make these interruptions clearly visible." Every time we "feel a potential interruption coming on" we are to make a mark on the sheet where we record our Pomodoros. At that point, we're to make a decision whether to take time to write it down on one of his worksheets or to continue with our current Pomodoro.
If you follow this blog, you know that I keep a Messy Planner notebook. Instead of using Cirillo's worksheets, I use my Messy Planner both to record my Pomodoros and to record any useful thoughts that interrupt my work. (Thoughts like "need more iced tea" don't get written down; I do write, "Next step: Add to newsletter and send out.") In the evening review, I will go over the items I added to my list and schedule them or leave them there for weekly review.
As you go to break, glance at your list of interruptions and decide on their urgency. Can you deal with it during a short or longer break without distracting yourself from your selected Pomodoro task. Some interruptions can be dealt with during a short or longer break. Others get added to your long-term task list.
The idea is to take as little time as possible to record the interruption and return to your task. This type of interruption does not require that you reset the timer.
Avoid External Distraction
After my break, I head back out to our screened porch to start another cycle. I get the section above roughed out, and it starts to rain.
Rain, when working outside, is not a distraction you can avoid or delay. Sigh. I move inside, where D. is watching The Brothers Karamozov. Yeah, that's not going to be over anytime soon. I reset the timer.
Marie's rules for avoiding external distraction:
When possible, work in a space where you can be alone and that is arranged in a way you like;
Turn off phone notifications completely. Vibrate is just as bad as sound. Better yet, put the phone in another room (with the ringer turned off so no one brings it to you!)
Let your family or colleagues know that you are focused on a task.
When a person interrupts your work cycle, whether at home or the office, you can often tell them, "I'll be with you in 10 minutes" (or whatever's left on your timer." If it requires more interaction than that, Cirillo outlines this strategy:
Inform the other person that you’re in the middle of something important.
Negotiate with them a time to address their concern.
Call back or give them a nudge when the Pomodoro is over.
What I learned
Better for non-flow tasks. Although the idea of focused time alternating with a break is useful for me, 25 minutes would work for some tasks (like decluttering my closet) but pulls me out of deep focus when I'm writing. I think there is a difference between "hyperfocus" and "flow" in this case. I hyperfocus on cleaning. Like, once I get started I sometimes don't stop for a whole day. Pomodoros work better with that because my body needs the breaks and my mind doesn't care whether I get interrupted in the middle of hanging the clothes back up. I could use the quiet bongs more effectively in that scenario, I think.
Have the sound on your timer turned up and your phone turned down. 'nuff said.
I feel rushed. Perhaps because I use a timer for tasks like washing dishes, knowing the timer was going made me feel like there's a time limit on writing this draft. Yes, I'd like to finish it today, but feeling rushed makes the writing more stressful and less enjoyable. Again, it ruins the flow.
This isn't my favorite timer. I have used Forest on my phone in the past, which was much better for flow and reducing distractions since it blocks notifications while you use it. Some days, I like the homey tick of an analog timer, and they make them shaped like tomatoes if you want to stick with the theme. I've done a roundup of timer apps to help you decide which is your favorite.
You can use Pomodoros to time how long a task takes. So, it took me about 4 Pomodoros to write this article, and another two for first edits. I like to let an article sit overnight to put fresh eyes on it in the morning to make it easier for me to catch typos or awkward phrasing. It will take me at least one Pomodoro to do that final edit and publish in the morning. That tells me it took about 3.5 hours to finish this piece. That's longer than I usually take for a topic I know well, but it's not bad for an 8 minute read.
Now, I'm going to stop the timer and go make myself a yummy fresh tomato sandwich. That's a taste of summer I look forward to every year.