The creator of the time-management strategy known as the pomodoro technique was an Italian university student trying to find a way to get more done in less time. Thirty years ago, Francesco Cirillo, who now heads a management consulting firm in Berlin, used a kitchen timer (that was shaped like a tomato) to organize his study and work schedule—hence, pomodoro, which means tomato in Italian.
The technique is simple: Set a timer for 25 minutes, and spend that uninterrupted time focusing solely on the task you want to get done. When the time is up, take a short 5-10 minute break. After you’ve completed four pomodoros, take a longer break of 20 or 30 minutes. Cirillo says “your brain will use this time to assimilate new information and rest before the next round of pomodoros.”
Set objectives to get the most from the pomodoro technique
In order to become adept at the pomodoro technique, Cirillo says you need to complete several objectives:
Estimate how much time you need to complete a task (that way you’ll know how many pomodoros you’ll likely need to schedule). You can initially do that simply by seeing how much work you get done in 25 minutes.
Learn to protect yourself from external and internal interruptions during each 25-minute segment. In other words, turn off your phone.
When using the time to study, spend a few minutes at the start of each pomodoro to recap and to review at the end.
Be flexible. Let your daily to-do list guide you as to how many pomodoros you’ll schedule.
Create a personal objective. An example is, “I want to be more efficient.” You can then track how much work you get done during a pomodoro to assess productivity.
Digital marketing consultant Nirmit Shah found that by breaking his tasks into their smallest possible units, he was able to get even more work done. For example, instead of naming a task “write blog post,” Shah would list each component of the task:
Finalize the headline
Write the intro
Write content for each subheading
Write the conclusion
Edit the draft
This allowed him to effectively complete each item more quickly, and move right into the next portion of the task without having to pause to think about what came next.
Consultant Glenn Tranter says tweaking the technique to make it work for you is fine. His client had to change the suggested task time from 25 minutes to as little as 10, which was all the time she had between back-to-back meetings. Even modified to that degree, he reports that the approach worked.
Science supports brain breaks
Meg Selig at Psychology Today explains why our brains need breaks: “For ‘think-work,’ it’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the thinking part of your brain. When you are doing goal-oriented work that requires concentration, the PFC keeps you focused on your goals. The PFC is also responsible for logical thinking, executive functioning, and using willpower to override impulses. That’s a lot of responsibility—no wonder it needs a break!”
Studies prove that employees who take frequent breaks are consistently more productive than their peers who kept at a task until the job was done. Even microbreaks are valuable, writes science journalist Zaria Gorvett. In 2013, a small group of surgeons was tested “to see if tiny, 20-second breaks every 20 minutes affected how physically and mentally tired they were” and to see how accurately they could accomplish a precision drawing test.
The findings were remarkable, Gorvett reports. “The surgeons were seven times more accurate in their drawings after operations where they were allowed microbreaks. They also had half the levels of physical fatigue and felt less pain in their backs, necks, shoulders and wrists.”
Making items on your to-do list fun is smart. And even if they’re not actually fun, tasks are easier to accomplish when they’re gamified. Gamifying gets you more engaged in the work and motivated to get tasks done. Using a timer (especially one that actually “ticks”) is an added motivator, in that it creates a sense of urgency. Of course, you don’t have to use an old-school kitchen timer that you wind up—timing apps have audible ticking sounds too.
And if you want company, you can study with emergency medicine resident Jamie, who has a music-free two-hour pomodoro session on video. It’s timed and correctly broken down into four 25 minute segments with 5 minute breaks indicated by a gentle alarm.
Spend your breaks wisely
Don’t while away your short breaks between pomodoros just sitting at your desk. Taking a real break will increase your productivity for the next session. It can be anything from getting a drink or having a bathroom break to playing with your cat or simply doing some satisfying stretches.
If you’re feeling tired, some quick exercises can increase your lagging energy levels. At home, try running in place or sit ups or put on some music and dance around the room. If you’re working in a library or cafe, pop outside for a few minutes to get some fresh air and get the blood circulating again.