For the past month, I’ve been experimenting with the Pomodoro method. One of the biggest challenges I face when tasks pile up is feeling so overwhelmed that I have trouble getting started. Because of this, I sometimes spend my designated working hours trapped in busy work and completing the majority of my prioritized tasks outside working hours. I love working remotely, but I needed to get a better grip on my productivity during business hours and desperately wanted to improve my daily routines to make the most of the experience. Since I’d heard of the Pomodoro method as a productivity hack, I thought I’d try it and share how I customized it to improve my productivity and work habits.
The Pomodoro method was invented by Francesco Cirillo, and it’s similar to time blocking, except with set times for work and breaks. The standard Pomodoro is 25 minutes long, with 5 minute breaks after each 25 minute session and then a longer 15 minute break after four Pomodoros. The method dictates that sessions should be timed; there are a lot of shiny apps with extensive features but any basic timer will do. More of Cirillo’s guidelines for the technique are available on his website.
I found it helpful for overcoming feelings of being overwhelmed by tasks, getting into the nitty gritty of work, and for avoiding burnout after spurts of inspiration. For me, that meant in depth, long readings or starting a new project from scratch, as well as other independent work. There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank page because you keep editing away your first words.
I found that using the Pomodoro method pushed me to change the way I spent my working hours. It became easier to realistically plan my day and estimate the time needed for each task or project. Additionally, the Pomodoro technique promoted single focus, and prevented me from drowning in multitasks, messages, and other busy work. As of now, I do revisit my notes and projects outside of business hours when I feel inspired, but I have a much more balanced and productive daily routine overall.
In terms of lifestyle improvements, I feel more organized since I started using the technique, because it requires a certain amount of goal setting. I also see the benefits of the forced, frequent breaks. Being reminded to take my eyes off of work makes me more likely to stretch periodically.
Plus the typical Pomodoro length lines up nicely with the timing of the 20-20-20 rule; an exercise widely endorsed by optometrists and ophthalmologists. It consists of taking breaks from looking at books, notes or screens every 20 minutes and focusing on an object 20 feet (about 6 meters) away for about 20 seconds. I have been using the breaks in between Pomodoros as a reminder to use this rule and relieve my eye strain and headaches.
My experiences and adaptations
I started out by using my phone timer, but at first I didn’t keep track of how many Pomodoros I completed. I figured that the tracking aspect wasn’t what I needed, but I noticed a huge difference when I started tallying my Pomodoros and taking my breaks at the right times. Otherwise, it became too easy to miss breaks and feel burned out and overwhelmed after a day or two of constant focus.
I switched to using the desktop version of the Focus-To-Do app, which allowed me to make several improvements to my approach. First, it allowed me to leave my phone in another room while I work and I highly recommend this if the nature of your work allows you to do it. Second, Focus-To-Do also provides white noise options, which is great because I was already playing white noise during my Pomodoros to drown out household distractions. Most importantly though, the app lets me see how much time I spend focused per day, per project, or per task. It also has some nifty but simple organization and task management features, although there is a limit on their use in the free version.
I tried two other apps during this month-long experiment, both of which have excellent features; PomoDone and programmersmusic.com. PomoDone has app integrations for almost every major project management app (including Slack, Click Up, Basecamp, Trello and Asana) and is available to all devices and browsers. It even has a Google Chrome extension. I would recommend PomoDone to people who enjoy having a fully customizable system for personal organization that they would use on a daily basis, or those who are already familiar with the Pomodoro method. However, it takes a bit of time to get a hang of the layout, and it requires specifying a task to begin timing. While it’s easy to import tasks from other apps, this is a delay in simply getting to work, in my opinion.
Programmersmusic.com has a simple timer function and a great selection of timed, instrumental tracks which draw me back to the site once in a while. It works great for people who like a variety of background noises and music, as well as those who work across different computers often.
The reason that I continue to use Focus-To-Do instead is that it is simple, easy to organize and has a beautiful interface. I’m more motivated to stick to a regimen if the equipment looks nice. I would recommend it to anyone who is just starting out with the method, as it allows for some customization but it’s easy to click a button and begin a Pomodoro upon first use.
Pros and Efficient Use
Some people find the Pomodoro method too restrictive. If it seems that way, I recommend modifying it to suit your needs or productivity habits before walking away from it altogether. I enjoy the traditional 25:5 timer, but those aren’t set numbers. Any time on any timer can be a Pomodoro, and you can even adjust the times depending on the activity. One common timer is the 50/15 ratio, which I have found to work very well for broader research, like gathering, categorizing and skimming sources before analysis.
It’s important to set specific, realistic tasks for your Pomodoros. If you decide to start a big project and set your timer without any specific next steps, you will likely find yourself drifting between research, taking notes, planning, and messaging others. It’s important to have one dedicated task per Pomodoro, and simply continue it during the next Pomodoro if it needs more time. However, I did find myself delaying work time to better organize and describe my tasks in my agenda or an app a few times. Setting a goal for a Pomodoro should not take too much time.
Take real breaks! If you start dealing with other problems, tasks or intense hobbies during your breaks, you will lose that single minded focus that the method is all about. For me, that resulted in the same burnout I was trying to escape. My biggest recommendation after this experiment is to get up and move around on your breaks. Organize your workstation, walk around or do some easy stretches. Regular movement made a huge difference in my level of comfort, and I didn’t realize how distracted I used to get from the aches and pains of a sedentary lifestyle until I forced myself to move between Pomodoros.
Cons and Unfit Use
One of the hardest habits to overcome is the urge to keep checking the timer during Pomodoros. I did waste time during my first few attempts at this method by wondering how much time was left before my next break. Now that I’ve become accustomed to the timer, I don’t check it as often but this can be a pitfall for some.
There are times when you’re in the right headspace to keep working and skip your breaks. Whether or not to skip breaks is a point of debate, but I think it’s worth it to make the most of whatever clarity or inspiration that comes my way. If you’re in the zone and have a great idea, use that energy. Just make sure to still take breaks somewhere along the line. Similarly, some might find the constant distraction of a timer going off too disruptive of their work flow. If this can’t be remedied by tinkering with app settings to get calm, subtle notifications (like a soft alarm sound or eliminating a pop up notification), I would recommend trying Flow Time instead. That method also involves timing one’s work sessions, but instead of counting down from a predetermined time it is about working until the need for a break arises.
Putting a time limit on certain creative endeavors might not work for everyone either. In my experience, it helps to use one Pomodoro for group brainstorming and then break off into individual time afterwards if needed. There is a web app for collaborative Pomodoros as well; marinaratimer.com lets you share a link to traditional and custom timers. This can help to avoid drawn-out meetings, but it doesn’t contribute anything to the actual generation and discussion of ideas.
I can say without a doubt that the Pomodoro method works for me, especially when I use it in conjunction with white noise and task management features, and it’s my most recent fascination. I would recommend everyone who has an opportunity to try it for work or studying to do so. However, it does not contribute much to collaborative work aside from general time management and goal setting. That aside, the general principles of singular focus and frequent breaks, especially when they are used for movement, can apply to nearly any kind of work. If you’re looking for a new approach to tackling your to do list, consider trying to implement those basic principles whenever you can. They made a huge difference in the timeliness and quality of my work.
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