One of the best time management systems around features a tomato - in under a half hour it can transform how you focus and use your time.
In the late 1980s, Francesco Cirillo was a frustrated university student. Cirillo couldn’t focus, and would succumb to distractions whenever he tried to study. He knew he had to do something. So he gave himself a challenge – study for 10 minutes without any interruptions.
Cirillo set his kitchen timer, which happened to be in the shape of a tomato. He got through 10 minutes, and then another 10 minutes, gradually expanding the length of uninterrupted time up to 25 minutes. He stuck with his new approach, finding it quickly improved his studying, his focus and ultimately his grades.
And so the Pomodoro Technique® was born (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato). It is now used the world over by formerly frustrated students, corporate executives, writers, artists, and people of all types who need to focus and get stuff done.
How a Tomato Improves Your Focus
Using the Pomodoro Technique is very simple. The steps developed by Cirillo are:
1. Decide on the task to be completed.
2. Set your timer for 25 minutes. Each 25-minute period is a “Pomodoro.”
3. Work on the task for the full 25 minutes, without interruption, until the timer goes off.
4. Put one check mark next to the item on your to-do list, signifying you have completed one Pomodoro.
5. Take a five-minute break.
6. Complete a second 25-minute Pomodoro, and then another, with a five-minute break between each.
7. After you have completed four Pomodoros, take a longer break (about 15 minutes).
8. Begin another round of 4 Pomodoros, either continuing your project as needed, or starting a new project.
That’s it. Your timer doesn’t actually need to be shaped like a tomato. Any timer will do. You can even use one of the many free Pomodoro apps, or the timers available on various Pomodoro web sites (such as Tomato Timer, Tomato Timers and Pomofocus).
How to Get the Most Out of Relying on a Tomato to Focus Better
The Pomodoro Technique’s simplicity means that it’s easy to implement. If you apply the method diligently, you will see your focus and productivity climb rapidly. It is especially good for completing those tasks you keep putting off. The technique provides a ready-made structure, so all you need to do is show up, set your timer and keep working until you hear it go off.
Where the technique really excels is helping you complete mechanical tasks. For example, you need to get your taxes done, or organize data for an article or a report. Simply by applying yourself 25 minutes at a time, you’ll get through those tasks that otherwise nag at you as they remain on your to do list.
The technique also can help you get going on a creative project, such as writing. By sitting down and setting the timer, all of a sudden you’re working on that project that you’ve been only thinking about for weeks.
For all of the positives, a few words of caution are in order. First, the 25-minute rule can feel contrived. You may fare better with 10 minutes or with an hour, depending on your current level of focus and the task to be done. You can still do four Pomodoros at a time with the requisite breaks – but experiment and find the length of time that works ideally for you.
I also find that although the Pomodoro Technique is perfect for muscling through those mechanical tasks, you may need to modify it when working on creative projects.
Some apply the method religiously, stopping on a dime as soon as the timer goes off. However, if for example, you are writing a book, article or report, you may be on a roll just as the timer goes off.
I suggest using the timer as a guideline. Don’t stop before it goes off, as that would give you an out and defeat the purpose of using the system. But feel free to keep going after the buzzer if you are truly on a roll and don’t want to break your momentum. You can finish up as soon as you reach a natural stopping point.
I also suggest opting for an old-fashioned mechanical timer. Second best is one of the Pomodoro web site timers run from your computer.
It’s preferable not to use the Pomodoro apps or any other timer run from your phone. It’s just too tempting when the timer goes off to start checking social media or chatting with friends on your phone during your break. Those activities won’t give you the full restorative benefits of the break, and you’re likely to get sucked into whatever it is you’re doing on your phone and have a hard time getting back to your next Pomodoro.
And during the breaks, don’t go to your computer either. Don’t check the news or your favorite web site. You can use the five minutes to relax, or else engage in a non-digital task such as having a bite to eat or planning out what you’re going to do during your next Pomodoro. You’ll be in a much better frame of mind to focus than if you’ve just spent the last five minutes checking out what people are saying on Twitter.
You also want to set yourself up for success and make sure you can complete your Pomodoro without interruptions. Put your phone away if at all possible. If you set the timer for 25 minutes, but decide after 5 minutes you’ll just check your WhatsApp quickly, or answer that phone call, you will soon find that 25 minutes have gone by and you didn’t get much done.
Similarly, if you start working, and a family member or co-worker stops by to chat, you’re not going to get much benefit out of using the technique. Interruptions cannot be avoided completely, but you need to take all steps necessary to minimize them. Let people know you are working on a project and need to focus, and so you should only be contacted for true emergencies. Turn off the volume on your phone and put it out of reach.
If you find that your work environment does not allow for uninterrupted stretches of work, then that’s a red flag for your productivity in general and requires your intervention. Whether you use the Pomodoro Technique or not, your productivity and performance levels will always be a fraction of what they could be if you can’t find uninterrupted work time.
The Pomodoro Technique can be a great reality check as to whether you are devoting uninterrupted time to tasks and whether your work environment supports it. When you see how much you can accomplish by consistently working without interruptions, you’ll be glad you did.