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More productivity and less stress using the upgraded Pomodoro Technique

From Procrastination to Progress

Ava sits in her dorm room, hunched over her laptop. Her eyes dance from the blinking cursor of her laptop to her phone’s neverending feed of social media updates. Her back aches from sitting up late into the night, and yet her laptop screen shows mostly empty space.

Her sociology paper is due in the morning, but she still can’t seem to stop herself from scrolling through friends’ photos, messages, and silly videos. As dawn nears, she becomes more and more nervous and frustrated. Yet the nearer her deadline approaches, the harder it is for her to focus.

“What’s wrong with me?” she says. “Why do I keep wasting time?”

 
If Ava’s story sounds familiar, you might suffer from procrastination and avoidance. The modern world is filled with devices that have been painstakingly designed to grab our attention in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Is it any wonder that we have difficulty focusing on boring difficult tasks when there is an entire world at our fingertips?

Fortunately, there is a well-tested solution to this problem.
Enter the Pomodoro Technique, a time management tool for building focus and managing time.
It consists of working in uninterrupted 25-minute blocks with 5-minute breaks. And both the blocks and the breaks are important. If you’ve never heard of this technique, here’s a brief description.

 

The Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. These intervals are known as “Pomodoro”, the plural in English of the Italian word pomodoro (tomato), after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo used as a university student.

Here’s a basic step-by-step guide on how the Pomodoro Technique works:
  1. Choose a task or tasks you want to work on.

  2. Set the Pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes.

  3. Silence all distractions (especially phone and social media)

  4. Work on the task/s until the timer rings.

  5. Take a short break (5 minutes).

Every four “pomodoros” take a longer break (15–30 minutes).

The idea behind the technique is that the timer creates a sense of urgency and commitment, which you may find makes you more productive. Even if you have a strong urge to distract yourself, you only need to “get to the next break.” Regular breaks also help to ensure your brain stays fresh and focused. The technique is designed to help you improve your work or study productivity, manage distractions, and reduce the risk of burnout.

Improving upon the technique

Here are three pitfalls and three adjustments to the Pomodoro technique that make the technique more effective:

Pitfall #1: Not setting a clear plan for what to work on (and following it)


The Pomodoro technique is not just about uninterrupted work time; it’s also about using your time intentionally. If you want to build concentration and discipline, decide what you are going to do ahead of time and then stick to it. We can’t hit what we don’t aim for. Work for 25 minutes with no distractions.
You might need to put your phone away or use a focus tool for your web browser. The important thing is that you are learning what works for you and making a real effort to focus. That’s the only way to improve.
You might try logging your progress in a notebook or online document. The simple act of recording how things go can be surprisingly transformative.

Pitfall #2: Not taking breaks


The goal is to get work done, right? So when you get to the end of the 25-minute block and things feel like they are moving along nicely, you might want to keep working, right? The break can wait.
Wrong. The breaks are as important as the work.


While you might feel you are on a roll, skipping breaks leads to fatigue and burnout and will make you less productive in the long run. Research suggests that attention in most people begins to wander after 45–50 minutes. Working longer without breaks will cause you to lose focus and make you more prone to distraction and bad habits.
Yes, it’s hard to take a break when you feel productive, but the technique only works if you’re taking breaks on purpose rather than waiting for your mind to rebel and take you into distraction.
Building good habits that will carry you is as important as getting the work done!

Pitfall #3: Taking ineffective or distracting breaks


While you may be tempted to watch videos or play games on a 5-minute break, this can cause problems. You want your mind to be rested and ready to work when you get back from your break. You may have noticed that after 5–10 minutes of videos, it takes you a few minutes to get back into your work. Doing something overly stimulating and absorbing can make it harder to get started again. This friction can make the whole effort more tiring and difficult and can hamper your motivation.

Ideally, breaks would be restful and even a little boring.

Examples of good breaks:

  • Stand up and stretch your arms and legs, perhaps taking a moment to look out the window

  • Go to the bathroom and have a drink of water

  • Take a mindful pause, focusing on your breathing for a minute or two answering a quick message may be okay, but you will most likely notice an attentional and motivational cost to stimulating activities like watching videos, playing games, or reading articles during your break. Keep an eye out for it.


Adjustment #1: Holding too rigidly to the 25/5 formula


While alternating focus periods and breaks is important, there’s nothing special about 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Research shows that people need about 10 minutes of break every hour or so. If you find that the 25 and 5 works well for you, use it. If you prefer to work a little longer and take a longer break, feel free to give it a try. I have clients who do 25 and 5, 50 and 10, and even 10 and 2.

Remember, this can be thought of as a training program, so you might start small and try to build up your concentration over time. Try different work and break periods to see what works best for you, and don’t be afraid to experiment!

Adjustment #2: Creating environmental cues and rituals


We are creatures of habit and association. How you set up your environment and start each work period can be a powerful way to empower your concentration. Create a space where you typically work and only work there. This doesn’t have to be a special room or office (though it can be). It can be a desk or a chair or even just a special way of organizing your pens and notebooks.
Over time your setup will become associated in your mind with concentrating, making the whole process easier.
Also helpful can be creating a series of steps that you do when you get started such as: making a cup of coffee, opening your laptop, and lining up your pens. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s the same every time and that you associate it with starting work.

Example environments that you use only (or primarily) for work:
  • A particular coffee shop

  • A particular chair

  • A particular part of the room or seat at a table


Adjustment #3: Knowing when to drop the program


While nothing is stopping you from using the technique forever, many people find that outside structures can become cumbersome or tiring over time. No one is expecting you to use a timer to work for the rest of your life, though you certainly can if you want to!
Typically I tell my clients to treat this and other self-management structures like scaffolding. We use them for a while to build up our habits, but eventually, it’s okay to take the scaffolding down.
When you get to a point where the technique has been working well for a few weeks or months, it’s okay to try to work more organically. Setting clear intentions for what to work on and making an effort to stay focused, avoid distractions, and take breaks will still be a good idea, but you can experiment with how you would like to implement that.

Action Step: Try it out!

The Pomodoro technique is easy to implement. Just before you start:
  • Choose your intervals: 10–50m of work, 2–10m of break

  • Think about what you’ll do on your breaks

Then:
  1. Set your timer.

  2. Choose what to work on.

  3. Set aside your phone and other distractions.

  4. Try a few rounds!


Final thoughts

The Pomodoro technique, when used correctly, can be a powerful tool to balance work with breaks and to train oneself to be more focused and productive when you choose to be working. It is not meant, however, to be a substitute for a balanced lifestyle. No matter how you structure your day, it will still be important to keep a good balance between productivity and rest, work and homelife.

 

My name is Dr. Benjamin Armstrong. I’m an opinionated psychologist here to share my views on mental health and how to be happy. Check out my web page or follow me on social media for more articles and tips like this one.

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