Notes from a Floating Life Thoughts about productivity, digital living, and leading a simpler life

A Quick Intro to the Pomodoro Technique

Like sands in the hourglass

Distractions. They’re everywhere. Some of them — like email and social media — we can (theoretically) control. Others are harder to rein in, but in some cases it can be done.

But how can you tame those distractions? One way that I’ve found to be effective is to turn to the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a simple but fiendishly powerful way of getting things done. For me, those things have been writing and studying. But you can use the technique with whatever you need to do.

Intrigued? Then read on.

Note: I’m no expert with the Pomodoro Technique. I use it, but as with most things I pick and choose what works for me, and I put my own spin on it. So what you’re getting in this post isn’t pure Pomodoro. You have been warned.

Pomodoro Technique?

It’s a time management scheme developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and was named after a tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo used when he developed the technique. Why a tomato-shaped timer? It was the only one Cirillo could afford at the time.

The basic idea behind the Pomodoro Technique is to break your work into 25-minute blocks called pomodoros. During each pomodoro, you focus on a specific task and nothing else. If you finish before the 25 minutes is up, you don’t jump to another task. Instead, you stay with the current one and perform some related work. With writing, for example, you can edit or rewrite or proofread for the remaining time. Just focus on what you need to complete in each 25 minute block. Don’t worry about your other tasks, and don’t jump around.

There’s a lot more to the Pomodoro Technique, which you can learn about at Cirillo’s website or from a very good book titled Pomodoro Technique Illustrated: The Easy Way to Do More in Less Time by Staffan Nöteberg.

When you strip away the details, and get to the core of it, the goal of the technique is to create a flow. And by flow I mean working in the moment. The direction of the flow is completing your task.

Using the Technique

As I mentioned earlier, I’m not an expert with the Pomodoro Technique. In fact, I cherry pick bit of it, and ignore what doesn’t work for me. But here’s how I use the Pomodoro Technique for writing.

First off, I isolate and add priorities to what I need to write. That means creating a to-do list. That also means that some tasks won’t make it on to the to do list. I try to keep my list short — only the items that I need to tackle today.

I then break each task or project down. My first stint may be to write a first draft of an article or blog post that runs 500 words. For me, that’s not unreasonable in 25 minutes. The next stint, I add detail to what I’ve just written, followed by proofreading and editing.

With that done, I get to work. I set my timer for 25 minutes and start typing. I also turn off email and social media notifications and switch my phone to vibrate. In a number of cases, I either work offline or in a distraction-free writing tool.

Once the 25 minutes is up, I cross off that item on my to-do list and take a short break. That break should be no more than 5 to 10 minutes, and shouldn’t be related to the task I just performed or the next one on my list. What can you do in that interval? I can, for example, check your email, get a drink or a quick snack, make a quick phone call, or post a tweet.

I then reset my timer and move on to the next task until I knock as many of them (I hope all of them) off my list.

Is it really that easy?

Yes and no. It takes a while to get into that state of flow, but once you’re there you can’t imagine how you got things done in the past.

That said, you might have to build up to 25 minutes. Start with blocks of 10 or 15 minutes, then work towards the full 25 minutes.

Final Thoughts

I don’t use the Pomodoro Technique every day. I really only turn to it when I need fight the myriad distractions that plague me some days. And there are aspects of the technique — like recording and analysis and metrics — that I just ignore. They don’t really help me, so why bother with them?

The Pomodoro Technique is useful when I need it. It’s an easy and effective way to help keep me productive when I’m assailed by distractions or when I’m just not 100% motivated.

Thoughts? Let's start a conversation on Twitter.