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The Pomodoro Technique - The 'Tomato Inspired' Strategy to Improve Productivity

Angus Parker
Angus Parker

The Pomodoro Technique is perhaps the simplest productivity and time-management strategy which we can all use – you don’t need any technical apps or sophisticated technology; all you need is a timer!

The technique was ‘invented’ in the early 1990s by developer, entrepreneur, and author Francesco Cirillo.

Cirillo noticed that when faced with large tasks or a series of assignments, we’re able to be most effective if we break the work down into short, timed intervals (called “Pomodoros”) which are spaced out by short breaks.

Interesting Side Note: Cirillo named the system “Pomodoro” after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student.

In essence, it is a cyclical system based around working in short bursts of 25 minutes with intermittent breaks, of 5 minutes, which can help to improve motivation, creativity and efficiency.

Theory

This theory has been supported by scientific literature too. Research has shown that taking regular breaks can “vastly improve” focus and concentration for prolonged periods.

This study, for instance, from researchers at the University of Illinois, upends the intuitive theory about the nature of attention by demonstrating that short breaks from a task can dramatically improve one's ability to focus for prolonged periods.

The lead researcher said that “…most papers treated attention as a limited resource that would get used up over time…but you are always paying attention to something. Attention is not the problem…prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance”.

The study tested participants' ability to focus on a repetitive computerised task for an hour under various conditions. 84 participants were divided into four groups:

  • The control group performed the 50-minute task without breaks or diversions.
  • The "switch" group and the "no-switch" group memorised 4 digits before performing the task, and told to respond and take a break if they saw one of the digits during the task. (Only the switch group actually presented with the digits (twice) during the 50-minute experiment).
  • The "digit-ignored" group was shown the same digits presented to the switch group during the task, but were told to ignore them.

As anticipated, the performance of the individuals declined over the course of the task but, crucially, those in the switch group saw no drop in their performance over time. By simply having two brief breaks from their main task (to respond to the digits) they were able to stay focused during the entire experiment.

As a result, the researchers concluded that, when faced with long tasks, it’s best to impose brief breaks on yourself which will actually help you stay focused on your task.

Practice

With that evidence in mind, the Pomodoro technique takes on even more importance. So how does the Pomodoro technique work in practice? Well, the method can broadly be described as follows:

  1. Choose a task that you'd like to get done – personally, it was writing this blog post.
  2. Set the timer (Pomodoro) for 25 minutes.
  3. Work on the task until the timer rings.
  4. Take a short break for 5 minutes before repeating the process again.
  5. Every 4 ‘Pomodoros’ take a longer break of 15/20 minutes before starting again with the “25 minutes on / 5 minutes off” cycle.

The beauty of this technique is its' simplicity. All you need is a timer. If you have a mobile device there are plenty of apps with the Pomodoro system built in – I personally use Focus which I think is only an iOS app but there are plenty for Android as well!

The evidence suggests that it can improve results and performance but there are other advantages too. For instance, it can help to manage distractions and thus improve focus, concentration and, hence, productivity and efficiency.

It can also help to break down larger tasks into manageable periods of time enabling you to feel less daunted by the size of one large assignment – breaking it down can help you to manage expectations and more accurately keep track of how long you have spent on the task.

Having said all this, some people find the timer too much of a rigid structure. Also, as with other strategies, sometimes things can simply interrupt your studies that you have no control over – for example, perhaps you have to urgently deal with an issue at home. Pomodoro can have built-in flexibility and some apps do let you pause the timer but sometimes this can defeat the point of the exercise!

Personally, I think it’s important to recognise that the 20/25 minutes shouldn’t be seen as a completely rigid structure that you absolutely HAVE TO stick to – if you are focussed and feel like you need an extra 5/10 minutes to finish the work that you are doing then do that and then take a break.

In other words, use the Pomodoro technique but don’t ‘get used’ by the Pomodoro timer!

The absolutely critical thing to remember is that REGULAR BREAKS ARE CRITICAL TO YOUR PRODUCTIVITY.


If you want evidence of this in action, I used this technique to write this post! I’m sure if I hadn’t had the timer restricting me to 25 minutes of work, it would've taken a couple of hours to write. As it was, I was able to write this in about 1.5 Pomodoros! So, there you are, the Pomodoro technique in action!


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Angus Parker

Writer, photographer, runner - fresh off the university taxi rank...