Spend 10 minutes on Quora reading about productivity, and you’re bound to find an answer mentioning the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique uses a timer to break work into small intervals that are separated by short breaks. It’s as simple as working for 25 minutes, resting for 5, and then working again. Each work-rest cycle is called a Pomodoro, latin for “tomato” (named after the tomato-shaped timer that Cirillo used as a student).
There are no set rules to completing a successful Pomodoro, but there are some good guidelines you can follow in order to make the most of each Pomodoro. First, you must pick a single task and work on it for the entire 25 minutes (that means turning off any distractions and closing out of that sneaky Twitter tab you have open in the background). Then, once the 25 minutes is up, you have to stop working and take a 5 minute break, ideally by doing something that’s not mentally stimulating like taking a walk or closing your eyes. Every 4-5 Pomodoros, enjoy a break of 15-20 minutes instead of the standard 5.
How is this any better than just sitting down, doing your work, and taking irregular breaks whenever you feel like it? Well, for one, following the Pomodoro Technique allows you to assign a numerical value to your efforts. Because you need to be focused and diligent about working during the 25 minute session, you can say with confidence that you’ve had a good working session after completing a few Pomodoros. Even if you didn’t make any real progress (for example, failing to fix a programming bug you’ve been stuck on for hours), you can still say that you had a productive day because you completed x-number of Pomodoros. In my opinion, this is a lot better than saying you worked for 5 hours straight, because it’s likely that you weren’t working interrupted for that entire 5 hours. This leads to the illusion of work being done (ex. “I studied all day long”), when in reality you could have accomplished the same task in half as long if you were focused.
The Pomodoro Technique is often used to help avoid procrastination. It’s much easier to say “I will work on my essay for 4 Pomodoros” than it is to say “I will work on my essay for a few hours”. Again, even if you don’t make much progress, it’s rewarding to know that you tried your best and accomplished your goal of working for 4 complete Pomodoros. I use this to help combat the occasional procrastination, and it work like a charm.
There’s some other benefits I’ve discovered that I don’t see talked about much online. For example, being diligent about 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of rest helps me to alleviate brain fatigue, that tired and almost sore feeling you get after concentrating and thinking very hard for a long time. This happens to me all the time when programming, because even if I’m not stuck on a bug or difficult implementation, I always want to work for longer because I love programming. I always tell myself, “I’ll implement just one more feature” or “I’ll fix just a few more things before I take a break”, and that break never comes. I work for hours until I’m mentally exhausted, and then it can be hours before I’m coding at peak efficiency again.
By taking these frequent 5 minute breaks, I’m forcing myself to stop thinking so hard and relax my brain. I often spend this time organizing my desk or my computer desktop (I’m notorious for having 10 Finder windows and terminals open at any given time). The breaks also give me an opportunity to get some fresh air away from the computer, which helps with eye fatigue. And, even though I deliberately try not to engage in anything mentally-stimulating during my break, the human brain works to continue solving problems or making sense of new information even when not actively thinking about anything. It’s called the diffuse mode of thinking, but that’s a topic for another blog post. Overall, I find that I’m more productive completing Pomodoros because that forces me to take short breaks, which in turn allows me to work for longer and accomplish more without feeling fatigued.
That’s basically it! The Pomodoro Technique allows you to assign a numerical value to your productivity efforts by splitting your working time into short segments, separated by breaks. There’s lots of great apps for iOS and Android that allow you to keep track of how many Pomodoros you complete in a day, so you can evaluate roughly how much effort you’ve expended each day of the week. It’s great for preventing mental and physical fatigue, and plus, it provides a sense of accomplishment that saying “I studied all day” could never provide.