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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

The Pomodoro Technique Really Works, Says This Productivity-Hack Skeptic

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Bailey Zelena; RgStudio/Getty Images

I’ve never been big on productivity hacks and tricks. Instead, I keep things pretty simple. I take a look at my planner, jot down a list of things I want to get done that day, and then start hustling.

But after hearing so much chatter about the Pomodoro Technique, I figured I should give it a try. So many different people have raved to me about how it helped them jumpstart their focus and boost their productivity. So I thought testing it out couldn’t hurt—and, if all went well, maybe I’d even identify a new tactic for tackling my never-ending to-do list.

My findings are below, but first…

What is the Pomodoro Technique—and how do you use it?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that encourages people to work with the time they have—rather than against it. The basic steps are:

  1. Choose a single task to focus on.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work only on your selected task.
  3. After 25 minutes take a five-minute break.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 four times.
  5. Take a longer break of about 15 to 30 minutes.

Using the Pomodoro method, you break your workday into 25-minute focus periods followed by five-minute breaks. Each of these focus periods plus a break period is called a Pomodoro—after the tomato-shaped timer first used to test the method.

What makes the Pomodoro method effective?

The idea behind the technique is that the timer instills a sense of urgency. Rather than feeling like you have endless time in the workday to get things done and then ultimately squandering those precious work hours on distractions, you know you only have 25 minutes to make as much progress on a task as possible.

The periodic forced breaks help to lessen that frazzled, burnt-out feeling most of us experience toward the end of the day. With this technique, you haven’t spent hours in front of your computer without even realizing it. Instead, that ticking timer reminds you to get up and take a breather.

What apps can I download to help me Pomodoro?

If the concept of keeping such detailed track of your workday feels a little cumbersome—it did to me!—there are plenty of Pomodoro timer apps. Downloading one on my phone made things much easier for my experiment, and I highly recommend it if you’re planning on trying this yourself. If you have an iPhone, try Focus Keeper for a no-frills (and low-distraction) option or Pomodoro - Focus Timer, which is a bit more customizable. Meanwhile, Android users can check out Pomodoro Timer Lite.

OK, but does the Pomodoro Technique really work?

Even though I’m a productivity “hack” skeptic, I tried the Pomodoro Technique for an entire week. Let’s just get right to the heart of the matter: I actually ended up really liking this method—and it’s probably something I’ll continue to implement when I want to kick my productivity up a notch.

What I thought would happen when I tried the Pomodoro Technique

If I’m being perfectly honest, I’d anticipated not liking it at all. I’m the type of person who tends to sit in front of her computer and hammer out four hours of work without so much as a bathroom break. So the premise didn’t seem like it would mesh well with me. But I went for it anyway.

What actually happened when I tried the Pomodoro Technique

At first, working in such small increments felt unnatural. There were quite a few times—especially in the beginning—when I was tempted to ignore the timer and continue working. But I forced myself to stick to the format.

What I loved about the Pomodoro Technique

After some time, the technique started to really gel with me. I was focused and super productive during my work time, as I was eager to get as much completed during that 25-minute interval as I could. I didn’t find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or getting sucked in by those pesky clickbait articles. And as a notorious multitasker, I noticed that I was totally zoned in on the one project at hand.

What I didn't love about the Pomodoro Technique

I wouldn’t be an honest journalist if I didn’t outline at least one drawback. While it worked great on the days when all of my time was my own, the Pomodoro Technique became quite complicated when I had scheduled calls and meetings. I didn’t think my clients or colleagues would react too favorably to me yelling, “Be back in five! My timer just went off!” in the middle of a conversation.

So I ended up just completely deactivating my timer during these meetings—whether they were 15 minutes or an hour—and picking back up with the technique when those appointments were finished. Perhaps that means I bent the rules a bit, but I couldn’t figure out a better way to handle that situation.

4 top tips for using the Pomodoro Technique

Here are a few pointers for getting the Pomodoro Technique to work for you:

1. Plan out your Pomodoros in advance.

Before you start your first timer, know what you’re going to do with your 25-minute block. This lets you get right to work and keeps you from wasting time deciding what to do first.

2. Actually take your breaks.

Because I was so used to working in those long chunks of time (during which I thought I was being productive), the idea of splitting up my workday and—gasp!—wasting time on breaks seemed totally counterintuitive. How could working less actually help me accomplish more?

Because I was forced to get up and give myself a rest from staring at my laptop screen, I found that I actually did feel better at the end of each day. Not only did I feel like I had put in an honest day’s work, but I also felt less stressed, blurry-eyed, and cramped up. Go figure—actually standing up a couple of times throughout the day really does help.

3. Don’t be afraid to customize it.

If the timing of each time block doesn’t feel quite right, you can always adjust the lengths of your breaks and focus periods until you’ve found the ideal balance for your workday.

4. Find a Pom partner.

Give yourself added accountability by finding someone to try out the method with. Tell each other what you plan to do with your Pomodoros and hit start at the same time. Then, check in during your breaks to give each other kudos and encouragement. Your partner doesn’t need to be a coworker, or even in the same place as you!

And if you can’t find someone who wants to try the method with you, see if there’s a friend who you can share your intentions for each time block with—this added layer of accountability can help you stay on track.

Regina Borsellino contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.