The pomodoro technique is a productivity method aimed at optimising the amount of work you get done in a given timeframe. It was created by consultant Francesco Cirillo while a university student looking to boost his productivity.
After struggling to focus, Cirillo used a timer to make a humble bet with himself to focus on a textbook for 2 minutes. It worked!
He gradually increased the time to one hour, but that was too much. It didn't take too long to realize that, for a number of factors, the ideal unit of work was 25 minutes followed by a 2-5 minute break. If you are wondering why it’s named after a tomato, don’t worry…we’ll get to that!
The main premise is to split your work tasks into manageable chunks, strictly timing a short period to work on those tasks and incorporating frequent short breaks to protect you from the effects of mental fatigue.
If your attitude to work and revision is just putting your head down and doing as much as you feel like, it’s maybe time to give a productivity technique a try.
Since you are here already, why not try the pomodoro technique?
Let us show you how.
In this guide, we will cover:
Keep your setup simple. The clock app on most digital devices works fine as a timer. For the “To-Do” list, I recommend a spreadsheet or a notebook app on a tablet if possible so you can neatly make adjustments.
A “pomodoro” contains 25 minutes of focused work. During the first 15 minutes of the day (or the end of the day/evening before) you must split each task for the day into how many “pomodoros” it will take to complete.
Tip 1: Split up larger tasks. Anything that will take more than 5 pomodoros to complete should be split up into several tasks. For example: “write first essay draft” should be split up into, “write essay plan”, “write introduction” “write main argument” and “write conclusion”.
Tip 2: Group smaller tasks. Any tasks that will take less than one pomodoro should be combined with other simple tasks. For example, "write a rent check," "set vet appointment," and "read pomodoro article" could go together in one session.
Tip 3: Use your revision timetable to populate these tasks into pomodoros and do not write more than 16 pomodoros worth of tasks down.
You may be willing to work more than this, but there will likely be tasks you would like to do again better or need more time to complete. Allow at least a couple of “overflow pomodoros” in your day that are unassigned.
Tip 4: It helps to set an overarching goal each day, so write this at the top of the page. If you frequently finish exams without finishing the paper, you may want to improve your pace in reading and answering exam paper questions.
It’s essential that prior to starting your timer you remove as many possible distractions as possible.
This means turning your phone on silent or “do not disturb” mode as well as any other devices like your laptop and tablet.
It’s also a good idea to let your family know what you are doing so they don’t bother you unless necessary.
If you enjoy music while you study, try to keep it very minimalist, ambient or without vocals. Music ultimately is a distraction and anything that tempts you to sing along is taking focus away from your studies.
There are great free websites and apps that provide nature sounds that distract you enough from the real world but can also allow you to focus. This method is commonly used by people with ADHD to help them focus as they often benefit from constant monotonous noise to drown out any external distractions or racing internal thoughts.
Once a pomodoro timer is set, it must ring before you do anything else. The pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time and can not be broken, especially not to check incoming emails, team chats, or text messages. Any ideas, tasks, or requests that come up should be taken note of to come back to later.
If you MUST attend to an urgent distraction, take your 5-minute break and start a brand new pomodoro again. It’s recommended that you track interruptions (in your head or on your to-do list) as and when they occur so you can make a change in how to avoid them in your next break.
Ensure a few minutes to plan the task at the beginning of each pomodoro and a few minutes at the end to recap, check through and make a note of any mistakes or improvements needed in your to-do list.
Should you finish your task early, spend the extra time to learn beyond the task. Do some research into the topic of the task you just completed and try to learn something new.
If you don’t finish in time, you might need to use an “overflow” pomodoro to get the rest done.
Now it’s time to mark your first pomodoro on the to-do list and reflect. Yahoo!
Next to each pomodoro, record what you actually did and write down any mental notes you made regarding distraction or improvements to make as you checked your work in the recap.
The daily goal for your work will help you here. It gives your feedback and reflection some context which will help you think more clearly about how successful it went.
These notes will let you know if the task is worth redoing, if you need to practice it more or whether it takes more pomodoros for example.
Here’s an example of a pomodoro spreadsheet that you can copy or download to use for yourself:
Set a new timer and enjoy 5 minutes of anything you like.
You will notice how quickly 5 minutes go by if you are on your phone - so it’s best to avoid also spending your break looking at a screen! It will not only seem longer but will be much more mentally refreshing.
Try to spend the shorter breaks doing something relaxing that still uses your mind and body. Some ideas could be: Stand and stretch, listen to a song, sing-along, go outside, practice some deep breathing, watch some birds out of your window, grab a snack, clean your room or tidy your desk!
Now is also the time to make adjustments to stop incoming distractions during the next pomodoro. Remind your family about what you are doing so they don’t disturb you, or turn on “do not disturb mode” on that device you forgot about. Make sure you also go to the toilet and refill some water if you need to!
Wow! Look at you go! You’ve completed almost 2 hours of work without breaking a sweat.
It’s now time to take a longer break to rest your mind for the next pomodoro. It’s a good time to check any notifications and make sure any urgent needs are taken care of.
Recommended activities during the long break include making a meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner), taking a short walk, spending time outside and doing some more stretches or tidying.
After 15-30 minutes of rest, be sure to be back at your workstation ready to start the next set of pomodoros.
If it seems overly simple, that’s because it is! That’s almost the whole point. This deceptively simple tool transforms both work and home life and makes us far more productive.
There are plenty of other productivity techniques to help manage your time and studies and truthfully, you will never really know which are best suited for you.
Everyone works differently and even the same person can have varying motivation, energy or focus levels on a given day.
Try to be patient with yourself and consider the following question to see if the pomodoro technique is right for you:
Has anything like this ever happened to you?
Yes? Well don’t worry, you are not alone! We all face the same problems now and again. We know we should focus on the task at hand, but it feels impossible with so many distractions and so many tasks to complete.
This is common when we work under the pressure of time and it’s something we don’t get much training in how to manage it.
From early on in school, we are often left alone to complete a task by a certain time with very little advice on how to decide on all of the options in front of us. Seems unfair, right?
The pomodoro technique is essentially a brain training programme to teach you how to deal with these occurrences effectively so you can reach your objectives while maintaining a positive mindset.
Through consistent repetition, just like any muscle you work out in the gym, your brain can learn a better way to deal with keeping focus.
Here we will go through the reasons why the pomodoro technique is so effective at hacking your brain and what it is doing to boost your productivity.
Humans are creatures of habit and we often prioritise the tasks that make us feel good rather than those we know we REALLY need to do!
The beauty of the pomodoro technique is in its simplicity. It is accessible because it values consistency over quality.
Each pomodoro is a fresh start. An opportunity to reevaluate your goals, challenge yourself to focus, and limit distractions. You can make the process suit you and it builds a self-inflicted routine and discipline.
Alas, our time is finite. Unfortunately, it is out of our control. We can’t just have as much of it as we may want, speed it up or slow it down.
One of the most simple ways that the pomodoro technique works, is that it reframes time as an abstract concept. This can trick your brain into not relating the work you do in “a pomodoro” to the hours and minutes left in the day.
This alleviates some of the clock-watching deadline stress by keeping the focus on a consistent, achievable, short-term deadline.
This process of “gamifying” productivity is essential to distancing ourselves from the stress that prevents our optimal workflow. Thinking in tomatoes is just more fun!
Rather than writing an exact amount of time you expect a task to take, every minute you go past that time is a reminder of your lack of control of time which can rapidly degrade your focus. Whereas, if it’s not done by the end of a pomodoro, just add another! You’ve planned for that.
When our mind realizes that it cannot control time, it’s natural to feel scared or a feeling of dread, especially when there are so many options on how to proceed. Time has now essentially become a “threat” and this often triggers feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety is caused by your body releasing adrenaline into your bloodstream as a response to a perceived threat. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you find yourself crossing paths with a bear in the woods!
The common term is the “fight or flight response” (HOT TIP: don’t try to fight the bear!). It prepares you to take action, either to stand and face a threat or run away from it.
It is very common among students to feel anxious. The pressure of time and deadlines is always there, but what a lot of people don’t know is that is often the most potent motivator. Think about how quickly you might drop your phone if you realise the bath is overflowing, or jump out of bed if you realise you have to be at school in 15 minutes!
If you can notice when you are feeling anxious or spiralling about the worst case scenario - it’s possible to have the presence of mind to consider “what then?” and ask yourself “am I really in danger?”. Once you consider the lack of real evidence for the worst-case scenario, you will often be able to uncover the truth and motivate yourself to take action in spite of any avoidant behaviour you are currently exhibiting.
The pomodoro technique helps by making it easier to start facing the task you have been putting off, rather than fleeing from the burden to bury your head in social media or binge-watch some Netflix.
This avoidance is a temporary form of escape that may boost our mood but doesn’t solve the problem. Remember whenever you feel anxious about work, you always have a choice. Fight OR flight.
With that being said if you feel anxious to the point where it is consistently impacting your daily life and self-care - there is help available.
Contact your local doctor and ask for an assessment, or talk to someone close to you about your mental health.
Work-based procrastination is really a result of the anxiety we feel about not being in control of the deadline. The fact that we can’t control time.
A little structure can go a long way. What the pomodoro technique does is provide a very simple set of steps to turn to when you have to face an undesirable task. At its core, it also normalises the habit of shutting off all distractions so that they don’t eat up your day.
In the moment, as we try to wrestle with the concept of a deadline and the scale of the task ahead with no way of knowing exactly what the outcome will be, our brains can be quite irrational.
Often the answers our panicked minds give us are counterproductive. Work harder. Stop thinking about it and just start. Find a shortcut. Do something else. In reality, none of these are effective and can exacerbate the issue.
As you give in to these mental moments of inspiration to just “do it”, your mental health can suffer in the long run. It leads to more frustration, fatigue and shame or guilt if things don’t go as well as you’d predicted. All of this increases the temptation to be distracted and procrastinate.
As mentioned before, procrastination comes from our lack of control - so it helps in those vulnerable moments to have a knee-jerk reaction to put your mind to a pre-determined structure, fill in the blanks, and then tackle the task one small piece of time…at a time!