Several years ago, I experimented with a way to improve my productivity. I always felt like I wasn’t getting enough done and that I couldn’t concentrate. What I found was The Pomodoro Technique, and it has helped me with my concentration and productivity ever since.
At its core, the technique uses regular short, timed cycles where you focus on one thing at a time. You take frequent breaks between the cycles so that you don’t get exhausted. This sounds like almost every bit of productivity advice you’ve ever heard so far.
Another element is that because you’re focusing on one thing, you also avoid all other distractions. No email, chat, conversations, phone calls, or wandering thoughts are allowed—pure concentration for a short cycle.
That’s the real challenge of the technique. You are training yourself to ignore distractions, even the ones in your head. I’ve met lots of people over the years who claim to use this technique, but the second an email pops up, they stop and look. That defeats the entire purpose.
To get started, you need a timer. Now, purists would say you need one that makes a ticking sound. I also tend to use one that ticks. The sound works as a reminder that I’m in a Pomodoro and to stay focused. The original version used a kitchen timer in the shape of a Pomodoro tomato.
Now that you have a timer, here are the steps.
- Pick what you’ll work on
- Set your timer to 25 minutes
- Work without distraction as long as you can
- Take a 4-minute break
The main thing here is that you know what you’ll be focusing on. Don’t worry about if it’s too big for a cycle or too small. You can grow your use of this technique to do more complex planning, but that isn’t the point of this article. Maybe you want to write an article for that blog you swore you’d keep up to date. Great, you’ll Pomodoro writing an article.
The cycles last a maximum of 25 minutes. You may find that you can’t sustain 25 minutes at first. That is normal, and I’ll get to that soon. When you can sustain 25 minutes, that’s the limit. Beyond that, you’ll begin to experience fatigue.
While the timer runs, you focus with 100% of your energy on the task you’ve chosen. When the timer stops, you stop. This can feel weird as you might want to roll into more work, but you need to stop to let your brain relax. So stop where you are. Another cycle will start soon.
Working without distraction is the hardest part to explain and learn to do. I mentioned before that you’d likely find you can’t keep your focus for 25 minutes at first. In fact, you should expect that you can’t keep your focus that long.
Consider the first dozen or so of these as concentration training.
If you lose your concentration, stop your timer. The cycle is over. This is a data-point for you to see how you improve over time. Take a break and start again.
When you can sustain your concentration for more than ten minutes, you’ll notice that instead of you losing your concentration, the world is trying to interrupt you. It could be an email, a person trying to talk to you, a phone call, or something else. When this happens, quickly jot a note to follow up on that thing and get right back to your Pomodoro. You will likely need to tell co-workers about what you’re doing so they know to wait until your cycle ends or contact you indirectly.
Between your 25 minute Pomodoros take a 4 to 5-minute break. The point is to shut your brain off from your task and let it relax. Check your email, talk to someone, look at cute cat pictures. Relax.
The temptation to continue work will be pretty strong, but resist the urge and take a break. You’ll be able to complete more cycles before you get fatigued when you take frequent breaks.
Now, after four cycles, that constitutes a set. You need to take a longer break after four cycles. Take a 20 or 30-minute break here. Again, don’t get back to work. Take a walk or something else.
If you’re like me, after four Pomodoros a break is welcome. It is pretty intense to go through 4 cycles of 100% effort.
This is the basic idea of a 25-minute Pomodoro, a 4-minute break. Do that four times, then take a 20-minute break. That’s how it all works.
You can use this structure to block out your day as well. Some people draw little boxes on a page, or in Excel to track their Pomodoros for personal planning. I’ve tried that myself, but it was a little too much work for not enough reward for me. However, it is simple, consistent, and you will develop a sense of how many Pomodoros things will take.
I find that a few times a year, I develop some bad habits around getting distracted. When that happens, I switch back to Pomodoro, and the effects last for months. I’m always amazed at how much I accomplish when I use this simple little technique. It does require discipline and the willingness to admit that I can’t concentrate as well as I want, but the reward is incredible.
I hope you find that you can use a technique like this yourself to improve your concentration and ability to get things done.
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