The secret to effective time management is…thinking in tomatoes rather than hours? It may seem silly at first, but millions of people swear by the life-changing power of the Pomodoro Technique. (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. 🍅)
This popular time management method asks you to alternate pomodoros — focused work sessions — with frequent short breaks to promote sustained concentration and stave off mental fatigue.
Try the Pomodoro Technique if you…
- Find little distractions often derail the whole workday
- Consistently work past the point of optimal productivity
- Have lots of open-ended work that could take unlimited amounts of time (e.g., studying for an exam, research for a blog post, etc.)
- Are overly optimistic when it comes to how much you can get done in a day (aren’t we all 🙃)
- Enjoy gamified goal-setting
- Really like tomatoes
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 1980s by then university student Francesco Cirillo. Cirillo was struggling to focus on his studies and complete assignments. Feeling overwhelmed, he asked himself to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time. Encouraged by the challenge, he found a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) shaped kitchen timer, and the Pomodoro technique was born.
Though Cirillo went on to write a 130-page book about the method, its biggest strength is its simplicity:
- Get a to-do list and a timer.
- Set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings.
- When your session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed.
- Then enjoy a five-minute break.
- After four pomodoros, take a longer, more restorative 15-30 minute break.
The 25-minute work sprints are the core of the method, but a Pomodoro practice also includes three rules for getting the most out of each interval:
- Break down complex projects. If a task requires more than four pomodoros, it needs to be divided into smaller, actionable steps. Sticking to this rule will help ensure you make clear progress on your projects.
- Small tasks go together. Any tasks that will take less than one Pomodoro should be combined with other simple tasks. For example, “write rent check,” “set vet appointment,” and “read Pomodoro article” could go together in one session.
- Once a pomodoro is set, it must ring. 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. A digital task manager like Todoist is a great place for these, but pen and paper will do too.
In the event of an unavoidable disruption, take your five-minute break and start again. Cirillo recommends that you track interruptions (internal or external) as they occur and reflect on how to avoid them in your next session.
The rule applies even if you do finish your given task before the timer goes off. Use the rest of your time for overlearning, or improving skills or scope of knowledge. For example, you could spend the extra time reading up on professional journals or researching networking opportunities.
If the system seems simple, that’s because it is. The Pomodoro technique is all about getting your mind in the zone to finish your tasks.
What Makes Pomodoro So Effective?
The arbitrary silliness of using a tomato as a stand-in for units of time belies the Pomodoro Technique’s serious effectiveness when it comes to helping people get things done. Here’s what makes the method uniquely suited to boosting productivity:
Making it Easy to Just Get Started
Research has shown the procrastination has little to do with laziness or lack of self-control. Rather, we put things off to avoid negative feelings. It’s uncomfortable to stare down a big task or project – one you may not be sure how to even do or one that involves a lot of uncertainty. So we turn to Twitter or Netflix instead to boost our mood, if only temporarily.
Luckily, studies have also shown an effective way to break out of the avoidance cycle: shrink whatever it is you’re putting off down to a tiny, unintimidating first step. For example, instead of sitting down to write a novel, sit down to write for 5 minutes. Still too hard? Try just sitting down to edit a paragraph. Doing something small for a short period of time is a whole lot easier to face than trying to take on a big project all at once.
That procrastination-busting strategy is exactly what the Pomodoro Technique asks you to do: break down your big tasks, projects, or goals into something you only have to do for the next 25 minutes. It keeps you hyper-focused on the one next thing you need to do rather than getting overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re taking on. Don’t worry about the outcome — just take it one pomodoro at a time.
If you’ve ever been interrupted when you were in a flow state, you know how difficult regaining focus can be. Yet, the constant stream of information pouring in via emails, team chats, and social media notifications demands more and more of our attention.
While it would be nice to blame technology for everything, recent studies suggest over half of all workday distractions are self-inflicted — meaning we pull ourselves out of focus. In the moment, it can be easy to justify these internal pulls — “This email is too important to wait,” or “It took less than a minute to check my Twitter; it isn’t a real distraction.”
But those small interruptions add up! It isn’t just the time you lose on distractions; it also takes time and energy to refocus your attention. After switching gears, our minds can linger over the previous task for upwards of 20 minutes until regaining full concentration. Indulging the impulse to check Facebook “just for a minute” can turn into 20 minutes of trying to get back on task.
The Pomodoro Technique helps you resist all of those self-interruptions and re-train your brains to focus. Each pomodoro is dedicated to one task, and each break is a chance to reset and bring your attention back to what you should be working on.
Becoming More Aware of Where Your Time Goes
When planning out our future projects, most of us fall victim to the planning fallacy — our tendency to vastly underestimate the time needed to complete future tasks, even when we know similar tasks have taken longer in the past. Your present self imagines your future self operating under entirely different circumstances and time restraints.
The Pomodoro technique can be a valuable weapon against the planning fallacy. When you start working in short, timed sessions, time is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete event. It becomes a pomodoro — a unit of both time and effort. Distinct from the idea of 25 minutes of general “work,” the pomodoro is an event that measures focus on a single task (or several simple tasks).
The concept of time changes from a negative — something that has been lost — to a positive representation of events accomplished. Cirillo calls this “inverting time” because it changes the perception of time passing from an abstract source of anxiety to an exact measure of productivity. This leads to much more realistic time estimates.
Writer Ben Dolnick describes how his perception of time changed while using the method:
“Five minutes on the internet, as measured by my timer, would pass in what seemed to me about 35 seconds. A timed hour of research would seem to take between three and four hours. My timer was a crisp metal yardstick laid down in the fog of my temporal intuitions.”
When you use the Pomodoro technique, you have a clear measurement of your finite time and your efforts, allowing you to reflect and plan your days more accurately and efficiently. With practice, you’ll be able to accurately assess how many pomodoros a task will take and build more consistent work habits.
Gamifying Your Productivity
Every pomodoro provides an opportunity to improve upon the last. Cirillo argues that “concentration and consciousness lead to speed, one pomodoro at a time.”
The Pomodoro technique is approachable because it is more about consistency than perfection. Each session is a fresh start to reevaluate your goals, challenge yourself to focus, and limit distractions. You can make the system work for you.
Motivate yourself to build on your success by setting a goal to add an extra pomodoro each day. Challenge yourself to finish a big task in a set number of pomodoros. Try setting a goal number of pomodoros for each day without breaking the chain. Thinking in tomatoes rather than hours is just more fun.
Quick Tips for Pomodoro-ing
While the 25/5 minute work/break intervals are the heart of the Pomodoro Technique, there are a few things you can do to make your pomodoros more effective:
Plan Out Your Pomodoros in Advance
Take 15 minutes at the beginning of your workday (or at the end if you’re planning for the next day) to plan out your pomodoros. Take your to-do list for the day and note how many pomodoros each task will take. (Remember, tasks that will take more than 5 pomodoros should be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Smaller tasks, like responding to emails, can be batched together in a single pomodoro.)
If you work an 8-hour workday, make sure your pomodoros for the day don’t go over sixteen. If they do, postpone the least urgent/least important tasks for later in the week.
Build Overflow Pomodoros into Your Day
While an 8-hour workday technically leaves room for sixteen pomodoros, it’s best to build in a buffer of 2-4 “overflow” pomodoros, just in case. Use your overflow pomodoros for tasks that take longer than you planned or for unexpected tasks that come up during the day.
If you don’t end up needing them, use the extra pomodoros for learning or lower priority tasks that always get pushed to the end of your to-do list. It’s much less stressful to end the day with pomodoros to spare than to overschedule yourself and get behind.
Experiment with the Length of Your Pomodoros
For some types of work that require extended periods in a creative “flow” state — thinking coding, writing, composing, etc — 25 minutes may be too short. Try extended work sessions with longer breaks. A DeskTime study found that a 52-minute focus and 17-minute break is the perfect balance. Others prefer 90 full minutes with a 20-30-minute break, based on Ultradian rhythms.
For tasks that you’ve been putting off for one reason or another, 25 minutes might be too long. If you’re feeling a lot of mental resistance, or you just can’t get yourself to stay focused for 25 minutes, try a 15-, 10-, or even 5-minute pomodoro.
For most people most of the time, the sweet spot will be in the 25-50 minute range for peak concentration with a 5-15 minute break. Try mixing your intervals based on your available energy, the type of work, and how much a task makes you want to bury your head in cute puppy videos on YouTube instead.
Get Away from Screens During Breaks
Not all breaks are created equal. If your pomodoro work sessions happen on your computer, don’t just switch over to Twitter or Instagram when the timer goes off. Give your eyes and brain a break from screens — that means your phone too! Stand up, move around, stretch, go outside, do a mini meditation, grab a snack, watch birds out the window. If you work from home, fold some clothes or clear off the kitchen table.
Whatever you do, your break will be much more mentally refreshing if you get away from the glowing hypnosis of your computer or phone.
Use an App to Enforce Your Pomodoros
Humans are fallible. No matter how motivated you are at the start of the day, it’s really hard to actually stick to your pomodoros. Hold yourself accountable with a break reminder app.
The best ones let you customize how long your work sessions are, how obtrusive you want your reminders to be, and how strictly you want your breaks enforced. Some will lock you out of your computer for the duration of your breaks.
The Pomodoro Technique is a powerful tool that can help you beat procrastination, improve your focus, and manage your time more effectively. By breaking your work into manageable intervals and incorporating short breaks, you can boost your productivity and stay motivated to achieve your goals.
So, why not give it a try? Start thinking in tomatoes, and watch how one pomodoro at a time can transform your work habits and productivity.
How long should a Pomodoro be?
The traditional Pomodoro is 25 minutes of focused work followed by a 5-minute break. However, you can experiment with different intervals to find what works best for you.
Can the Pomodoro Technique work for creative tasks?
Yes, the Pomodoro Technique can be adapted for creative tasks. You can try longer work intervals and shorter breaks to get into a “flow” state while still maintaining a structured approach.
What if I get interrupted during a Pomodoro?
If an unavoidable interruption occurs, take your break as scheduled, and then start a new Pomodoro session. Track interruptions and find ways to minimize them in the future.
Can I use the Pomodoro Technique for team projects?
Yes, the Pomodoro Technique can be used for team projects. Each team member can use the technique individually, and the team can synchronize their breaks for collaborative discussions.
Is the Pomodoro Technique suitable for all types of tasks?
The Pomodoro Technique is versatile and can be applied to various tasks. It works well for tasks that require focused attention, planning, studying, and even creative work.