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Putting the pedal to the metal: Upping your output

By Jillian Stewart
Published in Blog
February 01, 2022
4 min read
Putting the pedal to the metal: Upping your output

We pride ourselves on being super productive. So if someone asks you whether you have 100 percent focus at work, you’d say yeah you’re killing it, right? Maybe. We all have good and not-so-good days. But if you’re routinely getting to the end of a big day only to find you’re disappointed with your output, then the Pomodoro Technique might be the thing for you. It’s not new but it may be a tool that works for you.

When he was at university, Italian software developer and entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo devised a method to keep himself focused when studying. He divided his study periods into chunks of time when he would work entirely without interruption, each followed by a short break. He called each interval a pomodoro (Italian for tomato) after a tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to keep time. Deceptively simple but effective, the Pomodoro Technique is a popular time management life hack. It’s based on the idea that periods of intense focus followed by equally committed rest time will generate the best results. Here’s how it works:

  1. Create a list of tasks
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes
  3. Work without interruption until the timer goes off (one pomodoro). Put an X on your list next to the task you’ve been working on
  4. Take a 5-minute break
  5. Start the timer for your next session.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break of 15–30 minutes

There are some rules:

  • A pomodoro must not be interrupted so no pausing or context switching
  • A pomodoro can’t be split up into bits: ½ pomodoro + ½ pomodoro ≠ 1 pomodoro
  • When time’s up on a pomodoro you don’t keep on working even if you’re convinced that a few more minutes means you could finish the task

This is the technique in its basic form. You can add complexity by making a note of interruptions that occur during each pomodoro next to the task you’ve been working on. Cirillo suggests using symbols: an apostrophe () for internal interruptions, e.g. the urge to procrastinate or switch activities, and a hyphen (-) for external distractions i.e. caused by others. If another task springs to mind, add it to your list. If there’s something urgent you have to do, record it under the heading Unplanned and urgent. However, always bear in mind that the efficacy of the method relies on you striving to finish each pomodoro. There are probably very few calls on your time that can’t wait 25 minutes.

“By applying the Pomodoro Technique, many people have begun to understand the value and effectiveness of detachment.” -Francesco Cirillo

After a relatively short period of using the Pomodoro Technique, you’ll have useful intelligence on what’s affecting your productivity. You’re making yourself more accountable for how you’re using your time and you’ll procrastinate less. You’ll also be better able to estimate how long a task is going to take you, based on real data.

The beauty of the Pomodoro Technique is that it’s fully customisable. You can play with the work time/break time ratios. When you’ve got 25 minutes of complete focus down, you can do double-pomodoros of 50 minutes followed by a 10-minute break. How long you make your work/break intervals will depend on many factors including the type of work you do. A developer or designer might prefer sessions of 50 minutes or longer while an administrator may accomplish each task in a shorter time.

The critical thing is that you maintain intense concentration for every minute of your pomodoro. If you increase the length of each pomodoro too much, you risk decreasing the sense of healthy urgency the method relies on for success.

When you first start using the technique, you may find it a challenge to keep up your concentration. Reduce your work time and build up gradually (Cirillo began with 10-minute pomodoros). You’re essentially training your concentration muscle and like any other muscle it takes time to get fit. So don’t give up, it’s a WIP. Once you’ve developed the ability to fully focus, you’ve got a valuable skill in today’s increasingly distracted world. You can even use the Pomodoro Technique when you’re in deep work mode to boost your productivity to the max (more about deep work here).

Equally important to the Pomodoro Technique is break time. In your rest periods between pomodoros, you are committing yourself with the same dedication to not working. This means time away from all devices to clear your mind. If you go onto social media you can turn 5 minutes into 50 without even trying. Better to spend your break moving muscles constricted by sitting (exercise increases blood flow to the brain which will up your concentration in your next work period).

The Pomodoro Technique is not for everyone. It has its detractors as well as its passionate advocates. Critics have said that serious professionals shouldn’t need a timer to maintain their concentration and that they ought to be able to focus for hours at a time. However, what the Pomodoro Technique is about is keeping your concentration at peak levels. We’re talking really putting the pedal to the metal people. The brain can only function at this level of intensity for relatively short periods; it needs the 5-minute break to rest and reset ready for the next sprint.

Another criticism is that the technique doesn’t allow for normal interruptions; that you either work for 25 minutes straight and complete your pomodoro or you don’t get your X. But don’t sweat it, pomodoros don’t need to be an all or nothing affair. If I’m unavoidably interrupted (and no, clicking on a pop-up doesn’t cut it) I cancel the timer and start again. One less pomodoro, no big deal. It means that when I’m doing pomodoros I know I’m working with intense concentration, I’m not fooling myself.

Whether the Pomodoro Technique is for you is a matter of personal preference. In its most basic form it can reduce anxiety about not knowing where your time is going. Alternatively, you can add all the bells and whistles and track your productivity to the nth degree.

If you are curious about the benefits of using the technique, give it a go.There’s a good selection of pomodoro apps. Some are simple pomodoro timers, others are full-on time tracking and management systems (I use the timer on my phone). Whether you go hard-out pomodoro or more chill, there’s tech to support you.


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Eliminating distractions: Being selective about your digital tools
Jillian Stewart

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Table Of Contents

1
The critical thing is that you maintain intense concentration for every minute of your pomodoro. If you increase the length of each pomodoro too much, you risk decreasing the sense of healthy urgency the method relies on for success.
2
Whether the Pomodoro Technique is for you is a matter of personal preference. In its most basic form it can reduce anxiety about not knowing where your time is going. Alternatively, you can add all the bells and whistles and track your productivity to the nth degree.

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