I Tried The Pomodoro Hack For A Week To Find Out If It Actually Works

We get it. Work days are long. You sit in the same chair for eight hours a day trying to get through a to-do list that seems to grow faster than you can get through it. Add a bit of tiredness, stress, anxiety or lack of focus (have I just described 80 per cent of working adults?) and you’re sitting in a swirling mess of tasks with no relief in sight. Be thankful for productivity hacks then. The Pomodoro Technique has been around since the late ’80s, but it’s just as pertinent now as back then, allowing for short intervals of intense concentration followed by brief breaks.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

In the ’80s, Francesco Cirillo came up with a new way to construct your day, designed to maximise your productivity potential. The steps are simple, intended to help you resist distraction for a defined period of time, spaced out with breaks to give your brain space to breathe.

After a while, you can take an even longer break – for tea, coffee, lunch, etc.

How does it work?

You’ll need some sort of timer and a way to measure your intervals. Back in the day, Cirillo recommended a kitchen timer – traditionally shaped like a pomodoro, which is Italian for “tomato” (see the main image on this page). A timer on your phone will be just as good, or there are web pages which offer specialised timers for your work intervals and recommended break times. Here’s how to do it:

1. Set a timer for 25 minutes

This is your work interval. During this time, choose a task and get cracking. The idea is that you ignore all distractions during this time for a super-focused effort toward completing tasks. D0n’t check your phone. Don’t read your emails. Don’t check social media. Don’t chit chat with your colleagues (if you can help it). Put your head down and get whatever it is done. Your task doesn’t need to fit squarely into 25 minutes, by the way, they can stretch over multiple intervals.

2. Take a short break

After every 25-minute interval take what Cirillo calls a “short break” of about five minutes. This could mean getting up to make a tea or coffee, stretching, reading a news article or checking your emails briefly (just don’t get lost in them). Of course those with full-time jobs might be accused of slacking off if they disappear every 25 minutes, so be conscious of what you do in this time – you’re taking a break from the task, not necessarily from your job.

3. Note down every interval

Keeping track of your intervals is important, as you’ll soon see in step four. Plus, it’ll give you a sense of achievement to have written down all those intensive work sessions.

4. Repeat the first and second steps

Continue to take 25-minute intervals, getting through all that work with unbroken focus (go you!). Don’t worry if you start to get a bit tired though – once you’ve noted down four work intervals you get a longer break. Cirillo says this should last from 20 to 30 minutes. Again, that may not be realistic for office workers, but be creative about your breaks. Maybe there’s something constructive you can do in that time (I’ve just taken a short break to search for story leads). It’s all about giving your brain a break from the more intense main task to focus briefly on something else. If you time it right, you could also make the longer break your lunch break.

5. Start again

After your longer break, get back to the grind, hopefully with a renewed dedication and focus.

Does it work?

I’ve spent the last week using the Pomodoro Technique. So far I’ve only been able to do it knowing my time-limit – I use an online timer and have the countdown showing on my screen. This creates a race-against-time situation, where I try to get as much work done before the timer runs out. The contrast between work and break intervals is quite marked – assigning short, easier tasks to the break periods really gives my brain a rest (especially when doing something like invoices). It’s hard to maintain when you’re pulled away for meetings (I pause the timer and pick up where I left off when I return).

I definitely feel the increased productivity during a work interval. I also love how the timer reminds me to get up and move around regularly. Sitting at a desk all day isn’t particularly healthy, and experts recommend getting up and around regularly. Returning from a quick break lets me refocus on the task at hand, or the next task.

Adapt it to your needs

One size does not fit all. Take the instructions of the Pomodoro Technique and make the rules your own. If you feel like you can sustain intense concentration for longer than 25 minutes, try doing intervals of 45 minutes or an hour, with slightly longer breaks. Maybe the breaks are too long – so cut them down. Instead of a timer you could create 25-minute playlists.

Whatever your method, get your pomodoro timer/internet clock started and put your axe to the grindstone. Consider these other hacks, too, if the pomodoro doesn’t turn your cogs.

Mitch is the Editor of The Cusp and loves a productivity hack.

Main image: Gerlos, via Flikr