The Tomato Timer: How the Pomodoro Technique Helps You Focus

The Pomodoro Technique

The things we want to do are often at odds with what we actually accomplish. Office workers are distracted every 11 minutes and students have trouble studying thanks to electronic diversions. Our brains are working against us and making us less productive. Some researchers say this problem is getting worse instead of better.

Thankfully, the Pomodoro Technique is there to help. This time management tool helps us focus and get back on track with whatever we’re trying to accomplish. It’s as simple as setting a timer and working for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, and then repeating the process all over again. Easy, right? It might sound a little too basic when it comes to actually helping you become more productive, but this form of time management can sometimes work wonders.

How It Started

As a college student in the late 1980s, Francisco Cirillo found himself struggling. He used a tomato-shaped timer (hence the name Pomodoro – Italian for “tomato”) to find some focus and improve his studying process. Cirillo soon discovered he was onto something.

Those quick, focused bursts of productivity followed by a short break proved to be useful. He refined the process to what it is today and you can now find Pomodoro-inspired apps all over the iTunes App Store and Google Play store. Writers, salespeople, and even soccer players have been attracted by the simplicity of the technique.

The Steps

Here’s how the process works.

To start, you set a timer for 25 minutes. In that time period, you plow through a task or objective with no distractions. If you’re tempted to check your email or browse the Internet, take a look at the timer to see when you’ll be able to take a break. Then hunker down and get back to the task at hand. Rest comes soon enough.

When the timer rings, stop what you’re doing and put a check on a piece of paper. You now have five minutes to do whatever you want. Take a short walk, grab a drink, or check that e-mail that’s been gnawing at your curiosity.

Once this five-minute timer rings, it’s back to work. Repeat the process four times and then treat yourself to a longer break of around 15 to 30 minutes.

Why It Works

Is that all there is to it? Essentially, yes. These 25-minute productivity bursts, as simple as they sound, are more useful than you might imagine. Here’s why:

  • They help eliminate procrastination.
  • They break down enormous tasks into bite-sized portions.
  • They improve time management.

When there’s no break in sight for a difficult task, it’s easy to find yourself distracted. When the task is broken down into 25 minutes with a clearly defined break coming up, it’s much easier to focus and ignore those distractions. Our minds can be our worst enemies when it comes to productivity, so a little guidance and structure is necessary to get things done.

The Criticism

The Pomodoro Technique has plenty of adherents, but there are also some critics that raise concerns about the system.

One common criticism is the rigidness of the system. If you’re in the zone, then stepping away for five minutes in the middle of your work might not be a good idea. Some say that the Pomodoro Technique overanalyzes productivity and provides a solution that isn’t needed.

Programmer Mario Fusco summed up the problem as such:

Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects? Will you trust in a lawyer employing the Pomodoro technique while trying to defend you? Will you let a surgeon that needs a timer to stay concentrated on his job to operate you? In the end I honestly hope that the pilot of my next intercontinental flight will be able to pay attention to what he is doing for all the 8 or more hours of its duration.

Those complaints are valid and they demonstrate that the system isn’t for everyone. No system truly is, as what works for one person might fail completely for the next person.

Is it Right For You?

The best thing about testing out to see if the Pomodoro Technique works is that it requires very little effort. You don’t need any technology and you also don’t need much time. All it takes is a timer and the will to avoid distractions for 25 minutes at a time. Give it a try and see how it works for you. You might become one of the Pomodoro Technique’s believers after a few rounds. If not, then you haven’t given up much.

Image from Luca Mascaro.

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