Depending on the day, it's sometimes a lot easier to focus than others. I know that there are days when I feel incredibly productive and others when I'm not quite at peak efficiency. For both kinds of days, I like to use the Pomodoro Technique to make sure that I stay focused whether or not my brain is playing ball.
Whether you have too much to do, not enough, or aren't quite sure where to start with something, the Pomodoro Technique can help.
The Pomodoro Technique was inspired by one of those kitchen timers shaped like a tomato, which in Italian is called 'pomodoro'. The maximum time you can set is 25 minutes, which is where Francesco Cirillo got the idea of dividing his work day into small snippets of 25 minutes, each governed by the unstoppable tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
When Francesco was trying to make himself focus better, he found that he needed to start in small segments of time and work his way up to longer periods of focus. Using the kitchen timer, he landed on the best way he'd found of combining real focus with the chance to rest regularly.
Whether you have a couple of big tasks to do or lots of little pieces here and there, the Pomodoro Technique can help you get into the zone.
So what exactly is a Pomodoro and how do you use it to work best?
A bit about the Pomodoro
A Pomodoro is a unit of time, usually 25 minutes, for which you must focus on one or a couple of tasks that you have set yourself. The exact length of the pomodoro is up to you, but remember that you don't want it too short or too long, otherwise the benefit of the technique might be reduced. The recommended amount of time is 25 minutes but find what works best for you!
After each pomodoro of work, you take a short break, usually of about 5 minutes, in which you do something that is not work related. This means making a cup of tea, doing some jumping jacks, going outside for a breath of fresh air - anything that gives you a reason to think of something other than your work.
During each pomodoro, the goal is to focus and work without being interrupted by your own internal distractions - that's the deal you make with yourself when you're doing this. 25 minutes might seem like far too little time to get anything of value done, but it's really surprising how much you can get done in that time. It can make you really focus because you're very aware of time ticking away.
For every 4 whole pomodoros, you take a longer break of between 15 and 30 minutes depending on how long you feel you need to recover from the previous 4 pomodoros.
The combination of 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break works really well from most people but you can always experiment with the timings and change the lengths of your pomodoros or breaks to fit the way your work most productively.
The first thing you need to do to get started with the Pomodoro technique - apart from making sure you have a timer of some sort - is to write down all the things that you have to at some point in the near future.
This list will be your inventory; a master list of everything that you know you have to get done so that you don't forget anything. You can get a template of an inventory list from the Pomodoro Technique website.
In the middle column, you just list the work you need to do. On the left, you can write information that you need to remember such as due date or priority.
The right-hand column is to place an estimate of how many pomodoros you think it will take you to complete the task. This will help you when you come to putting together your to-do list for the day and it's also a very nifty ability to accurately predict how long a specific piece of work will take you.
To show your estimate of the number of pomodoros, you can do something like writing or typing in two empty brackets per pomodoro, like this: [ ] or ( ). This will give you the space to fill in the pomodoros you've completed, or see at a glance how many pomodoros you're estimating per task. If an item should only take you 5 or 10 minutes, you can add it to other tasks that together will make one pomodoro.
The best way to write down your tasks is to make them as concrete as possible. Rather than simply writing, for example, 'publish blog post', you could divide that big task into smaller ones like 'draft blog post', 'write blog post', 'edit blog post', and finally 'publish blog post'. You could break it into smaller segments if you want, doing the thinking before you even get to work on the tasks - anything that will help you procrastinate as little as possible.
You don't have to follow this template exactly of course. Any piece of paper or spreadsheet will work as long as you have a place to list your to-dos and somewhere to place your estimate of the number of pomodoros it will take you to complete.
Getting Things Done - The To-Do List
Now that you have your inventory, you need to whittle that list down to tasks you want to get done today. So at the beginning of each day, sort out what you need to do for the day and add it to your To-Do list (template here). This can mean looking through your inventory list to see what you should get done that day or noting down things that have come up in your inbox overnight.
You can use the predicted timings for each task on your inventory list to make sure that you aren't adding too many items to your to-do list and making yourself feel overwhelmed. Be sure to add those predictions to the right-hand column of your to-do list so that you can keep track of how long you're working.
If you have a lot of little things to get done, such an email reply here or a quick phone call there, you can combine those in to make one pomodoro like you did in your inventory. Even if they aren't combined in your inventory list, you can take a look at what you need to do that day and how these smaller pieces will fit in to your day when combined to make one or two pomodoros.
You can use your first pomodoro of the day to organize your to-do list and to do that, just set your timer to 25 minutes (or your chosen time) and start the countdown.
For every complete pomodoro you manage, you get to write a checkmark or cross in the right-hand column of your to-do list. If you go over the number of pomodoros, just mark the cross or checkmark next to your predictions.
The goal is to stay as focused as possible, avoiding all distractions. If you do get interrupted by a thought though, you can just write that thing down on your to-do list and get back to work. Add a small mark next to your current to-do, like an apostrophe, just to highlight that you were interrupted. This will help you to understand how you work when you look back on your day.
If you find that you're interrupted in a way that is more substantial than a fleeting thought, make sure to restart your pomodoro timer when you get back to the task. You shouldn't attempt to start back where you were because you won't become as accustomed to the timing of a whole pomodoro.
Continue through your day going down your to-do list and remembering to take your 5 minute breaks between pomodoros, and a longer break every 4 pomodoros. Use your to-do list as a way of marking down your interruptions, external or otherwise, so that you can better understand how long tasks take and how distracted you are during the day.
Here's a summary of some of the rules of a Pomodoro while working:
- One pomodoro is indivisible: there's no such thing as half or a third of a pomodoro. This means that you might have to combine several tasks into one pomodoro to make the most of the time, or you might have to divide your tasks into multiple pomodoros to get everything done.
- Once you've started a pomodoro, you have to finish it. Try not to get distracted or take a break early if you can avoid it.
- If you've been interrupted by something bigger than a fleeting thought, you must restart the pomodoro from the beginning. Remember, the pomodoro is indivisible.
- You have to stop when the timer rings, even if it's in the middle of a thought or sentence. This is a difficult one to achieve but it will help you build the discipline to take a break when you need it.
- If you've finished your task with time left in your pomodoro, you should review the task you've just completed to make sure everything was done properly before moving on to your break.
You can use the Pomodoro Technique as described above but you can also take it one step further to better understand your working habits by keeping a log or records sheet. This is where you collect all your data for the day in one place so that you can learn for the future.
The Pomodoro Technique website has a template for a records sheet here. You can see that it has fields for a lot more information about each task.
You can either fill this out as you go along or take the time at the end of the day to summarize all your tasks. Doing it in one go at the end of the day can be a real benefit because you can draw conclusions about your day when you see it as a whole.
If you plan on updating your records sheet at the end of the day, it can be helpful to mark the time you start each pomodoro on your to-do list, but it's not absolutely necessary.
The biggest advantages to keeping records like this come when you write down the 'type' of work that each task was: for example, 'writing', 'admin', 'customer support', etc. This 'metadata' can be a really powerfully way to analyze where your focus or estimations need some work, especially when combined with the column where you note the difference between the estimated and real number of pomodoros spent on each task.
Keeping a record sheet or log is also perfect for people who are trying to build a good end-of-work-day routine in which they get everything tied up for the day and look forward to the next day.
The advantage of the simple logging and notetaking within the Pomodoro Technique is that at the end of the day, you can learn an incredible amount about how you worked that day, and over time, you can build up a much more detailed knowledge of not only what distracts you or helps you focus, but how long a task should take you to complete in the first place. Good estimation can really help ease stress and lower the risk of procrastination because you'll know exactly how to fit things into your schedule.
The Pomodoro Technique can help you deal with distractions in two ways. The first is that if you do get distracted, you have a method for keeping track of those distractions so that you can focus on the task at hand without worrying that you'll forget an important to-do.
The second is that you don't have a huge amount of time to get the task at hand finished; 25 minutes can become a wonderfully long time once you're in the zone but you'll always know that a specific amount of time is ticking away and that it would be worth focusing as best you can.
The more you practise using this technique, the more you'll find yourself using it to help you focus. You'll also begin to find that time moves slightly differently than it did before and that 25 minutes suddenly becomes both long enough to get a remarkable amount of work done but short enough to make sure that you focus - really focus - on your work.
It's also brilliant because it's a good idea to take regular breaks throughout the day to move around and get away from the computer. This system has those breaks built in so you don't have to feel bad about taking stretching for 5 minutes or getting yourself yet another cup of tea or coffee. More breaks also mean more movement and more hydration!
You can really adapt and change this technique to suit your own work style! Just remember that the goal is to take frequent breaks and focus absolutely on something for a short burst so that you learn to minimise your own internal distractions. However you keep track of your to-dos or records - whether on paper or on a computer - it can really help you focus!
For more information and resources about The Pomodoro Technique, head over to The Pomodoro Technique website.
Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? Did you find it very helpful? I'd love to hear your experiences about this and other productivity techniques in the comments below or by email.
Photo: Luca Mascaro