I’ve got a confession to make: it took me quite a while to get around to finishing this blog post – even though I had it on my to-do list for almost two (!) weeks. In the past week alone, I’ve reprioritized a bunch of different work tasks. I’ve rejigged my calendar probably a dozen times. One day, I worked late to get something out the door. Apparently, I’m not the only one caught in this trap – most of us are now working longer days, while still managing to miss deadlines each week. Not fun.
And I’m going to level with you here: when it comes to finding distractions and unproductive pursuits, especially since switching to working from home full-time, I’m often my own worst enemy. When I’m having weeks like this, though, there’s one thing I can always fall back on to increase my productivity at work:
And that’s tomatoes.
(No, I’m not talking about eating tons of tomatoes, although snacks are probably my favorite distraction of all.)
I’m talking about the Pomodoro technique, one of the simplest yet most effective productivity methods of them all.
This guide will walk you through what the Pomodoro technique for time management is, why it’s so effective, and how you can use it to better manage your time, boost your productivity, and stay focused on what matters to you at work.
We’ll even throw in a real-life example to help you get started.
Give Pomodoro a try if, like me, you:
Remember, not every productivity technique is suited to every person. Whether you’re new to the Pomodoro technique or you’ve tried it out before to little avail and want to give it another shot, there are a few things you should know about it. Let’s start with the basics.
Pomodoro is one of those ubiquitous productivity techniques that’s been around since the late 80s (much like myself). So, long enough to have built a pretty avid following, and its own share of detractors.
The Pomodoro technique is a personal productivity method created by entrepreneur and developer Francesco Cirillo, where you divide your day into blocks of time (usually 25 minutes) and specifically assign set tasks to those blocks.
Cirillo devised the method as an economics student when he found himself struggling to focus on his studies and falling behind on assignments. He decided to commit to just working in shorter bursts of time – just 10 minutes to start with – and used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to hold himself accountable. (You guessed it, pomodoro is “tomato” in Italian).
Cirillo fleshed out this simple idea even further, and built an entire methodology around breaking work into a series of focus sessions. Today, Pomodoro is beloved by millions. Personally, I’ve found it can be easily applied to pretty much any type of work, but I especially like it for:
Each individual Pomodoro is a short, time-boxed period during which you’ll work to complete a set amount of work on a single task. Here’s our Pomodoro cheat sheet for reference:
Implementing the technique will involve some planning at the beginning of your work day – for example, you’ll probably want to batch smaller tasks like checking email and Slack together and do them in one go. Bigger projects, you’ll need to split out into smaller subtasks. Here are the fundamentals:
Step 1: Compile a list of the most pressing actions you need to get done during your work day. Sort each individual task by priority and split them into chunks of time (the classic number is 25 minutes).
Step 2: Shut off all distractions and set your timer.
Step 3: Concentrate on your task until you hear your timer go off. Step 4: Take a short break (around 5 minutes).
Step 5: Repeat four times, and take a longer break (anything from 15-30 minutes – whatever is most restorative for you personally!)
So far, pretty straightforward stuff. But there’s a reason why Cirillo wrote a 130-page book (which you can read for free) about the technique. Not to worry, though, we’ll give you the gist below.
Though the Pomodoro method is easy to get started with, Cirillo does offer some advice to make the system work better for you.
Any tasks that can be completed in less than 25 minutes should be grouped together with other, similar tasks that you might otherwise have gotten round to in a scattered manner. For example, “proofread blog post”, “set up content brainstorm session with team” and “pay freelancer invoice” could all be completed in a single Pomodoro.
At one point or another, we’ve all been there – trying to accomplish a task that’s so large, it feels overwhelming. You might not get quite as far as deconstructing big, daunting tasks into smaller items that can be completed in less than half an hour, but Cirillo advises aiming for four Pomodoros max per task, if possible. This way, you’ll have a clear way to progress on larger projects, even if your time is limited.
Let’s face it – the reality is we’re all constantly being bombarded by distractions at work. So start by jotting down the top triggers that tend to break your focus, whether it’s phone notifications, emails, chores or mindless social media scrolling. Now you know what they are, you can try to pre-empt these distractions – put your phone on silent, mute your Slack, set aside half an hour in the evening to tackle that overflowing pile of ironing (just me?)
The overcharging goal of Pomodoro is to help you concentrate your mental energy towards one specific task, without getting derailed by other items on your to-do list. Here’s a simple example of a working day broken down into Pomodoros to illustrate:
(1 pomodoro = 25-minute focus work + 5-minute break)
Pomodoro doesn't come with any complex implementation or challenging rules – really, all you need is a timer app. Even your phone stopwatch will do the trick. You work for a short session, stop for a quick break, and repeat. The method is super easy to implement, doesn’t call for any special training and doesn’t create more work for you. And remember, even diehard Pomodoro enthusiasts will inevitably lose some time during the day. Maybe a high-priority email landed in your inbox, or a call from a client you have to answer. While we do recommend snoozing your notification and turning on “Do Not Disturb” mode, if something does disrupt your Pomodoro session, all you need to do is take five minutes of downtime and start your focus session afresh.
Rather than spreading your focus and brain power across multiple tasks at a time, with Pomodoro, you’re dedicating all of your attention on one task. By dedicating specific blocks of time to certain work, you can focus on getting things done instead of losing time and energy to multitasking and context switching.
Instead of gearing yourself up to focus on work for several hours at a time, you now simply have to stay on track for 25 minutes. So just enough time to get some work done, but not long enough that you start losing focus. A task inherently feels more manageable if you only have to work on it in a single timed session. Plus, you can get your urge to procrastinate out of your system in that five minute break – that’s yours to do with what you will!
The Pomodoro technique is also a great way to counteract Parkinson’s Law – the theory that that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. The more time you feel you’ve got to complete a task, the more time it’s going to take you. By setting time limits on your work, Pomodoro helps avoid this.
By dividing up your workday into planned chunks of time, you’ll really get a sense of just how much work you can do within a certain timeframe. You’ll be able to look back at the end of each day or week and tabulate just how long certain tasks take you to complete. This can help you overcome the planning fallacy – where we tend to underestimate how long it actually takes to complete tasks.
The more you use the Pomodoro method, the more empirical data you’ll have to hand for accurately estimating how long certain tasks take for you to complete.
With Pomodoro, nothing is set in stone. While the 25-minute work/5-minute break pattern is what Cirillo personally recommends, you can absolutely tweak and adjust your Pomodoro intervals until they feel right for you. Remember, you won’t have the most perfectly predictive day the very first time you try the Pomodoro method. It might take a bit of trial and error to find the optimal duration that suits you, but give it some time and work out what feels right for you – for example, if you’re finding 25 minutes is just not enough time for you, you can always add ten minutes onto your work session length.
If you’re in a productive flow and your timer goes off, it’s up to you whether you want to take the time to decompress and there or continue working on the task at hand. You can simply start another Pomodoro and keep working away until it goes off, then take a longer, more restorative break once your time’s up. Do bear in mind that this doesn’t mean you should forgo your breaks on the regular – it’s not a great idea to sit crouched at your desk for hours at a time. Studies show that short breaks are crucial for keeping your attention span on track, so do take that little bit of time to step away from your laptop and recharge.
Pen, paper and timer. It doesn’t get more simple than the classic analog option, folks. You can use the timer on your phone, or go full Cirillo and grab your kitchen timer.
Pen, paper and timer, but make it digital. If, like me, you love that tiny hit of dopamine that comes from crossing a task off on paper, but also love the flexibility of a digital tool, you can level up to a digital to-do list maker like Todoist that can integrate with a Pomodoro timer app (we like PomoDone).
With Tasks (available as an add-on to your Timely subscriptions), you can plan your Pomodoros for the day ahead. Just head to your individual task list in your Hours page to get started. In the task description, you just add tomato emojis to the task name to easily visualize at a glance how many pomodoros you estimate it’ll take to complete:
Now, when you open your Timeline view, you’ll see your tasks for the day ahead, along with how many pomodoros each is likely to take. All that’s left is to set the desired time on your timer of choice, and get to work!
The landscape of productivity techniques can seem a bit overwhelming. Hey, I write about this stuff for a living and I still find it a chaotic place. Whether it’s getting things done, eating frogs or Kanban boards, there’s no shortage of strategies out there that claim to help you be productive and capable at work. And what works best for one type of person could be an absolute nightmare for another. So take it slow, try out one productivity method at a time, and stick with it long enough to see how it works for you.
This article is part of our series on popular productivity methods. Check out some of our other guides on the blog now you're done reading.