I’ve tried a dozen techniques to try to boost my productivity, but out of all of them, the Pomodoro Technique has helped me the most. And in this post, I will tech you how you can use it increase your focus and massively boost your productivity as well.
If you are more of a visual learner, click on my YouTube video below that explains everything I’ve written in this blog post. If you like reading instead, continue ahead.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method founded by Francesco Cirilo in late 1980s. The basic idea is to break your work into small intervals of distraction-free focused time, typically around 25-30 minutes, followed by a short break of 5-10 minutes. Your goal is to stack as many of these intervals as you can in a day. Each interval is called a Pomodoro, which is Italian for Tomato, because Francesco apparently used a tomato-shaped timer when he was a university student.
This technique has three key advantages:
- Since you are paying attention to completing each interval instead of the entire work, it prevents you from feeling overwhelmed. For example, instead of getting burdened by the thought of having to write a 20-page essay, you would only think about the next 25-minute interval that you need to complete.
- Since each interval is only 25-30 minutes, it is easy to complete. And as you check more and more intervals, you get a sense of accomplishment that keeps you motivated.
- You practice deliberate and controlled context switching. A context switch generally is something that cause a big drop in productivity. But in this technique, you repeatedly switch between focused and relaxed states every 25-30 minutes, which trains your brain to switch on and off.
Now that you know the basics of the technique, here are a few simple rules that you have to strictly follow for this to work. It takes a little bit of effort in the beginning, but you will very quickly start seeing the benefits.
- Rule #1: Each interval has to be 25-30 minutes. Research has shown that this is the ideal interval length for our minds to stay fully focused — it is just long enough to get meaningful work done, but short enough that you do not lose focus.
- Rule #2: You have to use a timer every single time. Once your timer starts, there can be absolutely no distractions — no phone, no email, no conversations, no meetings — you will focus 100% on what you are doing. However, interruptions are sometimes inevitable. For example, in the middle of a timed session, you suddenly remember that you have to pay a bill, or you get some random idea. If that happens, instead of losing focus, you should quickly jot it down on paper, then continue your work. Once your timer ends, you can review what you jotted down and convert them to tasks if they are important. You will be surprised to find that more than 1/2 of what you jot down wont feel that urgent once your timer ends.
- Rule #3: Once you start, you HAVE to finish. If you finish your work before the timer ends, you can use the extra time to review your work, but you cannot end early or start getting distracted because your work is done. This is critical. The goal is to internalize this process and make it a habit so that eventually, you start working in focused intervals without even thinking about it. And for that to happen, it is very important that you keep the intervals consistent.
- Rule #4: Once your timer ends, you HAVE to take a break! This trains your brain to switch from focused to relaxed. Use this time to take a coffee break, a short walk to help with blood flow, or even a quick social media scan. Just make sure you stay on time with your break! Also, don’t start checking your emails or doing some other work during the break. That won’t let your mind relax.
- Rule #5: Once you have completed 4 intervals, you have to give yourself a longer break. This break is recommended to be 30-60 minutes in length. This helps your brain recover and reset so that it is ready to attack the next set of focused intervals.
And that’s it. It’s as simple as that. Structuring your work in short focused intervals like this helps you accurately estimate your work and get a lot more done. The problem most of us usually have is that we often over-estimate the work we can do because we tend to think
Oh, this task takes me around 4 hours and I have my entire day free, so I should have no issue in getting it done
The issue is that our day also includes emails, social media, lunch, distractions, meetings and lack of focus. But, the 4 hours we estimated for our task requires a SOLID 4 HOURS OF FOCUSED time. With this technique, instead of estimating our work in terms of time, we estimate it based on number of focused intervals it takes, since those are much more structured and we have a tighter control of them. So, instead of the task taking 4 hours, it would take you 8 focused intervals.
Research shows that an average employee wastes around 30 hours on unproductive meetings, causing an estimated one billion dollars each year wasted just on unproductive meetings. Merissa Meyer, the CEO of Yahoo has over 70 meetings a week, and she uses a variation of this technique to manage that: Timed intervals, strong focus with a strict agenda and a short break in between intervals.
This may be a lot of information, but to make it simple, let’s look at a full day out of my calendar to see how I apply this technique in my dat-to-day life.
At the end of each day, I always take a look at what I have next and so let’s say I have 3 things I want to finish today. You may have more things you want to do, but I follow a principle called the Rule of 3, where you pick my top 3 the highest priority goals to accomplish every day, and every week.
Anyway, so let’s my goals for today are to:
- Address feedback on 2 active code reviews; finish remaining logic and submit final CR – Work
- Grocery and prep – General
- Write Script for Pomodoro Video for YouTube
Now, instead of looking at these tasks as a whole, I break them down into # of focused time chunks that I need. To finish my work, I estimate around 7 PMs, 4 PMs for grocery and meal prep, 4 more for scripting this video, and I’ll give 2 more administrative work like emails, meetings and such.
That is a total of 17 focused intervals. From this point onwards, my goal for the day isn’t to get any of those tasks done, it is to cross out 17 Pomodoros, that is around 7 and a half hours of focused time. I start my timer and focus my first interval on emails. 25-minutes of focus time later, I cross out my first Pomodoro, and I take a coffee break. Then I am on to #2. Intervals 2 – 4, I use finish my code reviews. And in no time, I’ve finished 4, and my code review work is done. That’s when I take my longer break where I grab lunch. Remember we said that you have to take a longer break after 4 intervals. I also catch up on some social media during this time, and maybe watch some YouTube videos. After lunch, I attack 4 more intervals. These take care of all the work I had for the day, and it’s time again for the longer break. I use this to drive up to the grocery store. The next 4 intervals, I do finish grocery and do my meal prep. After this, it is again time for a break. This is where I walk with my dog. When I am back, I do 4 more intervals where I write this blog post, which also acts as the script for my YouTube video. Then it is time for a longer break again. This is where I’ll grab dinner. Then I have one last interval where I check emails, wrap up anything else that’s left, set goals for the next day, and I am done.
At this point, I’ve finished all my 17 focus intervals and got a lot of work done. I had breaks throughout the day so I never felt tired or lost focus, and I only really needed 7.5 hours of time to get all of the work done. And I still have another 3 hours before I go to bed that I can use for whatever I want to do.
I hope this gives you an example of how you can use the Pomodoro Technique to boost your productivity to the next level. It does take a little bit of getting used to, but after a few weeks, you will internalize the habit and automatically start working on short focused intervals. And as a result, you get much more done in much less time without ever feeling overwhelmed.