The Intrinsic Value of Stopping Work
One of the most frustrating realities of being an entrepreneur is having to find ways to maximize your productivity.
If you’re not productive, you’re not going to succeed.
That’s what every guide, blog, and interview with a successful business owner tells us. But the truth is, all of us struggle with distractions.
Whether it’s social media, our families, our pets, or simply a short attention span, maximizing productivity can be nearly impossible when you’re running a business and trying to live a healthy, fulfilled lifestyle.
There are plenty of articles with tips and tricks for staying productive. They suggest turning off notifications, exercising regularly, and canceling nonessential meetings. But do any of these actually work?
Enter The Pomodoro Technique.
Sometimes called The Pomodoro Method, this technique is a tried and true method for increasing productivity.
What is the Pomodoro Technique? And why is it named after a tomato? We’ll get to the tomato part in a bit.
Essentially, the Pomodoro Technique is the methodology of splitting larger tasks into smaller intervals of work. Through smaller work periods, the pomodoro technique is thought to increase focus and creativity.
It is a technique that takes all the tips that people have been repeating over the decades and puts them into a simple, actionable method of work.
But why pomodoro?
The Seeds of a Tomato
A student in the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo—now an Italian developer, entrepreneur, and author—became an expert on time management when he developed his own technique for maximizing productivity. He was frustrated that he couldn’t use the time he had productively, and wanted to prove to himself that he could focus on one task for a short amount of time. So, he set a timer for ten minutes and worked.
Eventually he noticed that these short intervals actually helped his productivity and efficiency. He started referring to the 25 minute intervals he now used as “pomodoros” because of his tomato shaped timer.
That’s right. The Pomodoro Technique was not named after the Italian word for tomato, but the shape of the kitchen timer Cirillo used to regulate his activities.
After 25 minutes of work, he would take a quick break of about 3-5 minutes, then set the timer for another 25 minutes. After four pomodoros, he would take a longer break of about 15 to 20 minutes. This not only kept him focused on the work in front of him, but it allowed him to divert his attention to something else every 25 minutes, inviting distraction for a short period of time.
Studies show that taking regular breaks in between short intervals of work actually makes it easier to be more productive, while trying to concentrate for long periods of time decreases your effectiveness.
Think of your mental power like a muscle. The longer you work it, the more exhausted it gets. But, when given breaks between workouts, your muscles have time to recuperate and can do more reps.
If you are anything like me, you were raised in a society that values a long day’s work and doesn’t pay for the breaks you take. That being said, you may have some guilt taking breaks when you’re getting so much stuff done, but that’s the point.
Without these breaks you won’t be as productive. Of course, you can keep going if you really want. The Pomodoro Technique is just a guideline, but if you’re struggling to get through those 25 minute intervals, the breaks are going to be crucial.
The Pomodoro Technique doesn’t just increase productivity in the short term. It actually trains your brain to be more efficient. How? Through repetition.
Many tasks you have to focus on will probably take more than just 25 minutes of intense work to finish. You’ll have to do several pomodoros each time, at least two or three. Each time you do a pomodoro, your brain gets used to the concentration, and it becomes more disciplined.
When it comes down to it, the Pomodoro Technique is all about discipline.
As with any activity, the more you practice, the better you get at it.
That’s also true for the Pomodoro Technique. The more you do it, the better your brain will get at concentrating, and the longer you’ll be able to go without breaks. While the standard time limit for a pomodoro is 25 minutes, many people extend that time to as much as 90 minutes, with a lengthy “brain break” after such a sprint.
Once you understand the rules, you can break them as you see fit in order to customize the technique to your needs.
Pomodoro Loving Entrepreneurs
We’re not the only ones who are proponents of the Pomodoro Technique. There are many entrepreneurs that live by this methodology and recommend it to others.
- Apple Guru Steven Sande wrote an article about the Pomodoro Technique and how it worked for him. Before discovering the Pomodoro technique, Steven had trouble figuring out how to organize his day. He would constantly jump around to different projects and never get a single thing completely done. After implementing the Pomodoro Technique, Steven became more productive and actually finished the tasks he was trying to complete.
- Paul Ignacio, art director at one of the biggest digital agencies in the Philippines, believes the Pomodoro Technique adds structure to his otherwise structureless routine. He also believes that it helps to handle distraction better. According to Ignacio, “At work, even if I know what I’d be working on for the day, something unexpected can always come up. Big or small, it will ruin your momentum. But the technique helps bring my priorities into focus and makes me more aware of the time I spend on a project.”
- Trello wrote a whole article about entrepreneur and motivational speaker Chris Winfield’s experience with the technique. After splitting his work week up into 40 pomodoros, Chris got more done in 17 hours than what he had previously gotten done in 60+ hours. He started small though, aiming to accomplish one pomodoro a day at first. He understood that the Pomodoro Technique took discipline and habitual behavior, so he trained himself up to 40 pomodoros.
- Sue Shellenbarger of The Wall Street Journal is another proponent of the technique. While trying out several methods to increase productivity, she happened upon the Pomodoro method. Though she had some qualms with the simplicity of the technique compared to other guides, she said: “it eased my anxiety over the passing of time and also made me more efficient; refreshed by breaks, for example, I halved the total time required to fact-check a column.”
Of course, there are critics of the technique. Try weighing the purported benefits of the technique against these counter-arguments, so you can make an informed decision on how to shape your working day.
- Colin T. Miller, an employee at Yahoo! believes that the method is a limiting, “all or nothing affair.” His beef is with the stipulation that, if a work interval is interrupted at any time, it does not constitute a full pomodoro. According to him, this rule keeps people from starting pomodoros if they might interfere with a scheduled activity, and actually leads to more wasted time.
- Mario Fusco also believes the Pomodoro Technique is “ridiculous.” He simply said: “Aren’t we really able to keep ourselves concentrated without a timer ticketing on our desk?…Have you ever seen a civil engineer using a timer to keep his concentration while working on his projects?…I think that, like any other serious professional, I can stay concentrated on what I am doing for hours…Bring back your timer to your kitchen and start working in a more professional and effective way.”
The Secret Recipe
We’ve spent the majority of the article talking about how the technique came into being and why you should use this technique, but we haven’t really talked about HOW to use the technique.
What’s the recipe to the delicious sauce these tomatoes make?
Before you reach optimal productivity, you have to master the five steps of the Pomodoro Technique.
1.Choose your Ingredient
The first step is to simply choose a task you want to complete. This is probably the most important step, because it will determine how you will spend your time and what you will be getting done. It would be easy to choose the task that will take the least amount of effort or time, but try not to do that. Choose the task that is of the highest priority, even if it will take several pomodoros to complete.
2. Measure Out Your Effort
The second step is to measure how many pomodoros it’s going to take to complete your task. This is an optional step, because you may not be one for estimations or planning ahead. (I laughed as I wrote that, because who are we kidding, we’re all Type A). If you are, plan your time accordingly, so you know just what you’re getting into.
3. Set Your Timer
Here’s where things stray a little bit from the cooking metaphor. You want to set your timer before you start cooking, and do your work along with the ticking of the clock. The average pomodoro is 25 minutes. However, if you want to begin with less time, that’s okay. Francesco Cirillo started with 10 minutes of productivity before extending it to 25. Go at your own pace.
If you don’t want to set a standard timer on your phone. You can buy the official timer on their website. But, we’ve also compiled a list of the top three pomodoro timers you can use on your computer.
In keeping with the tomato theme, this desktop timer allows you to use the pomodoro technique or create your own timer. It’s web-based, so you can keep it open in one of your tabs, and it features timed alerts, so you know when you can take a break.
Tomighty is a desktop timer that you can download onto windows or mac. Like the Marinara timer, you can use the traditional pomodoro timer, or customize it to fit your specific time constraints.
This is the app that our Managing Editor, Elisa, uses. She has been doing the pomodoro technique for years, so you might call her a pomodoro pro. Because many of her daily activities (editing, writing, reading, etc.) go way longer than 25 minutes of concentrated work, she uses this Chrome extension to customize not only the length of her sprints, but also how many she does. That way, she can plan to write for 3 hours, in either six 25-5 minute or three 45-15 minute, intervals.
4. Start Cooking
Once you start your Pomodoro timer, it’s time to get to work. As I said before, completing a pomodoro takes discipline. You can’t be swept up by any distractions, or you haven’t truly completed it. If there are distractions during your pomodoro, follow Cirillo’s “inform, negotiate, and call back” advice. Inform the distraction (which is most likely a person, though not necessarily) that you are working on something important, negotiate a time to come back to the distraction, and call the distraction back during a break, or when you are finished with your task.
5. Take a Break
All that cooking has got to tire you out, so use your break wisely. Get something to eat, go to the bathroom, check your email or social media. Invite in any distraction that may have tried to budge its way in during your pomodoro. Don’t take advantage of your freedom to do anything, though. Set another timer for three to five minutes, then sit back down and keep doing those pomodoros.
Every four pomodoros you do, you get to take a longer break. You can choose any length between 10 and 20 minutes. Try not to make it longer than that, or you’ll become too distracted to pick back up.
When you’re done with your task, put away that timer and enjoy your special plate of spaghetti. Figuratively and literally — spaghetti is awesome.
It will probably be hard at first. Focusing intensely for any amount of time can be daunting, especially if you are used to multitasking. But the truth is, multitasking isn’t as efficient. It’s actually holding you back from your true potential.
Your true potential lies in the Pomodoro Technique
It takes practice, but once you have it down, you’ll start seeing major changes in your ability to complete work. You will become more disciplined and more focused.
And soon enough, you’ll be the ultra productive entrepreneur you always hoped you’d be.
Great explanation of the Pomodoro process. Giving it another shot as I had a hard time sticking with it the first time I tried (months ago).
Glad to see you giving it another go, Ivo. 🙂
If you are still struggling this time, try it for even shorter times. 10-15 mins then a 5 min break…get used to that, then add 5 mins to work time. Same as a strength training routine, start where you are and add from there.
As noted in the article, I sit at the computer for hours on end in continuous pomodoros now. Definitely didn’t start that way!