I’m talking about a time-management method called the Pomodoro Technique. First taught in the early 1990s, the technique was developed by an Italian named Francesco Cirillo. Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, and it refers to the kitchen timer shaped like a red, round tomato.
How can a kitchen timer help us to deal with interruptions and get more done? Here’s a quick introduction to how the Pomodoro Technique works.
The idea is to choose a single task, then work on your chosen activity for just 25 minutes. Set your ticking pomodoro timer, then sit down to write that report, pay those bills, file those papers, or whatever. After each 25-minute session, take a 5-minute break. After every 4 sessions, take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. Use your breaks to move away from your desk, stretch, get some water or a snack, or take a bio-break. (Move your body; reading email does not count as a break.)
One of the reasons we suffer so much from interruption is that in addition to those calls for help that come from family or co-workers, we are our own worst interrupters. Our minds are constantly checking in to see what we might be missing, what else is happening besides what we’re doing, and to check on the passage of minutes. These internal interruptions make it very hard to concentrate on one task even for a short time, much less to reach that easy, immersive flow state.
Why does it help to work with a timer? Setting a kitchen timer allows us to relax into a task. We know that we won’t lose track of time. The timer has got that job covered and will ring out when our time is up. And we are less likely to feel anxious about the size of a task when we know that we’re just going to take it in one 25-minute chunk at a time.
Why does it help to work with a ticking timer?
For years I worked with a silent digital timer. My kitchen timer was maddeningly loud. I found it hard to concentrate. But with no reassuring sound, it could also be hard to believe that the timer was really doing its job. I was sometimes tempted to “check up on the timer” to see how long I had left to work.
If the Pomodoro Technique sounds intriguing to you, you can download the originator’s e-book for free.
And if you’d like to take the Pomodoro Technique with you wherever you go, there are smart phone and notebook apps galore. My favorite is one by Navel Labs, which includes a space to note what you’re working on – an essential tool for those with attention deficits but helpful for those of us who are garden-variety distracted.
(August 13, 2012 update: though this app hasn’t changed its function, it is now called “Wind-up” and looks like an orange rather than a tomato. The developer’s blog explains that Francesco Cirillo’s organization requested that they kindly differentiate themselves from the Pomodoro Technique as it was causing confusion and creating problems for the owners of the Pomodoro Technique ™. Navel Labs respectfully and cheerfully complied. I still love this app and use it regularly. I just wish it still looked like a tomato.)
A softly ticking timer can provide a kind of white noise that helps to filter out distractions. People with attention deficits often find it easier to work with a bit of background noise and activity, which the timer can provide.
And there’s more – much more – to this simple technique. Applying all the features outlined in the e-book provides a way to improve our ability to estimate how long a task will take, overcome procrastination, and soothe anxiety about working on certain tasks. But you don’t have to use the whole program to receive the benefits.
If the only part you use is to work in timed 25-minute increments followed by a short break, you will establish a habit of working at a sustainable pace, without interruption.
One final reminder: choose your task before you start the timer. Focus is essential to the process.
Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? What was your experience? Leave a comment here.