I used to end almost every workday feeling frustrated, angry, and disappointed in myself.
I had some bad habits at the time. Namely, I was a champion procrastinator. I’d put off doing the things that were actually most important to do (since they took a lot more effort.)
Which meant completing my work led me to be at the office way later than I needed to be, while having made less meaningful progress than I could have.
Part my frustration was that there were so many things left undone on my to-do list.
But the real issue was that I knew deep down in my gut that I wasn’t showing up at my best. There was far too big of a gap between how I was capable of showing up to that work, and how I was actually showing up.
It’s not just that there were things left undone. It’s that I knew without a doubt that I could’ve accomplished more.
Enter again: Frustration, anger at myself, disappointment, etc.
Not a great feeling.
Fortunately, those days have passed. I can’t remember the last time I had a day that ended like that. Nowadays, even my “worst” days are as productive as my previous “best” days.
There’s a ton that’s changed in my life, and the way I approach work, from then until now.
This article goes deep on one of the most essential practices I’ve relied on over the years: The Pomodoro Technique.
The Pomodoro Technique: An Essential Practice for Work Productivity and Personal Satisfaction
The Pomodoro Technique. It’s a fancy name, but as you’ll see, the practice is simple. Whenever I recommend it to a client or a friend, their usual response is something like “That sounds too simple to make much of a difference…”
But almost without fail, after trying it out, those same skeptics are blown away by the impact it has on how they feel and perform at work.
People who use The Pomodoro Technique tend to:
1 – Do more of what matters. Which means they’re reaching their most important goals more quickly.
2 – Get more done in less time. Which means they have more time in life for everything outside of work.
3 – Sustain higher levels of performance over a longer period of time. Which means they’re feeling better while getting more done.
+ – A whole host of other good things. But we don’t need to belabor the point. 😄
In the rest of this article, I’m going to share with you:
1 – What the Pomodoro Technique is. And what it isn’t.
2 – Why the Pomodoro Technique Works. The 9 performance principles baked into this simple practice.
3 – How to use the Pomodoro Technique. A step-by-step walkthrough of the entire process.
4 – Tools to Get Started. My favorite Pomodoro app, plus a free tool.
5 – What Next. How to get started today.
What is The Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro Technique is a way of structuring your time that can help you feel more productive, effective, and energized each day.
It works by creating cycles of ON time and OFF time.
During the ON time, you bring your focus to a single task. You work. You write. You create. You plan. You do what’s most important in this moment.
During the OFF time, you recover. You step away from active thinking and refresh. You move your body. You meditate. You stretch. You hydrate. You breathe. You use the bathroom.
And then, the cycle repeats.
Typically, this works in blocks of 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. (But we’ll get to the step-by-step protocol in a bit.)
The Pomodoro Technique is NOT something you need to adhere to religiously. The exact timing of the technique isn’t what matters most. It’s the foundational principles of performance that underly the practice that give it its power.
It’s also not an end-all-be-all productivity solution. But if you use the practice, and internalize the principles that support it, you can apply those principles to work in a universal manner.
Fun aside: The Pomodoro Technique was created by Francisco Cirillo. While in university, he used a tomato-shaped timer for tracking his work. Hence the name pomodoro, which is the Italian word for “tomato”!
Why it Works: The 9 Performance Principles Behind The Pomodoro Technique
I wanted to understand why this practice was so beneficial in my life, so I could explain it better to my friends + clients, and help them experience the same gains in their life.
After digging into the mechanics of The Pomodoro Technique, I was shocked to discover that there are 9 different performance principles baked into this simple system.
Which means we can use this simple technique as a window into understanding some of the foundational principles that, when practiced, help us perform at our best each day.
The 9 Performance Principles of the Pomodoro Technique are:
1 – Prioritization. Choosing to do what’s important now, instead of doing whatever we happen to start on first.
2 – Action. Stopping spinning our wheels by conquering procrastination and moving forward.
3 – Presence. Living life one moment at a time, vs. paper-cutting our attention by multitasking.
4 – Urgency. Knowing that this moment matters. And using it well.
5 – Equanimity. Regaining our balance from life’s inevitable distractions. (As quickly as possible.)
6 – Recovery. Replenishing our energy stores long before we’ve burnt out, so we can stay sharp.
7 – Awareness. Knowing where our time goes, instead of ending the day like “dang, what did I even do?!”
8 – Understanding. Learning more about ourselves so we can create accurate plans and expectations for our days.
9 – Satisfaction. Celebrate what’s in our control—the act of making progress—versus getting tied up to the outcomes of your goal.
That’s the overview. Let’s unpack each of these principles a little bit more.
Principle 1: Prioritization (Focus on What’s Most Important)
“Do first things first, and second things not at all.”~ Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive
The first step of The Pomodoro Technique is picking your focus. You need to decide what you’ll focus on before setting your 25-minute timer.
This gives you more control in life by creating more intentional choice-points throughout the day. Every new Pomodoro Cycle is an opportunity to check-in and ask: “What’s important now?”
Principle 2: Action (Conquer Procrastination Once-and-for-all)
“When we procrastinate on our goals, we are basically putting off our lives.”~ Timothy Pychyl, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle
When we’ve clarified our most important thing to do, starting a timer is like firing the starting gun at the beginning of a race.
It says “GO!”
Like Mel Robbins’ 5 Second Rule, the start of the timer gets you into action. Which prevents the possibility of later regret caused by procrastination.
Principle 3: Presence (Do One Thing at a Time)
“Chase two rabbits, catch none.”~ Folk proverb
Multitasking is a myth. We can only do one thing at a time. And this moment is all we have.
We’re most effective when we do one thing at a time. And The Pomodoro Technique helps us do that. We clearly state our goal for the next cycle of time, then set the timer, and get to work on it.
Principle 4: Urgency (Stop Waffling Around and Go Deep)
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”~ Parkinson’s Law
The working period of a Pomodoro cycle only lasts for 25 minutes. And by restricting the time-block we’re working on something, it creates a sense of urgency.
When we know our time to act is limited, we feel more excited to make the most of it. (e.g. “I wonder what kind of progress I can make in the next 25 minutes?!”)
This encourages us to engage fully, instead of half-assedly taking action. We go deep and give the task at hand all we’ve got.
Principle 5: Equanimity (Recover Faster from Inevitable Distractions)
“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
It’s the nature of the mind to wander. Which means there’s no such thing as non-stop, uninterrupted focus.
Instead, the game is to notice our distractions (impulses, interruptions, and immersion) as they arise and come back to a place of focus. By setting a clear target at the beginning of a Pomodoro block, we make it easier to notice when we’re off-track. And we know where to return our attention to when it does wander.
It’s like setting an anchor in a mindfulness meditation practice. We know our minds will wander elsewhere. The practice is in noticing that wandering and coming back to the anchor.
In this way, The Pomodoro Technique gives us reps of equanimity practice and strengthens our focused attention. (During every cycle of our workday.)
Principle 6: Recovery (Rest Before You’re Tired to Maintain High Performance)
“Your heart pumps enough blood through your body every day to fill a railway tank car. It exerts enough energy every twenty-four hours to shovel twenty tons of coal onto a platform three feet high. It does this incredible amount of work for fifty, seventy, or maybe ninety years. How can it stand it? Dr. Walter B. Cannon, of the Harvard Medical School, explained it. He said ‘Most people have the idea that the heart is working all the time. As a matter of fact, there is a definite rest period after each contraction. When beating at a moderate rate of seventy pulses per minute, the heart is actually working only nine hours out of the twenty-four. In the aggregate its rest periods total a full fifteen hours per day.’”~ Dale Carnegie, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living
We live our lives surrounded by technology. It’s easy to lose sight of our true nature. We are animals. Our bodies and minds operate by the rules of nature, not those of machines.
Machines can run non-stop at a consistent level of performance.
But nature moves in ever-changing cycles, flows, and oscillations.
- Some cycles are big. Like the changing of seasons.
- Other cycles are medium-sized. Every night you sleep. Every weekend, you rest.
- Other cycles are small. During the course of your night of sleep, the body has REM cycles. Or like your heartbeat.
The Pomodoro Technique helps us align our work to these smaller cycles. We go on for 25 minutes, then we go off for 5 minutes. And every 3-6 cycles, we take a longer period of rest.
This matters because we don’t have a good internal warning-system for fatigue and mental performance. Long before we “hit a wall”, our performance has been suffering for a while.
So if we want to maintain peak levels of performance, we need to recover proactively.
Principle 7: Awareness (Know Where Your Time Goes)
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.“~ Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
Have you ever ended a busy day, only to reflect back and not really know where your time went?
I know that feeling all too well. But with The Pomodoro Technique, you make a note of where every cycle of 25 minutes of working was spent. At the end of the day, you have a clear line of sight to how much time you spent in focused work. And on what projects you spent that time.
Which leads to a visceral feeling of satisfaction. You sleep soundly each night knowing that you’ve rocked it.
Principle 8: Understanding (Know Thyself to Make Better Plans)
“Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a month. We overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade.”~ Matthew Kelly, The Long View
It’s far too easy to put way more things on your to-do list for the day than you have space to accomplish. Us humans aren’t great at estimating how long it takes to do things.
But with The Pomodoro Technique, you get better at this.
First, because you learn that there are only so many cycles you can fit into a workday.
And second, because you track how long it takes to complete tasks each day. So over time, you get a better sense of how long certain types of work take to complete.
Which leads to a sense of setting right-sized expectations for the day at hand. And in turn, avoiding the pain of making unrealistic promises to yourself and others about what will be completed by when.
Principle 9: Satisfaction (Celebrate What’s in Your Control)
“…the best way to motivate people, day in and day out, is by facilitating progress—even small wins.”~ Theresa Amabile, The Progress Principle
When we get too focused on the completion of a project, or the destination we’re trying to get to, we tend to feel frustrated that we aren’t there yet.
But when we focus on what’s in our control—taking action—and celebrate the micro-wins of the journey we’re taking to reach that destination, our progress and motivation skyrocket.
With The Pomodoro Technique, you have an opportunity to celebrate a micro-win after every completed cycle. Every block of working time, and recovery break, are micro-wins in and of themselves.
How to Use the Pomodoro Technique: A Step-by-Step Walkthrough
Here’s the step-by-step process for rocking this powerful practice:
1 – Clarify what your most-important-task is to focus on. Pause to reflect on what the most important task is for you to do next in your day. This will be your target for your next Pomodoro block.
2 – Set a timer for 25 minutes. This will be your ON time. During those 25 minutes, you’ll do one thing, and one thing only: take action towards your established target.
3 – Start your timer and get to work! For the duration of the timer, focus exclusively on that most important target. No checking email, or texts, or notifications. No side-conversations. No snack breaks. Just deep, uninterrupted work on that task.
4 – When distracted, return to your target. It’s inevitable that you will find yourself distracted at some point—whether Interrupted, acting on Impulse, or fully Immersed in something. When you notice that distraction, return your attention to the task at hand.
5 – When your 25-minute timer sounds, set a new timer for 5 minutes. This will be your OFF time. During those 5 minutes, your job is to do something that helps you rejuvenate your body and mind. Use the bathroom, get water, meditate, walk around the office, get some sun on your skin, do some push-ups, burpees, stretches, etc. (Whatever you do, don’t do something that adds enervating inputs to your mind, like checking email or social media.)
6 – When the OFF timer sounds, make a note of it. You’ve just completed one cycle! Make a tally, check-mark, or filled-in circle on your to-do list next to that task. (This way you can track how many cycles it takes to complete a given task.)
7 – Start the cycle over again. Confirm your focus area. Set the timer. And take action!
8 – After 4-5 cycles, take a longer break. ~10-15 minutes.
9 – Repeat this cycle as long as you’re “at work.” This can be for your job, while doing chores, completing home projects, reading, studying, etc.
Tools for Getting Started With the Pomodoro Technique
I use an app on my computer called Be Focused Pro to time and track my Pomodoro cycles each day. I love how it tracks my total cycles, has space to input the task I’m focusing on, and that it lives in the menu bar at the top of my computer.
I’ve also used a free website called Tomato Timer. That’s a great tool you can use to get started!
If you’re still feeling skeptical about giving The Pomodoro Technique a go, you aren’t alone! Most people I share this with have some sort inner barriers that threaten to prevent them from trying it out.
Let’s address those proactively so you can reap the benefits of this powerful practice.
“Isn’t that a lot of time to be taking breaks? I feel guilty.” This objection springs from the assumption that there’s a 1:1 relationship between the time you spend doing something and your progress on it. But that’s not the case. The quality of the energy and attention you bring to something influences your output. (And, how you feel in the process.) Taking proactive breaks keeps your saw sharp, so you can stay in your peak performance zone for longer.
“I dunno what do I do with that break time.” Here are some of my go-to options: movement (burpees, pushups, air squats, etc.), meditation, breathing exercises, getting water, going outside and getting sun on my face for a couple minutes, or using the bathroom. You might consider making a physical list (like a menu!) of rejuvenating breaks and keeping it at your desk.
“What if I don’t feel like taking a break?” Remember that feelings follow behavior. Take the break anyway. Even just to stand up and shake out a little bit. Your future self will thank you.
“What if I’m in the zone?” Sometimes, it is wise to keep hammering when you’re really in the groove. In this case, you might adjust your break to be shorter. Even 60 seconds of movement is better than blindly plowing ahead.
“This structure feels restrictive…” While we are restricting our spontaneity while at work, I’ve found The Pomodoro Technique to be freeing in the big-picture of my life. When we’re more effective, we can do more with less. Which gives us more freedom in the big picture. Structure in one area begets freedom in another.
“I feel anxious about not having enough time.” We all have times like this, where we feel stressed by a deadline we’re trying to reach. No matter the situation, we’re most effective when we focus on what’s in our control. Taking one step at a time. And letting the outcome happen as a byproduct.
“I keep getting interrupted.” Cool! That’s bound to happen. When it does, simply begin again. This isn’t about getting the practice perfect. It’s about setting the intention, and then working within the constraints that present themselves.
What Next? Put it Into Practice
Let’s not delay in moving from theory into practice. Only by testing it out will you know how it works for you.
So grab yourself a timer, set your intention, start the timer, make cycles of on and off time, make the most of your day, and then…do it again the next day. #ThatsLikeYou