The Pomodoro Technique: Improve Your Focus One Pomodoro at a Time

The Pomodoro Technique

Beat procrastination and improve your focus one pomodoro at a time

The secret to effective time management is...thinking in tomatoes rather than hours? It may seem silly at first, but millions of people swear by the life-changing power to the Pomodoro Technique. (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato. 🍅)

This popular time management method asks you to alternate pomodoros – focused work sessions – with frequent short breaks to promote sustained concentration and stave off mental fatigue.

Try the Pomodoro Technique if you...

  • Find little distractions often derail the whole workday

  • Consistently work past the point of optimal productivity

  • Have lots of open-ended work that could take unlimited amounts of time (e.g., studying for an exam, research for a blog post, etc.)

  • Are overly optimistic when it comes to how much you can get done in a day (aren't we all 🙃)

  • Enjoy gamified goal-setting

  • Really like tomatoes

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What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late 1980s by then university student Francesco Cirillo. Cirillo was struggling to focus on his studies and complete assignments. Feeling overwhelmed, he asked himself to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time. Encouraged by the challenge, he found a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) shaped kitchen timer, and the Pomodoro technique was born.

Though Cirillo went on to write a 130-page book about the method,  its biggest strength is its simplicity:

  1. Get a to-do list and a timer.

  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings.

  3. When your session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed.

  4. Then enjoy a five-minute break.

  5. After four pomodoros, take a longer, more restorative 15-30 minute break.

The 25-minute work sprints are the core of the method, but a Pomodoro practice also includes three rules for getting the most out of each interval:

  1. Break down complex projects. If a task requires more than four pomodoros, it needs to be divided into smaller, actionable steps. Sticking to this rule will help ensure you make clear progress on your projects.

  2. Small tasks go together. Any tasks that will take less than one Pomodoro should be combined with other simple tasks. For example, "write rent check," "set vet appointment," and "read Pomodoro article" could go together in one session.

  3. Once a pomodoro is set, it must ring. The pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time and can not be broken, especially not to check incoming emails, team chats, or text messages. Any ideas, tasks, or requests that come up should be taken note of to come back to later. A digital task manager like Todoist is a great place for these, but pen and paper will do too.

In the event of an unavoidable disruption, take your five-minute break and start again. Cirillo recommends that you track interruptions (internal or external) as they occur and reflect on how to avoid them in your next session.

The rule applies even if you do finish your given task before the timer goes off. Use the rest of your time for overlearning, or improving skills or scope of knowledge. For example, you could spend the extra time reading up on professional journals or researching networking opportunities.

Todoist Tip

Keep an "Overlearning" project in Todoist with a list of tasks you can quickly choose from the next time you find yourself with pomodoro time to spare.

If the system seems simple, that’s because it is. The Pomodoro technique is all about getting your mind in the zone to finish your tasks.

What makes pomodoro so effective?

The arbitrary silliness of using a tomato as a stand-in for units of time belies the Pomodoro Technique's serious effectiveness when it comes to helping people get things done. Here's what makes the method uniquely suited to boosting productivity:

Making it easy to just get started

Research has shown the procrastination has little to do laziness or lack of self-control. Rather, we put things off avoid negative feelings. It's uncomfortable to stare down a big task or project - one you may not be sure how to even do or one involves a lot of uncertainty. So we turn to Twitter or Netflix instead to boost our mood, if only temporarily.

Luckily, studies have also shown an effective way to break out of the avoidance cycle: shrink whatever it is you're putting off down to a tiny, unintimidating first step. For example, instead of sitting down to write novel, sit down to write for 5 minutes. Still too hard? Try just sitting down to edit a paragraph. Doing something small for a short period of time is a whole lot easier to face than trying to take on a big project all at once.

That procrastination-busting strategy is exactly what the pomodoro technique asks you to do: break down your big tasks, projects, or goals into something you only have to do for the next 25 minutes. It keeps you hyper focused on the one next thing you need to do rather than get overwhelmed by the enormity of what you're taking on. Don't worry about the outcome – just take it one pomodoro at a time.

Combating distractions

If you’ve ever been interrupted when you were in a flow state, you know how difficult regaining focus can be. Yet, the constant stream of information pouring in via emails, team chats, and social media notifications demands more and more of our attention.

While it would be nice to blame technology for everything, recent studies suggest over half of all workday distractions are self-inflicted — meaning we pull ourselves out of focus. In the moment, it can be easy to justify these internal pulls — “This email is too important to wait,” or “It took less than a minute to check my Twitter; it isn’t a real distraction.”

But those small interruptions add up! It isn’t just the time you lose on distractions, it also takes time and energy to refocus your attention. After switching gears, our minds can linger over the previous task for upwards of 20 minutes until regaining full concentration. Indulging the impulse to check Facebook "just for a minute" can turn into 20 minutes of trying to get back on task.

The Pomodoro Technique helps you resist all of those self-interruptions and re-train your brains to focus. Each pomodoro is dedicated to one task and each break is a chance to reset and bring your attention back to what you should be working on.

Becoming more aware of where your time goes

When planning out our future projects, most of us fall victim to the planning fallacy — our tendency to vastly underestimate the time needed to complete future tasks, even when we know similar tasks have taken longer in the past. Your present self imagines your future self operating under entirely different circumstances and time restraints.

The Pomodoro technique can be a valuable weapon against the planning fallacy. When you start working in short, timed sessions, time is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete event. It becomes a pomodoro — a unit of both time and effort. Distinct from the idea of 25 minutes of general "work," the pomodoro is an event that measures focus on a single task (or several simple tasks).

The concept of time changes from a negative — something that has been lost — to a positive representation of events accomplished. Cirillo calls this "inverting time" because it changes the perception of time passing from an abstract source of anxiety to an exact measure of productivity. This leads to much more realistic time estimates.

Writer Ben Dolnick describes how his perception of time changed while using the method:

"Five minutes on the internet, as measured by my timer, would pass in what seemed to me about 35 seconds. A timed hour of research would seem to take between three and four hours. My timer was a crisp metal yardstick laid down in the fog of my temporal intuitions.”

When you use the Pomodoro technique, you have a clear measurement of your finite time and your efforts, allowing you to reflect and plan your days more accurately and efficiently. With practice, you'll be able to accurately assess how many pomodoros a task will take and build more consistent work habits.

Gamifying your productivity

Every pomodoro provides an opportunity to improve upon the last. Cirillo argues that “concentration and consciousness lead to speed, one pomodoro at a time."

The Pomodoro technique is approachable because it is more about consistency than perfection. Each session is a fresh start to reevaluate your goals, challenge yourself to focus, and limit distractions. You can make the system work for you.

Motivate yourself to build on your success by setting a goal to add an extra pomodoro each day. Challenge yourself to finish a big task in a set number of pomodoros. Try setting a goal number of pomodoros for each day without breaking the chain. Thinking in tomatoes rather than hours is just more fun.

Quick tips for pomodoro-ing

While the 25/5 minute work/break intervals are the heart of the Pomodoro Technique, there are a few things you can do to make your pomodoros more effective:

Plan out your pomodoros in advance

Take 15 minutes at the beginning of your workday (or at the end if you're planning for the next day), to plan out your pomodoros. Take your to-do list for the day and note how many pomodoros each task will take. (Remember, tasks that will take more than 5 pomodoros should be broken down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Smaller tasks, like responding to emails, can be batched together in a single pomodoro.)

If you work an 8-hour workday, make sure your pomodoros for the day don't go over sixteen. If they do, postpone the least urgent/least important tasks for later in the week.

Dig deeper

Learn how to plan your day for optimal productivity.

Build overflow pomodoros into your day

While an 8-hour workday technically leaves room for sixteen pomodoros, it's best to build in a buffer of 2-4 "overflow" pomodoros, just in case. Use your overflow pomodoros for tasks that take longer than you planned or for unexpected tasks that come up during the day.

If you don't end up needing them, use the extra pomodoros for learning or lower priority tasks that always get pushed to the end of your to-do list. It's much less stressful to end the day with pomodoros to spare than to overschedule yourself and get behind.

How many pomodoros are in a day?

Over time, you'll get a better sense of how many high-quality pomodoros you're actually capable of completing in a day. It's ok if it's not a full sixteen. The vast majority of people aren't actually productive for the full 8 hours of a workday, and those who think they are probably haven't been paying close enough attention. When it comes to pomodoros, challenge yourself, but keep the focus on quality over quantity.

Experiment with the length of your pomodoros

For some types of work that require extended periods in a creative "flow" state – thinking coding, writing, composing, etc – 25 minutes may be too short. Try extended work sessions with longer breaks. A DeskTime study found that a 52-minute focus and 17-minute break is the perfect balance. Others prefer 90 full minutes with a 20-30-minute break, based on Ultradian rhythms.

For tasks that you've been putting off for one reason or another, 25 minutes might be too long. If you're feeling a lot of mental resistance, or you just can't get yourself to stay focused for 25 minutes, try a 15-, 10-, or even 5-minute pomodoro.

For most people most of the time, the sweet spot will be in the 25-50 minute range for peak concentration with a 5-15 minute break. Try mixing your intervals based on your available energy, the type of work, and how much a task makes you want to bury your head in cute puppy videos on YouTube instead.

Get away from screens during breaks

Not all breaks are created equal. If your pomodoro work sessions happen on your computer, don't just switch over to Twitter or Instagram when the timer goes off. Give your eyes and brain a break from screens – that means your phone too! Stand up, move around, stretch, go outside, do a mini meditation, grab a snack, watch birds out the window. If you work from home, fold some clothes or clear off the kitchen table.

Whatever you do, your break will be much more mentally refreshing if you get away from the glowing hypnosis of your computer or phone.

Use an app to enforce your pomodoros

Humans are fallible. No matter how motivated you are at the start of the day, it's really hard to actually stick to your pomodoros. Hold yourself accountable with a break reminder app.

The best ones let you customize how long your work sessions are, how obtrusive you want your reminders to be, and how strictly you want your breaks enforced. Some will lock you out of your computer for the duration of your breaks.

We recommend Big Stretch for Windows and BreakTime for Mac.

How to pomodoro with Todoist

So you're convinced the Pomodoro Technique is the greatest thing since sliced bread. Now it's time to put the method into action. Here's how to plan your pomodoros with Todoist:

Plan

At the start of each day (or the night before), review all your active projects and one-off tasks and schedule everything you want to accomplish for "Today".

Estimate how many pomodoros each task will take. Add tomato emojis to the end of the task name to indicate your pomodoro estimate.

Plan out your pomodoros in the Today view.

Todoist Tip

Hold down the Alt/Option key while clicking on a task to quickly edit the task name without opening the full task view.

Break anything bigger than four pomodoros down into smaller sub-tasks. For example, a project titled "redesign website" might need a more pomodoro-sized sub-task like "find 5 example websites as inspiration."

Break any tasks over four pomodoros into smaller sub-tasks.

Now when you open your Today view, you'll see your scheduled tasks along with how many pomodoros each will take. Drag and drop your tasks to reflect the order you'll work on them.

If you have more than 12-14 pomodoros (remember that buffer!), postpone some of your tasks to the next day or later in the week. If you have 10 tasks you want to do in a day, you may find it helpful to only schedule half of the list and to assign an "@on_deck" label to indicate the tasks you'll get to if you have time.

Todoist Tip

You may want to add tasks you do every day – or even multiple times a day – as recurring tasks. For example, you might have a task called "Get to inbox zero" scheduled for "every weekday". Here's how to add recurring due dates in Todoist.

Add tasks you do every day as recurring tasks so you can incorporate them into your pomodoros.

Work

You'll start your day with a clear plan of what you'll work on during each pomodoro. You can use the timer on your phone, a physical Pomodoro timer, or any of the many digital alternatives like Pomodone which integrates with Todoist.

Once your timer starts, it must go off! Keep focused by adding any ideas or requests that come in as new tasks in your Todoist Inbox. When your timer runs out, you can review the list, schedule urgent tasks for a later pomodoro, and file away less urgent things for another day.

Dig deeper

Learn 11 fast ways to add tasks to Todoist so you can get back to your pomodoro.

Repeat

Build your concentration muscle by making your pomodoro planning a daily routine. Add a task in Todoist for the same time each morning to remind yourself to plan out your pomodoros. Challenge yourself to hit a certain number of pomodoros each day, and take time at the end to reflect on what went well and how you could improve your focus in the future.

Laura Scroggs

Laura spends her Pomodoro breaks holding her dog like a baby and making (another) French press.

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