What is Pomodoro? The Ultimate Guide

Nobody has ever wished they were less productive. In fact, quite the opposite is true - people put a lot of work into figuring out how to make the most of their time. We attend seminars, read books, and tried various time management methods in hopes of improving our efficiency. Some techniques work better than others, but one of the most popular and effective time management system is the Pomodoro Technique.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time management developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, and it takes its name from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo just happened to have on hand when he invented this technique as a university student. The Pomodoro Technique can be broken down into six steps:

  1. Choose a task to work on.
  2. Set your timer to 25 minutes. This 25-minute interval is known as a ‘Pomodoro.’
  3. Start the timer and get to work, devoting 100% of your attention to the task at hand.
  4. When the timer rings, stop working and put a checkmark on a piece of paper.
  5. Take a short 5-minute break. If you have fewer than 4 checkmarks, indicating 4 completed pomodoros, return to step 2.
  6. If you have four checkmarks, take a longer break for 15 or 30 minutes. Then, reset your checkmark count to 0 and start over.

How Does the Pomodoro Technique Work?

The Pomodoro Technique can improve your workflow in several ways. It can:

  • Improve your focus - By setting an easily achievable goal - to focus and work hard on one task for just 25 minutes - you can give yourself permission to set your other thoughts and distractions aside for the duration of your pomodoro. You may find that when you set your mind to it, you can get more done in 25 minutes than you normally do in an hour.
  • Prevent harmful multitasking - A lot of people pride themselves on their ability to multitask. Unfortunately, though, multitasking just isn’t productive. The human brain can only do one task at once; when you “multitask” what you’re really doing is switching from one task to another. Everytime you do this, you have store in your brain everything you’re working on now, then remember everything you’re about to work on. Doing this several times an hour and be exhausting and decreases productivity by up to 40%. Worse, it can even lower your IQ and reduce brain density. So, start your tomato timer and focus on one task at a time!
  • Improve assimilation - “Cramming” isn’t a good way to study for an exam, and it isn’t a good way to work. Your brain needs time for new information to settle in and solidify. The short breaks in between pomodoros are great for helping you stay up to speed with your work instead of losing yourself in it.
  • Avoid burnout - Taking 5-minute breaks at the end of each Pomodoro can go a long way toward helping you stay fresh and energetic throughout your workday.

Why is the Pomodoro Interval 25 Minutes?

Francesco Cirillo used 25-minute sessions because it strikes a happy balance - if the session is too long, you’ll lose focus, but if it’s too short, you won’t really have time to get anything significant done. 25-minute sessions are great because they create a sense of urgency, but there’s still enough time to make some real progress.

Not everyone agrees that a 25-minute session is ideal. Some people find that after 25 minutes, the short break feels more like an interruption than a chance to refresh, and would prefer to keep working. For this reason, some Pomodoro users choose nonstandard pomodoro lengths. A schedule with 50-minute pomodoros and 10-minute breaks might not “count” in the strictest sense, but if it works for you, go for it!

Being Interrupted During Your Pomodoros

Speaking of strict guidelines, many users find the rules regarding unfinished or interrupted pomodoros to be challenging. Technically, if you are interrupted during a pomodoro, you have to start over. The reasoning behind this rule makes sense - if there were no consequences for getting distracted, users of the Pomodoro Technique won’t work as hard to avoid distractions and maintain focus. However, it can also be extremely frustrating when an interruption comes up that can’t be avoided.

Another way of dealing with these interruptions is to record the amount of time remaining in your Pomodoro and add it to the next one. Then, give yourself two checkmarks. You will just need to be extra careful to only do this if the interruption is truly unavoidable. If you find yourself taking unscheduled breaks and saving your pomodoro time for later, the technique will not be effective.

What to Do During Breaks

If you’re used to working in large chunks, you may have a hard time figuring out to do with your breaks initially. One key thing to remember is that you aren’t necessarily taking a break from being productive - you’re just taking a break from your designated task. Some things you can do during breaks are:

  • Stretch out your legs and back - Working long hours at a desk can wreak havoc on your back and tighten your hamstrings, and most workers don’t do enough to combat the negative effects of sedentary work. Make sure to stretch at least a little bit every day!
  • Work out - This one might be tough in an office, but if you work from home, you should take advantage of your break to do a few quick sets of pushups or squats. It’ll add up!
  • Have a quick snack - Make some tea or coffee, or have a quick bite to eat. Bananas are great for giving yourself an energy boost without spending too much time eating or preparing food.
  • Catch up on correspondence - We all have people in our lives that we’d like to keep in touch with better, but it can be hard to find the time. Well, now you have it! Spend a few minutes typing up an email, or send off a few texts or messages. Work is important, but so is maintaining your relationships.
  • Clean up - Clear junk files off of your desktop or organize your desk.
  • Learn a language - An app like Duolingo or Memrise breaks lessons down into small enough segments that you can easily make some progress during a 5-minute break.

How Many Hours Can You Focus in a Day?

If you’re someone who enjoys working (or enjoys the results of work) you may be thinking something along the lines of “Great! I’ll use the Pomodoro Technique to get more work done in less time. Then I’ll just continue to work 8-hour days and be insanely productive!” This sounds great, in theory, but is it realistic?

According to one very interesting study, the average knowledge worker is only productive for three hours out of an 8-hour work day. Unfortunately, this doesn’t just highlight the inefficiency of the 8-hour workday and the traditional office setting - it may also point to a concrete upper limit to an individual’s ability to focus. Multiple studies and sources suggest that no matter what you do, even the most productive individuals are only able to squeeze 6 productive hours out of an 8-hour day.

So, what should your goals be for a workday? 3-6 productive hours is a pretty significant range, after all. To make things more complicated, the amount of time you can reasonably expect to spend working depends somewhat on the type of work you’re doing, as different tasks require different amounts of mental energy.

Many writers suggest 2-3 hours of actual writing. Computer programmers seem to fizzle out after 4 solid hours. The list goes on, but the short answer is this: If you want to maximize your efficiency using the Pomodoro Technique, you’ll need to keep a log of your work habits for a few weeks to determine what works best for you. And remember, your goal should be sustainable efficiency. If you do 20 pomodoros in a day, you might get a lot done only to find that you are completely burnt out and ineffective the next day. If you struggle with that issue, you may want to set a maximum amount of time or number of pomodoros to avoid overworking yourself.

The Pomodoro Technique is not without its critics, but it has helped millions of people revolutionize their workflow and gain back hours of precious time each day would have been wasted on unproductive work. Hopefully, it can help you too. There’s no way to know until you try it out.