On the Pomodoro Technique

How breaking up big undertakings into little chunks not only increases productivity, but eases anxiety. What was once daunting, becomes manageable.

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

The most valuable time management tool I use in my day-to-day life is a timer. I was first introduced to the importance of a timer while working on my own physical fitness. Instead of long durations, I found short bursts of high-intensity training not only saved time but offered better results. This is now conventional wisdom for all athletes, even endurance runners. This exact idea has also successfully been applied to work, learning, and productivity.

You Can't Maintain Focus or Intensity for Long

The Pomodoro is a technique traditionally used to break down work into increments of 25 minutes followed by a short break. Developed by Francesco Cirillo; it's named after the Italian word for "tomato" — as a university student Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer as a productivity aide. Just as with exercise, it's difficult to maintain hyper-focus and intensity. Something will give; either you burn out or get distracted. In the case of exercise, you'll injure yourself. In the case of work, you'll increase your anxiety and stress. What was once daunting, now becomes manageable.

Break Up Your Work Into Pomodoro Chunks

Typically after each round, you take a short break, anywhere from 3-5 minutes. You do this for 4 rounds, then you can take a longer break (15-30 minutes). Similar to the Tabata method for physical training where you break up short rounds of intensity with short breaks, then take a longer break after eight rounds. The reason both methods work is because frequent breaks give your body and mind a time to download all the work you have done without overload. You're basically tricking yourself into acquiring more information than you normally could.

It's Best if You Tweak the Pomodoro to Match Your Personality

I find 20 minute chunks work best for me. This was after some experimentation; now I break up my whole day into 20 minute increments. This works for me because you can't break up an hour into 25 minute chunks, and 30 minutes is just too inefficient. For people who I've taught this method to, they've either lengthened or shortened the chunks and breaks and modified the total number of rounds to fit their individual personalities.

Let Your Personality Dictate the Method

What I've learned from years of coaching martial arts is that the technique must match the personality of the user. It's not about the right technique, or even the right technique for their body type. The mind supersedes the body and so the key is finding the best technique for the type of mind that you have. 25 minutes may be traditional, but that may not be practical for some. Some may do better with 10 minute rounds and 5 minute breaks.

Productivity is all about practicality, and if it's not practical, people won't do it no matter how ideal something is when done right. Doing it is always more productive than not doing it at all. Some people abandon really useful techniques if they aren't given permission to break the rules. Just like with innovating new martial arts techniques, no permission is needed. Do it, and if it works for you it works for you. Find your own personal optimal effective dosage. Don't rely on boilerplate figures and cookie cutter numbers.

For Learning I Use a Combination Technique

When I'm learning something new, I use a longer chunk of time. If, for instance, I am working on a brand new martial art technique, I may spend 40 to 60 minutes playing around with it. I don't know the move well enough to practice it correctly with speed or intensity — it will turn into unproductive slop. I believe practice makes permanence and I don't want sloppy technique, or thinking, to be a part of my repertoire.

Modes of Learning: Diffuse and Focused

I call it a lab session, where I try to have fun, be loose and creative, and play around with the new move. In neuroscience, this is called diffuse mode thinking. Instead of pigeonholing this idea into things I already know, I open myself up to new ideas and allow myself to learn without agenda. Once I feel comfortable with the move, I shorten the chunk into 10 minutes, where I apply the move on my partner, trying to get as many repetitions as I can in 10 minutes. Then I have my partner do it to me for 10 minutes, and I learn from the opposite end, what my opponent's reactions will be. I learn the move inside and out.

This is a very focused mode of learning, where it's less about learning something new and more about owning it. It's difficult for me to maintain that quality of learning for more than 20 minutes, so a break to shoot the breeze and make jokes with my partner helps me renew my focus for the next round. We call this "drilling." Precise repetition for the purpose of "drilling" a move permanently into our long term memory.

When I learn a new move similar to this one, I will already have a permanent framework of knowledge to draw upon. It makes learning the next thing that much easier. It's amazing to find that the Pomodoro Technique is something many have naturally discovered on their own, through trial and error and self correction. In fact, this method of learning dates back to the 1800s, with the study of distributed practice by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus.

Break Up Any Extended Task

Whenever you have a task that seems insurmountable or too difficult, try breaking it up into chunks combined with breaks. I found this to be beneficial with reading dense material, especially nonfiction. You'll find many of the best TED Talks are around 20 minutes. Meditation teachers tell you 20 minutes is the ideal amount of time to meditate. Sports scientists say 20 minutes of intense cardiovascular activity is most effective to create change. Music teachers recommend learning complex pieces 20 minutes at a time. Even in writing these entries, I write in 20 minute spurts.

20 minutes is also the perfect length of time to break up your sitting habit. Countless studies have proven that no amount of exercise can undo the damage of prolonged sitting. According to science, the best way to undo the damage of sitting is to get up every 20 minutes. Be imaginative, the applications are endless.

Summary

No task will seem too big if you break it up into increments. Play around with the duration of the work and the length of the break. Have it match your personality. Apply this to the things you find most intimidating or on things you procrastinate. As a child, the only way I would clean was if I turned on the music, cleaned intensely, then took a karaoke dance break every 15 minutes. This was prior to ever hearing about Pomodoro or interval training. This is just what worked for me. We all naturally do it and we all know it works. Take full advantage of it; instead of allowing it to naturally occur, save yourself time by planning to do it. Do it with confidence knowing that it not only works for you but it works. Period.

Useful Companions to This Article:

  • A study on high-intensity interval training
  • A study on the Tabata method
  • Barbara Oakley on modes of learning
  • A study on the dangers of prolonged sitting
  • A study on combating the damages of prolonged sitting