productivity :: balance :: freelancing :: notebooking

You’ve likely heard of the Pomodoro Technique. Invented by Francesco Cirillo, it’s been floating around the nerdisphere for years. If it is unfamiliar to you, here’s the scoop on how to pomodoro:

  • Choose a task to do
  • Set a timer for 25 minutes (traditionally an analog, tomato-shaped timer)
  • Focus on the task until the timer buzzes
  • Take a 5 minute break
  • Repeat

Mr. Cirillo has a nice description on his site, if you want more details (though there aren’t that many more details).

It works pretty well, even though it’s simple to the point of obviousness. Sometimes you just need someone (or a tomato-shaped timer) to tell you to sit still and focus for 25 minutes!

I’ve been pomodoro-ing off and on for years. It’s a tool I pull out when I especially need to focus or have been procrastinating. It really does trick your brain effectively. How bad can 25 minutes be? (And then you start your second 25…)

Here are a few pomodoro observations, hacks and ideas I’ve gathered in my tomato travels:

Bigger tomatoes

I saw Ed Gandia give a talk a few years ago and he suggested that you re-adjust your pomodoro increments to be 50 minutes with a 20 minute break in between. He argued that you cannot get into a state of flow in 25 minutes — or you just barely get in and then the timer goes off. In my experience, this is pretty true, especially when you’re doing a creative task like writing, designing, or even coding. I’d give 50-minute sessions a try (though I do 10 minute breaks to keep the hours even). Even if you only manage two of them, you’ll get a heap done. If you manage four in a day, you’re a productivity superstar. (You may want one longer break in there — time for a walk or something refreshing — to keep you from getting too knotted up).

Focus at Will

This tip, is, again, inspired by the same Ed Gandia talk. He recommended trying a SaaS called Focus at Will. I did, indeed, try this app, and kept my subscription to it for a year. I may or may not re-up it sometime. Focus at Will is a music player with a timer well-suited to pomodoro sessions. The music, claim the FAW folks, is scientifically engineered to increase focus and productivity. That may well be. But as a bit of a music nerd, I have to admit I got a bit bored with it after a while (and isuper-irritated by the segues in the classical playlist). They don’t add new playlists very often, and there were only a few I could bare to begin with. That said, the few that I took to, I did use quite a bit. and it became quite pavlovian for me to hear that music and get to work. Hard and fast. Regardless of other scientific merits, the habit trigger of listening to FAW worked brilliantly.

Once my subscription expired, I decided to make some FAW-style playlists of my own, using Spotify. Sure, they’re not backed by research, but they do in a pinch. I used most instrumental post-rock music, and made each list as close to exactly 1 hour long as possible. This may not be the kind of music you like to focus to, but it works pretty well for me. I also like certain kinds of classical for this purpose. I know a lot of people like EDM for focusing (or some sub-genres of it that I don’t even know the names of, because I’m too old) — and I did like the EDMish playlists on FAW, though I haven’t made my own. Spotify does offer a bunch of premade ones in electronic genres — as I’m sure, do other playlist curation services. I’ll include links to my slightly random Spotify 1-hour focus playlists at the end of this post.

Sweating the small stuff

One of the situations that is most likely to cause me to procrastinate is having a big list of little to dos. These are all those kind of annoying things that pile up but they really need to be done. They each take somewhere between 2 and 15 minutes. Writing and responding to emails, finding files, looking up information, digital filing, making little tweaks to this and that, admin stuff… you know the kinds of tasks. The odds and ends. No way to get into a state of flow with that junk!

To convince myself to plough through, I make a game of it. Ok, I use the word game very loosely. It’s not really that fun, but we’ll just pretend it is. Equipped with a checklist with actual checkboxes and a pen, I set a short pomodoro of 20 or 25 minute and see if I can check off all the “little things” before the bell rings. I go as fast as I can and weirdly, but the end of the session, I’m often on such a roll that I put off my break while I finish the last few things. Maybe I’m gullible but this trick works pretty well for me!

And a bunch of quickie tips

  • Search your mobile app store for “pomodoro” and you’ll find lots of free and paid timers for your phone. Somewhat less awkward to carry around than a plastic tomato.
  • Pomodoros are perfect for house cleaning, especially if you’re a reluctant chore-doer like I can be. I do sessions of 20 minutes hardcore cleaning followed by 10 minute breaks to watch a video, drink a coffee or otherwise be sedentary. 20 minutes is pretty much ideal for a sink full of dishes, a basket of laundry, or, sigh, a dirty bathtub.
  • This one’s a bit obvious, but don’t forget to stretch during your breaks when you’re computing. I’m prone to forget as my right forearm, shoulder and trapezius will tell you.
  • I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m considering making phone-meeting pomodoros for certain people who tend to reiterate and go on and on when they get me on the horn. The tactful way to do it, of course, would be to say “I only have 20 minutes, then I will have to go” at the start of the conversation, but it is tempting to have the very loud tomato ring into the phone!

Do you pomodoro? Have any good tomato tips?


Also published on Medium.

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