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A Simple Strategy for Improving Your Life, 25 Minutes at a Time

The tool that I’m about to introduce you to isn't complicated. It’s going to sound pretty unexciting, but techniques don’t need to be complicated to work well. In fact, I’ve found that keeping it simple is often your best bet.

You don’t need intricate systems and fancy productivity apps to get things done. I often find that those are more of a distraction and a tool for procrastination than they are a tool for productivity. Your best bet is to start with the basics and only start using more complicated methods when you’re comfortable, confident, and consistent with the basics.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is about as basic as it gets. It’s a method for getting things done where you work for twenty-five minutes, followed by a short break. Those twenty-five minute chunks are called Pomodoros. After every fourth pom, you take a longer break. Typically the short breaks are five minutes, and the longer breaks are twenty to thirty minutes.

The technique was created by Francesco Cirillo and is named after those tomato-shaped kitchen timers that I doubt anyone uses anymore.

These days, there are plenty of apps and websites that will time your poms for you. I’ve been using this one, and I like it because it’s very simple, but lets you customize the lengths of your pomodoros and breaks.

There aren’t too many rules when it comes to the Pomodoro technique, and most of those that Cirillo laid out initially are broken often. The one rule that I’ve found most important to follow to make poms work is to stay focused on one task.

The aim of the Pomodoro method is to get you focused quickly and keep you focused for short stretches of time. If you’re jumping all over the place and trying to do seven different tasks in twenty-five minutes, none of your work will be as efficient or productive as it would be if you focused on only one task the whole time.

This isn’t to say that you can’t do several smaller but related items in one pom. Batching small tasks is efficient. You could unload the dishwasher, take out the trash, and fold your laundry all in one “cleaning” pom and still be focused on one thing: cleaning.

The Pomodoro technique has been my secret to success lately. I’m writing this blog post using pomodoros. They’re great for tasks that take a lot of mental energy and can’t be sustained for long periods of time, like studying and writing.

Why bother using the Pomodoro Technique?

It helps you get started

The Pomodoro Technique is a great way to start small. It’s like the big brother of the Five Minute Rule.

Knowing that you only have to work for twenty-five minutes is much less intimidating than starting something and feeling that you have to complete the whole thing at once. Twenty-five minutes of writing sounds much less scary than writing a whole ten-page paper, right?

It takes much less willpower to get started when the task in front of you seems manageable. Often it’s difficult to start because we want to avoid being uncomfortable. Marathon cleaning your entire house is quite a lot of discomfort—cleaning for only twenty-five minutes, not so much.

Poms also help you stick it out. Sometimes when I’m working, I’ll think, “ugh, I’m tired. I want my break now,” so I’ll check on my timer. The vast majority of the time, I have fewer than ten minutes left. Working for just a few more minutes seems easy enough, so I’ll stick it out for the rest of the pom instead of quitting early.

It’s great for tasks without a finish line

Life is full of open-ended tasks. Whether you’re trying to read more, learn a language, practice coding, or up your drawing skills, pomodoros can help.

When you first set a new goal or take a moment to evaluate your progress on a current one, consider setting the goal in terms of pomodoros. For instance, instead of, “I want to read more,” your goal could be, “I want to do five poms of reading per week.” (Although if you’re trying to read more, I wrote about that here.)

Setting a quantifiable goal using poms is more effective than setting a vague goal of doing something “more” or “less.”

As always, remember to start small. In an ideal world, one or more pomodoros per day might be achievable. Realistically, life happens. Things come up and plans change. Rather than setting a daily goal, consider setting a weekly pom goal. Just don’t save them all for Saturday night.

There are built in rewards!

One of the things that can make staying focused hard is figuring out when and how often to take breaks. Do you just take one when you get tired? When your focus momentarily lapses? Whenever you get distracted switching up your music and spend an hour making a new Spotify playlist?

The predetermined breaks take away the guesswork. If it’s break time, take a break. If it’s not, don’t.

In those breaks, treat yourself! Getting a snack or going for a short walk around the building is not only enjoyable, but it also gets the blood flowing so that you’re ready and energized for the next pom.

It breaks that pesky multitasking habit

In case no one has told you yet, trying to multitask is a terrible idea. Like, the human brain is pretty much incapable of it. You get more done in less time when you focus on one thing at a time. If you think you’re more efficient when you’re multitasking, you’re fooling yourself. You may be busier, but there’s a difference between “busy” and “productive.”

The whole aim of pomodoros is to focus on one thing for twenty-five minutes. During the next pom, you can move to a new task, but individual pomodoros should be focused on one task. This means no multitasking.

Rather than doing seventeen different things for five minutes each and not finishing any of them, pomodoros force you to do one thing at a time and actually finish what you’ve started.

How can I use the Pomodoro Technique to improve my life?

Use it when you’re struggling to get started

One of the reasons we procrastinate is because we’re avoiding the potential negative emotions and discomfort that come with whatever it is that we need to do. When we’re faced with only twenty-five minutes of work, it seems much less daunting than looking at the total number of hours that it may eventually take. Pomodoros take the pressure off.

Pomodoros are my go-to strategy when I’m avoiding getting started with a task. Writing is a major culprit here. Once I get going, I’m fine, but starting is always a bit of a struggle.

Sometimes, you may even find that once you’ve started you don’t want to stop and take breaks. This is fine! Run with that sense of flow and do as much work as you feel want to. Getting started is the hard part and most of the time, the work isn’t nearly as bad as we think it will be.

Be mindful of your break time

Those five minute breaks are enough time to take your mind off of your work for a moment, but they aren’t enough time to start something else. It’s a little too easy to get sucked into YouTube or Reddit, so I try to avoid those most of the time or at least go in with a plan.

Ideally, though, a book that you won’t get lost in, getting something to drink, or doing a bit of stretching (btw, how’s your posture right now?) are better ways to spend your break time than more aimless scrolling. Use your break time intentionally, and don’t lose track of time.

Make it work for you

I’ve heard from quite a few people that feel twenty-five minutes is too short to really focus. It’s fairly common to not feel focused until you’ve been working for twenty minutes already, and it doesn’t make sense to stop again five minutes later.

In this case, make your pomodoros longer. Maybe shoot for forty-five minutes instead of twenty-five. You could even change up the length of your poms based on what you’re working on. Some activities are easy to focus on for a hour or more at a time. Others aren’t. The rules aren’t set in stone. Play with them.

The tweak that I most often make to my pomodoros is taking consistent ten minute breaks every time, rather than three short breaks and then a long one. I’ve found that five minutes just isn’t long enough for me, but if I take a break that’s longer than twenty minutes, I’m likely to get really distracted and not get back to work for a few hours. Consistent ten minute breaks work best for me.

You can pom anything

It’s not my style, but there are plenty of people who pomodoro their entire day, from their morning routine, to their workout, to cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. I primarily use pomodoros when I’m writing and cleaning, but you could break your entire day into twenty-five minute chunks if that’s what suits you.

They go well with calendar blocking

Calendar blocking is great for figuring out when you’re going to get things done, but pomodoros might be how you get them done.

For example, maybe you set aside three hours on Thursday afternoon to study. Staying focused on studying for three hours is difficult. You could break that time up into five or six pomodoros, which would give you enough break time to keep your mind fresh, but set limits so that you don’t end up spending two of your three hours “taking a break.”

Set daily pom goals

If your schedule is flexible, or you don’t like the rigidity of calendar blocking, pomodoros are a great way to plan out your work for the day without getting too wrapped up in the scheduling process.

Each evening, or each morning during your morning routine, take five minutes to figure out what needs to be done. I like to make a series of labeled checkboxes for the pomodoros I need to do, so I can check them off when I finish.

If you make a list that says something like "3 poms of writing, 1 of reading, 1 of checking emails, 1 of cleaning," etc., then you have a plan for the day but have the freedom to do these things whenever it suits you.

Just a word of wisdom on this last bit though: it’s not great for procrastinators. It’s very easy to set out a list of X poms to do today and find yourself with X poms still left to do when it’s time to go to bed. Have a rough idea of how long your poms will take and when you need to get started in order to finish at a reasonable hour.

As with any other advice I give, play with it. Take the time to explore the Pomodoro method and figure out what works best for you. What works for one person may not work for the next.

It may take a few days of experimenting to figure out how to make your poms work best for you. Maybe you thrive when you plan out exact times to complete your poms, or maybe find that a different length allows you to focus better, or that a physical timer is the only way you can do this without getting distracted by your phone.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up and do what works for you. The Pomodoro Technique is just a starting point.

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