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Could the Pomodoro technique make you more productive?

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The Pomodoro method for increased productivity was first popularized in the early ’90s by the book “The Pomodoro Technique” by Italian entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo.

The simple time-management method, which Cirillo developed when he was a university student, has become one of the most practiced productivity hacks of the past few decades due to its simplicity and effectiveness.

A few years ago, it was named the most popular productivity method by Lifehacker.

I decided to see what all the hype was about and spent last week attempting to follow it.

After reading through Cirillo’s manual, I stripped the technique down to its most basic form:

  • Each “pomodoro” is an interval of work. It’s broken down into two segments: 25-minutes of pure work, followed by a five-minute break.
  • After setting a timer for 25 minutes, dedicate yourself to intense, distraction-free work. This means no checking your phone, answering email, or opening a new tab in your web browser. Avoid anything that would interrupt the task at hand.
  • Once the 25 minutes is up, stop working immediately and take a three- to five-minute break to disconnect from your work. Cirillo recommends stretching, getting a drink of water, doing a brief organizational chore, or anything else that does not require much mental effort.
  • After four pomodoros, take a longer 15- to 30-minute break.

The manual is extensive and provides several more guidelines, but those are the core principles.

I opted out of purchasing the tomato timer and chose to use the clock on my computer. I chose to take 15-minute breaks after four pomodoros and defined “deep, distraction-free work” as no email, no Slack instant messaging, and no phone.

I also limited my pomodoros to the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., and contrary to Cirillo’s advice to engage in 30-minute pomodoros, I tried 60-minute time intervals on Thursday and Friday.

After a week of pomodoros, here’s what I loved about the technique:

  • It allowed me to understand exactly where my time was going and how long certain tasks took to complete, which was eye-opening. Oftentimes, days will fly by and the amount of work that does not get done is surprising; the 25-minute chunks allowed me to evaluate the structure of my day and determine which tasks I needed to do quicker and which ones should be allotted more time.
  • It made me work much faster. Completing tasks before my time was up became a heated competition. To “win,” I had to finish the specific task I was working on within my 25-minute work interval. Particularly during the second half of the pomodoros, I found myself working significantly faster than I normally would. I had this constant pressure — time — breathing down my neck. It was stressful, but motivating.
  • I got a lot done during the five-minute breaks. Headed into the week, I thought the concept of the five-minute break was silly. What could I possibly do with five measly minutes? While I never felt like I needed those five minutes to step away from work and regroup (partly why I increased my pomodoros to 60 minutes on Thursday and Friday), I was able to use that time in a much more productive manner than expected. I ended up crossing off several items from my personal to-do list, such as scheduling appointments or responding to personal emails, cleaning my desk space, and giving my legs a much-needed break from my standing desk.
  • Free of distractions, I got much more done. It takes an average of 25 minutes to return to your task after being interrupted. The strict zero-distraction guideline of Cirillo’s method completely eliminated the danger of being side-tracked for 25 minutes. Setting email and Slack aside was not only liberating, but it kept me narrowly focused and significantly improved my efficiency.

I loved several aspects of the technique, but what I didn’t like about it was that I couldn’t sustain it for an entire workday, let alone a workweek. I failed miserably on two of Cirillo’s fundamental guidelines:

  • Technically, at the end of a 25-minute segment, “you’re not allowed to keep on working ‘just for a few more minutes,'” Cirillo emphasizes in the manual. This is where I struggled most. If I “lost” the race against the clock and hadn’t finished my task, I kept working. Or if I was completely in the zone and on a roll when time was up, I refused to break the creative surge. I did have many “pure” pomodoros, but I also had several others that Cirillo would have asked me to “void.”
  • The five-minute breaks are meant for you to completely disconnect from work. While many of my breaks did consist of non-mentally straining tasks — completing small personal to-do list items, tidying my desk, snacking, or taking an office lap — I dedicated several of my “breaks” to responding to work emails. Taking several breaks, no matter how short, is a difficult thing to establish as routine.

If I were to do my pomodoro week over, I would buy the tomato timer. It seemed trivial at the start of the week, but it would have helped with completing more “pure pomodoros.” I would be more inclined to halt work if I had a timer screaming at me, rather than a clock silently changing to a certain time.

The “ticking” sound of the timer as time passes serves a purpose; it allows us to “practice feeling time and stay focused,” Cirillo says. And the physical action of winding the tomato timer is significant: “It is a declaration of your determination to start working on the activity at hand.”

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Kathleen is an editorial intern at Business Insider, covering strategy and careers. 

Image: A Businesswoman is silhouetted as she makes her way under the Arche de la Defense. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.

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