Pomodoros: What’s all the fuss about?

Recently I’ve been coming across a lot of discussion about a technique called ‘pomodoros’, which can be used to help you focus and to reduce procrastination. The idea is to set a timer for 25 minutes and work solidly until it goes off. Ideally you should use a kitchen timer because it gives you a nice reassuring ticking – the name ‘pomodoro’ is even taken from the Spanish word for tomato in reference to the common egg-timer shape.

Once your timer has beeped then you set it again for 5 minutes, during which you can do whatever you like. This break time is your opportunity for condensed procrastination and a short mental holiday. The idea is that knowing you have a break coming up is sufficient to keep you focusing on your work for an intense 25 minute period. The break then gives you a chance to refresh before the next work period. A work period and a break together form one pomodoro, lasting half an hour in total. After four pomodoros (i.e. 2 hours), you get a longer break of 15-20 minutes.

So much for the theory, does it work in practice? Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been giving pomodoros a bit of a go and I have some findings to report back.

A real benefit of pomodoros is their simplicity – once I’d got a timer sorted there really wasn’t anything else to do before I could get started. I don’t have a tomato shaped egg-timer, but I just used the clock app on my smart phone. You don’t get the nice ticking but otherwise it works just as well and you can save your timer programs, so I can start a new pomodoro with just single tap on the screen. What could be easier!

But do they actually work? Did I procrastinate less? Did I get more done?

To test these questions semi-scientifically, I opted to use the pomodoros for my weekly writing day. At the moment I’m writing my literature review and progress has been pretty slow. Every four or five weeks I’ll have a blinding session where I get a good 1000 words down in one day. But the majority of the time I’ll be lucky to do 500 words in a whole day and this is largely due to difficulties holding my focus and resisting procrastination. Knowing my usual writing day work rate, I decided to try pomodoros for two weekly writing days and see if there was any improvement.

Well the results were pretty spectacular – on both pomodoro days I wrote more than 1800 words. That’s over three times my normal 500 words and nearly double my previous ‘good day’ level. You do need to have your writing well planned but if you essentially know what to write then the pomodoros really help to actually get words on the page. I was very surprised at how easy it was to do and I felt like I was putting much less effort into concentrating. Knowing I had a break coming definitely helped me focus and the 25 minute work period seemed about right. Any longer and I think I would start to get distracted!

I’m now experimenting with using pomodoros for other tasks. I find they work well for data entry, statistics, making graphs or figures, skim proof-reading etc . So anything that needs a reasonable amount of thought and focus but isn’t too high-intensity or heavily cogitative. They don’t seem to suit more detailed proof-reading/ editing and anything involving deep thinking, like data interpretation or planning difficult pieces of writing, like discussions. I don’t feel like the 25 minute periods are long enough for these tasks and I find that the breaks can disrupt my chain of thought.

Overall, I’d recommend pomodoros as an easy and surprisingly effective method to improve your productivity for the donkey work of academia. Anything you can do whilst listening along to the radio is something that pomodoros can help with. For something that requires more concentration or greater metal agility and you might be better looking at other techniques. Give them a go on your next writing day – you may surprise yourself with the amount of work you get done!


p.s. the featured image for this post is from Wikipeadia Commons.

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