“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”
– Helmuth von Moltke
Our world is not one that fosters productivity. To some extent, I think we’re all aware of this – as evidenced by apps, supplements, and gurus guaranteeing they’ve developed the silver bullet for your lack of performance.
There is no magic solution, though. High performance is the product of developing a plan, executing on that plan while managing new developments, and then reflecting on the day’s activities and determining how you can do better tomorrow.
When it comes to the element of execution, the Pomodoro Method is my favorite strategy to introduce to my clients and community. It’s accessible due to its simplicity, but it’s that straightforward approach that makes it so effective.
In this article we’ll review the what, the how and the why of the Pomodoro Method, and I’ll offer some tips at the end on how you can get even more out of its implementation by stacking it with other strategies.
What Is the Pomodoro Method?
This productivity technique was developed by entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo in the 1990s. If your’e wondering where the funny name came from, he coined it for the tomato-shaped timer he used while designing the system. In the Pomodoro Method, you create 25 minute blocks of time – referred to as pomodoros – that you repeat with 5 minute breaks between.
1 Pomodoro = 25 minutes of productivity + 5-minute break
After 4 pomodoros you take a longer break to get fully refreshed, which is typically no more than 30 minutes in length.
Sounds easy enough, right? However, we all know the world isn’t going to just chill and let you work uninterrupted for repeated 25-minute blocks of time. So, how did Cirillo account for distractions?
First, pomodoros are not intended to be divisible. This means you can’t work on unplanned tasks (distractions) for 10 minutes in the middle of a pomodoro, only to hop back in for the last 5 scheduled minutes and call that block a success. If you have an interruption then that pomodoro is cancelled. You deal with the interruption and when possible you restart the whole system.
Second, Cirillo offers a personal strategy he devised to handle interruptions, “Inform – Negotiate – Call Back.” If someone attempts to get your attention in the middle of a pomodoro, then you 1) inform them you’re currently working on something, 2) negotiate a time when you can get back to them, and 3) call them back when you’re ready to dig into their needs.
The Power of the Pomodoro
There is no such thing as a multitasking superpower. We all know people who claim they can do it, and (even worse) know many who regularly try to do it. However, the research is crystal clear. Habitual multitaskers suffer from as much as a 40% decrease in productivity, actually task switch less effectively than single-taskers, and damage their brain’s ability to organize thoughts. Other research suggests that chronic multitasking even leads to negative physical changes in your brain.
If you’re reading this and slowly slipping into a spiral of dread over the damage you might’ve done to your brain from years of multitasking… That’s okay. Feel the dread for a minute or so, but just enough to remind yourself later to never do it again. Know that you can reverse the damage you’ve done and retrain your brain to become a highly effective single-tasker.
It’s going to take time, but that’s where the Pomodoro Method comes into play. It’s your workout plan to get back into mental shape.
How You Can Try the Pomodoro Method
Any technique for improving your execution – such as Pomodoro – requires preparation for success. Before beginning your first pomodoro you’ll need to have your master list of subjects ready. These can be projects that you’ve broken down into bite-sized stages, blocks of similarly-grouped tasks, lists of key priorities for the day, etc. Essentially, you’re creating the ammunition for each of your pomodoros for the day. Additionally, you’ll want to be sure to have identified the most important blocks for accomplishing that day, as you’ll want to target these earlier in the effort while your stamina is highest.
Once you have your plans in place, then you’ll begin your first pomodoro with the top most item. Rinse and repeat.
The greatest challenge you’ll face when beginning to utilize the Pomodoro Method will be anticipating how much time is required for each batch of tasks. Inevitably, when supporting clients in the effort I’ll find they most often wildly overestimate how much they can do in 25 minutes. That’s okay, by the way. As long as you’re taking notes on how your effort is going and you’re attempting to self-correct along the way, then your precision in planning will greatly increase over time.
There’s one critical note to keep in mind before you get started with this method… Do not attempt to design your whole day in pomodoro units. We all get blindsided by new developments and crises. I’ll typically coach my clients to start with 5-6 planned pomodoros, with the intention of knocking out 3 in the morning and the next 3 in the afternoon. This typically leaves them plenty of time to address unforeseen events throughout the day. After a few days of success, they’ll add 2 more pomodoros – one each for the morning and afternoon. Keep this rhythm up until you’ve identified that right number of pomodoros for your day.
Regardless, though, attempt to execute your pomodoros in bursts – one after the other – until you can get to 3-4 consecutive, then take your larger break.
Ways You Can “Stack” Pomodoro
This is a very important note, so please heed it. You can stack each of the methods below with the Pomodoro method, with powerful results. However, in the first few days you’re trying to implement it, just focus on getting the fundamentals of your pomodoros in place. Then you can slowly add one of these at a time.
Batch your emails. The greatest distraction you’ll face in terms of staying focused 25-minutes at a time is going to be your inbox. If you’ve already taken the advice of a coach or thought leader and corralled your email habit, awesome. For those of you whose heads still pop up like prairie dogs with each email notification, this note is for you. You will have to schedule email-focused pomodoros or you will not be able to use this productivity strategy. If it has to be every third pomodoro or such, fine, but do what’s needed to ensure you can have dedicated 25-minute blocks to get your important work done. And please turn off your inbox notifications.
Must-Should-Could. If you’ve read my previous blogs, then you already know this is one of my favorite planning strategies. Also, it fits like a puzzle piece with the Pomodoro Method. Once you’ve identified each of your musts, shoulds, and coulds then you simply adapt them into 25-minute blocks. You then set them into your calendar for the day and, voila, your day is triaged.
Reflect & Review. I’ve written multiple times about the power of reflection throughout the day. It can serve the purpose of a self-correcting check-in, a time for identifying opportunities, or a moment to adapt your plans to new information. When you’re wrapping up a sprint of 3-4 pomodoros, this is the perfect chance to check in with yourself and to reflect on the previous 1.5-2 hours. What went well? What did you accomplish? What should you immediately address when you come back from break? What should you do to adapt your plan for the day, so you can finish as effectively as possible?
When utilized correctly, the Pomodoro Method is an incredibly powerful strategy for maximizing your efforts in execution. It supports “chunking” (breaking large projects into manageable chunks) in a way that minimizes procrastination, promotes single-tasking, and forces you to take purposeful action.
Because the strategy is deceptively simple, it’s tempting to just grab a stopwatch and start “trying to focus” for 25 minutes at a time. However, there are steps you need to take to create meaningful change in your approach to the day, and therefore maximize your returns.
- Create pomodoros from the items you need to accomplish that day.
- Prioritize your pomodoros to ensure the most important ones get your attention.
- Attempt to work in “sprints” of 3-4 pomodoros at a time.
Most importantly, remember that however simple this method might seem, it’s going to take practice to get it right. Give yourself a few weeks – at least – to attempt to implement it before determining whether it’s improving your performance.