Book Notes: “The Pomodoro Technique” by Francesco Cirillo | Focus & Productivity

The Pomodoro Technique was created by Francesco Cirillo, a professor at Berlin School of Economics and Law and owner of Cirillo Consulting, a firm that focuses on increasing business productivity. But that’s not how the Pomodoro Technique originally started. It was first conceived when Cirillo was just a panicked university student who waited until last minute to study for an exam and was having a hard time getting a handle on his anxiety to actually focus on studying. (Funny how a lot of us could say the same…except for the part about thinking up a solution that ends up being used by millions of people around the world years later. But you know, other than that, been there, done that). It was during that time he stumbled across what has now grown to be one of the most well-known time management strategies of…well, all time. (Ha.) Most productivity articles would be remiss if it did not cite this basic unit of productivity as one of its tips.

So What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a productivity strategy where you set a timer for 25 minutes and focus all your attention and energy on one task at the exclusion of all other things vying for your attention. So no distractions, no talking, no scrolling through social media, no texting for 25 minutes and no other tasks (i.e., no multi-tasking). Once the timer goes off, you set another one for a 5-minute break time.

You continue these 25-minute sprints with 5 minute breaks until you complete the task. After 4 sprints, you get a longer break of 15-30 minutes. If the task you’ve chosen takes more than 5 – 7 sprints, then the task may be a project instead and needs to be broken down further.

Why is called the Pomodoro Technique?

Francesco Cirillo conceived the Pomodoro Technique when he was a student in university, attempting to pass his sociology exam. He had 3 books left to study, not much time on his hands until his exam started and the following thoughts kept running through his head: “I’ll never make it. I can’t focus. I’m always getting distracted.” He was so panicked, he even considered postponing his exam.

But then he pushed his anxiety aside for a moment and decided to set himself the task of focusing for just 2 minutes. He grabbed a kitchen timer and wound it back. That timer was the shape of a tomato and in Italian, that translated to “pomodoro”, which is how the Pomodoro Technique ended up getting its name. Those 2 minutes was a struggle for young Francesco, but he ended up making it through. Right after that first successful Pomodoro rang, he felt a sense of calm. He knew now that he could do it.

“It was that sense of calmness and control I had regained that enabled me to pass the exam.”

Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (p. 12). Crown. Kindle Edition.

Since then, he’s developed the technique and having found ways to incorporate it into the work environment, made it available to millions across the world.

What is the Pomodoro Technique Used For?

It can be used for any kind of work, whether it be studying, a work project or a personal one. The Pomodoro Technique essentially encourages you to outline what needs to be done, break it down and consciously focus on each sub-task until you’ve completed your work. It implicitly teaches you to prioritize and concentrate, but still be flexible enough to switch gears if need be, which is ideal for a work environment when you may not always have full control over what comes and goes out of your docket.

According to Lara Scroggs in her article on the Pomodoro Technique for the todoist app, this technique is ideal for you if you:

  • are easily susceptible to internal and external interruptions (i.e., are frequently distracted)
  • consistently work past the point of optimal productivity
  • have open-ended work that could potentially take an infinite amount of time (e.g., studying for an exam, researching for a blog post, etc.)
  • are overly optimistic when it comes to how much you can get done in a day (or conversely, are pessimistic about how much you can get done in a day)
  • enjoy a gamified goal-setting experience

How the Pomodoro Technique Works

Characteristics & Rules of the Pomodoro Technique:

  1. 1 Pomodoro is equal to 30 minutes, which is comprised of 25 minutes of work + a 5 minute break.
  2. After every 4 Pomodoros, take a 15–30 minute break.
  3. Once started, a Pomodoro cannot be interrupted. It must be 25 minutes of pure work. If a Pomodoro is interrupted, even if it is close to ringing, it cannot be counted. If a Pomodoro begins, it has to ring. If a Pomodoro is interrupted, it is void.
  4. Once you’ve started a Pomodoro, you cannot switch tasks. You have to continue to work on the task you have chosen until the end of that Pomodoro. You cannot second guess yourself and change tasks. No matter how many other tasks are on your mind. Yes, it may be necessary to work on those tasks as well, but you cannot work on everything at once. What you can do is, in this moment in time, for this short span of time (i.e., 25 minutes), is work on the task you chose to start the Pomodoro with.
  5. A Pomodoro is indivisible. A Pomodoro can’t be split up. There is no such thing as a half Pomodoro or a quarter Pomodoro.
  6. If you complete an activity during a Pomodoro, go back and review your work until the Pomodoro rings.
  7. Track each successfully completed Pomodoro.
  8. If a task takes more than 5 to 7 Pomodoros, break it down
  9. If it takes less than one Pomodoro, batch similar tasks together until they make up the length of a Pomodoro.

Walkthrough: Steps for Completing One Pomodoro

  1. Create a list of tasks for the day
  2. Estimate the # of Pomodoros required to complete each task
  3. Choose a task to begin work on.
  4. Set timer for 25 minutes.
  5. Do not stop working until the timer rings.
  6. Once timer rings, count 1 Pomodoro towards the task. If you were interrupted or lost focus, use a dash to void Pomodoro.
  7. Take a 5 minute break. Do not think about your work, do something absolutely unrelated to it.
  8. After every 4 Pomodoros, take a longer 15–30 minute break.
  9. Keep working, Pomodoro after Pomodoro, until the task is complete.

“Don’t worry about the outcome, just take it one Pomodoro at a time.” — Lara Scroggs

Tracking Your Pomodoros

Why You Should Track Your Pomodoros

You Attain an Awareness of Time

Tracking helps you become aware of how you spend your time. You see what you worked on, how much you’ve accomplished and how often you got distracted/goofed off during the day. It can make you feel accomplished seeing how often you worked and on what. At the same time, it can help you identify areas for improvement.

Helps Facilitate Accuracy in Future Scheduling. 

Recording the number of Pomodoros it takes to complete a task allows you to schedule tasks more effectively in the future. It avoids feelings of overwhelm (where you schedule in more than you can handle) and helps you identify pockets of time where work can be done (opportunities you may have missed in the past).

For example, you might learn that a certain task realistically takes you 4 hours to complete, but in the past you had mistakenly pictured yourself completing it in half the time. You know now not to put that undue pressure on yourself and instead make the effort to clear off sufficient time in your schedule to accommodate the task.

How to Track Pomodoros

  1. Keep it as simple as possible. Don’t track every metric you can think of, only track one area of improvement at a time and have that one be the one you want to improve on.
  2. Automate recording. If tracking requires extensive effort and is a metric that you’ve decided needs to be tracked, then consider using an app that automatically tracks and analyzes your data. (The best app for the Pomodoro Technique that I’ve come across is Focus-To-Do, but a lot of people seem to love the Forest app.)
  3. Have no expectations about the outcome. Don’t have expectations about the how much you are going to get done. Don’t worry about how fast you will go through the work. You are required only to focus and place that one tick mark next to the task once you’ve completed the Pomodoro. You will not be tracking the progress of the task. Just that you’ve completed one Pomodoro of it.

Pomodoro Technique PDF Printable

Or you can go the paper and pen route and track your Pomodoros using the free printable below.

Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

Helps Calm Anxiety & Avoid Procrastination

Pomodoros force you to focus on one task at a time without having to worry about everything else (i.e., the larger project as a whole or the myriad of other things you have to do). No matter what you can work one task for a short period of time.

According to Cirillo, time  can be seen as either becoming  where it’s measured as minutes, hours, days and is infinite or it can be seen as a succession of events  where we wake up, shower, have breakfast, study/go to work, etc. The first way of thinking is what generates anxiety. Time runs us. We work to catch up. The second way of thinking represents a regular sequence of activities, a calm-inducing rhythm.

“Pleasure does not come from hurrying on nervously to the next objective but from consciously experiencing the current one.”

Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (p. 147). Crown. Kindle Edition.

The world runs on the becoming  aspect of time as we have deadlines to meet and appointments to keep. The Pomodoro technique works to alleviate the anxiety related to working within the becoming aspect of time by converting it into blocks of work or events. This conversion enables you to see time as event that has been accomplished rather than some ethereal concept that has been lost.

“The key objective is never to recover lost time but instead to be focused on taking the next step on your chosen path, which you often — consciously — change.”

Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (p. 139). Crown. Kindle Edition.

Is Flexible

To combat anxiety/overwhelm, you can use one Pomodoro at the start of the day to plan and determine the sequence of your tasks before you begin work. At times conflicting priorities may make it difficult to discern the correct order of tasks. In those cases, it then just becomes a matter of picking a task and getting started on it. If you choose the wrong task, the small investment of time (30 minutes) won’t set you too far back.

As well, you know that during the day, if another matter becomes more urgent, you can easily switch gears and dedicate time to that project because you’re now more aware of how you spend your time and you’ve made the effort to already have an outline of your day-to-day priorities.

Provides a System for Dealing With Interruptions

To handle interruptions during Pomodoros:

  1. Write down interruptions/distractions and set them aside so you can deal with them later once your Pomodoro is over.
  2. After your Pomodoro, look back on the list of interruptions and incorporate them into your list of tasks. If urgent, make room for it today. If not, schedule it for another day.
  3. If a Pomodoro has to be interrupted or stopped mid-way for an urgent task, the Pomodoro is voided and a new one must be created for the urgent task.
  4. Too many internal interruptions indicate a need for rest and free time.

Simplifies Complexities, Increases Motivation & Helps You Refocus Faster

Working with Pomodoros forces you to simplify complexities. In order to determine which task to work on, you need to create a list of pending tasks. Some of them may not even be tasks but instead projects. If a task takes longer than 5 to 7 Pomodoros (or 3.5 hours), you have to break it down. Then you are required to list out all the tasks associated with that project (so you can work on them with Pomodoros) and you are also required to consider the sequence of tasks so you know which to work on first.

This provides clarity.

And speed.

Once you’ve broken down the project into bite-sized tasks, you can tick things off faster. Your progress becomes apparent and you begin to build momentum. Your motivation to continue increases.

Simplifying complexities also help you to refocus faster once distracted because you’ve brought the task down to its most basic step which (hopefully) doesn’t demand as much brain power. This generates in less effort in bringing your attention back to the task at hand.

Breaks are Sacred: How Breaks Work in Pomodoros and What to Do (and Not to Do) During Them

  • You cannot continue working after a Pomodoro has finished, even if you can finish the task in the next 2 minutes if you keep going. Once a Pomodoro ends, you must take a break. This creates a sense of urgency to complete the task before the buzzer goes off.
  • Breaks consist of doing anything EXCEPT what you’re working on. You are required to step away and stop thinking about the work so that when you come back to it, you have a sense of detachment and can now see it from another perspective. This allows you to identify mistakes previously overlooked and think of new solutions to problems you might’ve been struggling with.

“Stopping [is] synonymous with strength, not weakness.”

Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (p. 142). Crown. Kindle Edition.
  • Longer breaks interrupt the rhythm of Pomodoros. According to Cirillo, the ideal maximum break time between Pomodoros should not exceed 5 minutes. But remember that after every 4 Pomodoros (2 hours), a longer break of 15–30 minutes is recommended.
  • Breaks allow you to sustain a good pace. You are able to recoup from the intense concentration sessions you were engaged in and start up again. You may still get tired, but you will be able to maintain a better pace that, after some experimentation in which you learn your own rhythm, allows you to work longer with greater focus.
  • Breaks give you the opportunity to determine whether or not to continue. You should seek to improve upon and increase your working sessions but don’t try to outdo yourself to the point of exhaustion or burn out. If you start feeling like you’re pushing too hard and are exhausted, then stop and take a break.

Other Uses for the Pomodoro Technique

  • Exploring. It is important to explore. You can set Pomodoros to explore things and topics. At the end of it, you can decide if you would like to continue exploring or create a working plan to get started.
  • Planning. You can use one Pomodoro technique at the beginning of your day to effectively plan out the rest of your day.

What You Should Not Use the Pomodoro Technique For

  • Fun. “The Pomodoro Technique shouldn’t be used for activities you do in your free time…use of the Pomodoro would make these activities scheduled and goal-oriented. That’s no longer free time. If you decide to read a book simply for pleasure, you shouldn’t use the Pomodoro Technique.” — Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (p. 139). Crown. Kindle Edition.

How I Use the Pomodoro Technique

Before I explain how I use it, I feel that I have to mention an important caveat to any system. Although you can modify a system to suit your needs (and many have done so with the Pomodoro), I feel that the technique might not be suited for everyone. This feels like common sense, but I figure it is still important to reiterate: if something does not work for you, there is no obligation to adopt it. Yes, try it out. Experiment. But if it’s not working, don’t hesitate to drop it. There is no one perfect strategy for everyone, so don’t worry about if one strategy is not working for you. Different strategies exist to enhance different work styles. If one isn’t helping you accomplish what you need to accomplish, then that strategy is simply not the right one for you. You don’t have to worry about trying to be the perfect candidate for it when what you really should be questioning is if it would be the right fit for you.

That seems to be the case for me. I prefer working in long stretches of time with a single focus, and the 25 minute blocks would only serve to distract me. On top of that, I don’t feel like you could do anything at all in the 5 minutes of break time. You can either pee or drink water, but not both. Unless you give up washing your hands. So it’s either you wet your pants, die of dehydration or—if you decided to forgo washing your hands—you’ve just done yourself in with COVID. And so, I prefer longer breaks and I also like thinking about my work while on those pee-wash-hands-and-drink-water breaks so I’m not coming too far out of my flow state. But apparently even thinking about your work during your breaks is against the Pomodoro rules so I say…what the fudge? Yes, that’s right. Fudge. That’s how real adults swear.

While although the Pomodoro Technique does not work for me in its entirety, it has been helpful with 2 things:

  1. Distraction-proofing a task by breaking it down. How does that work? Well, I’ve discovered the reason I can’t refocus quickly once interrupted is because I haven’t broken the task down into small enough blocks that is also simple enough to be easily picked up after an interruption. That might mean breaking the project down into segments where the tasks are similar or if each step or task is unique, then just having a running checklist (that you can easily modify on the go as you think up things, but also keeps you on track on the proper sequence of tasks). This way, if distracted, you can always flip back and see where you were and quickly get resituated.
  2. Increase comfort level on a task I do not like. Because I like to work in long stretches of uninterrupted time, I tend to get hyper-focused when I should be spreading my energies across other tasks. So I use the 30-minute timer to dedicate to tasks that I don’t necessarily want to do, but have to. For example, job hunting. And it’s a small enough time investment to where it’s not painful, but I’m making some headway. This allows repeated exposure to it until I am comfortable enough to work in my usual long stretches

Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? If so, do you use it to study, work on a work task or are you working with it on a personal project? Have you found success with it? If not, what were the drawbacks for you? Did you modify it to suit your needs? If so, how are you using it?


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