Tomato timer in front of some out-of-focus papers
Photo by Luca Mascaro on Flickr

In the late 1980s, Italian University student Francesco Cirillo took a tomato kitchen timer and committed to spending just a short amount of time on his studies. Today, it has become the Pomodoro Technique (pomodoro being Italian for “tomato”) and is perhaps the most recognizable focusing method out there.

The trick is the simplicity of it. It goes as follows:

  1. Set a timer for 25 minutes and work, distraction-free. One 25-minute session is a “pomodoro”.

The goal for the Pomodoro Technique is to get someone in a state of “flow”. Most famously coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow is the state of complete engrossment in an activity. States of flow can be achieved when writing, making art, playing a video game, solving a puzzle, or playing a musical instrument. It’s an enjoyable and productive state to be in.

With a set time of focus, one essentially forces themselves into a state of flow. The set predictable time of each pomodoro session may also prevent the planning fallacy phenomenon, which dictates that time estimated to complete a task is grossly underestimated, whether or not past experiences prove otherwise. Instead of thinking just about the task, you think about the time frame in which you are committed to the task.

There is undoubtedly a reason why this technique has gained popularity over time. It’s simple, effective, and contributes to productivity. I’ve used the Pomodoro Technique myself.

In my experience, it serves more as a “starter” technique than a continuous, state-of-flow technique. When the five-minute break rolls around, I’m already engrossed in my activity and don’t want to step away. I may set the timer to 25 minutes, but then it’s out-of-site, out-of-mind. Hey, you can’t have distractions, right?

The timer for the Pomodoro Technique seems both effective and counter-effective to me. It’s great for taking tasks that may seem insurmountable, and therefore immeasurable, and breaks it down into manageable 25-minute sections that allow yourself to organize the task more. The “25-minute” standard also makes it less daunting to begin in the first place.

However, there’s the countdown aspect. A timer is telling you “when your next break should be” if you should happen to look at it, which by looking at it breaks your state of flow because you’ll then be aware of the passage of time instead of your task. Finally, for me, a break is never a “break” — it’s a change in focus. If I’m writing something and the timer starts off, I don’t have the desire to then stop what I’m focusing on and switch my attention to a YouTube video or something.

And yet, in a weird way this counter-effectiveness is a bonus.

The Pomodoro Technique is not forcing you to take a break or set a timer for 25 minutes exactly. It doesn’t matter if you don’t follow the process “exactly.” The whole point of the process is to initiate focus and productivity, and in that sense, it’s perfect.

What do I advise for people who are interested in the Pomodoro Technique? Don’t overthink it. I have looked at countless “productivity hacks,” and I grab what advice I think is useful and run with it. The Pomodoro Technique is no different. If I’m in a slog and I need to get something done, the Pomodoro Technique is there for me. Likewise, if I’m on a roll with something, I don’t use it as much.

So start a timer. Try it out. 3, 2, 1, go.

Allison is a writer based out of Minneapolis. She lives with her two cats and is loving life.

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