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Can the Pomodoro Technique Really Make You a Productivity Wizard?

Forcing yourself to take regular breaks could be the key to successfully working from home… or it might not help at all

As many of us learned this year, being productive is especially hard when you work from home: Your cat refuses to leave you alone, snacks are everywhere and Pornhub is just one click away — after your all-hands election simulation, of course. But a simple time-management method called the Pomodoro Technique promises to help you power through those distractions and become a productivity sorcerer, capable of reaching productivity levels that put the very wheels of capitalism to shame. It works like this: 

  1. Make a to-do list, and grab a timer.
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings. (Each 25-minute stretch is called a “pomodoro,” after the Italian word for tomato, which refers to a tomato-shaped timer.)
  3. Mark one pomodoro on your to-do list, and record what you completed.
  4. Take a short break. (Five minutes is fine.)
  5. After four pomodoros, take a longer break. (20 minutes is good.)

Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

There are a couple of alleged benefits associated with the Pomodoro Technique:

  1. Working in short sprints keeps you productive, and taking regular breaks boosts your motivation and creativity.
  2. Breaking down large tasks into smaller, actionable pomodoros ensures that you make clear progress and avoid getting frustrated by a project that seems daunting.
  3. Respecting the sprints and recording your progress makes you more accountable for your tasks, decreases the time you spend procrastinating and helps you plan out future workdays.

Importantly, when employing the Pomodoro Technique, each pomodoro should be seen as an unbreakable unit of work, which means you need to postpone distractions until the pomodoro is complete or end the pomodoro there, saving your work and starting a new pomodoro later. If distractions creep their way into your pomodoros, everything kind of goes to shit.

Does the Pomodoro Technique Work?

The Pomodoro Technique has proponents and critics. It can certainly help busy or disorganized workers coordinate their schedules, as writer Ben Dolnick describes: “Five minutes on the internet, as measured by my timer, would pass in what seemed to me about 35 seconds. A timed hour of research would seem to take between three and four hours. My timer was a crisp metal yardstick laid down in the fog of my temporal intuitions.” However, it can at times seem too stringent, which may dissuade you from starting projects that would take more than a single pomodoro, and it leaves little room for things like meetings, which can easily leak into your pomodoros if they go longer than expected.

For this reason, depending on your workflow, you may decide to experiment with the length of your pomodoros. “The typical 25-minute work span followed by breaking that the Pomodoro Technique involves is, in my opinion, too short a period of work time for many types of work,” says business efficiency expert Andrew Jensen. “This short-lived burst of work can definitely hamper creative workflow. I find that, for a typical 9-to-5 or 8-to-5 workday, a mid-morning break (for exercise or meditation), a lunch break and an afternoon break (for exercise, meditation or brief sleep) are adequate.” (For what it’s worth, one study found that 52 minutes of focus and 17 minutes of break time is the perfect balance.)

The takeaway here is that breaks are important, but you may need to take a look at your work habits and figure out what kinds of breaks make sense for you. “Mandatory breaks can definitely interrupt creativity, so flexibility in the timing of breaks is usually beneficial,” Jensen says. “However, some employees can sit for hours straight at their desks without realizing that lack of movement and monotonous working is hampering their creative ability.” On the flip side, he adds, “Too many interruptions can take a bite into productivity, especially if employees are slow to resume working after frequent breaks.”

Pomodoro technique or otherwise, it’s important to give yourself time to pet your cat, eat some chips and maybe hit the Hub in order to recharge those productive juices. But it’s equally important that you then get back to work.