Even as a young undergrad at Carnegie Mellon University, Francesco Cirillo intuited several flaws within our traditional approach to productivity. Not long into his enrollment, the future consultant was inspired to challenge the transitive relationship shared between effort, quality and productivity, after growing increasingly frustrated by how much time it took him to get so little done.
Ultimately, our attention spans are precarious and task-dependent. The notion that exertion begets quality is a risible one because it assumes the human mind operates like machinery—which it decidedly does not. The squishy meat between our ears is a marvelously finicky organ; one spirited by stimulation, digressions and the freedom to course correct at leisure.
The birth of the Pomodoro Technique
Understanding this, Cirillo decided to preserve his momentum with the help of a Pomodoro kitchen timer. In order to maximize waves of focus, the aspiring software developer segmented demanding labors into 25-minute intervals. When the ticker chimed at the end of each cycle, Cirillo would take a short five-minute break, wherein he would regroup, re-hydrate and ramble about before addressing the next item on his docket.
Each interval came to be referred to as a Pomodoro on behalf of the method’s origin, but any timer will do the trick be it digital or otherwise. While engineering a productivity tool that would later staff his commercial success, Cirillo was contemporaneously producing more work, better, faster and smarter.
Before we unpack the standardized model of the productivity strategy, I’d like to emphasize the importance of user discretion. The Pomodoro technique began as an unconventional appreciation of focus sustainability. Cirillo utilized 25-minute work intervals, alongside five-minute breaks, but feel free to play around with ratios until you find one that optimizes your output.
There are only four tenets that demand fidelity as far as the application is concerned: No clock-watching, don’t take your break in the same place that you were previously working in and after four Pomodoro cycles take a break that exceeds the length of the preceding ones. Most importantly, do not succumb to any distractions before a cycle is complete. The entire system crumbles if intervals do not elicit intense periods of undisturbed concentration.
Pomodoro intervals are indivisible from each other which means once one is breached, it has to be either reset or tossed away. On the value of his method, Cirillo once wrote:
“Our dependency on time often stems from the fact that we are afraid of time passing. We turn around and see a dinosaur running towards us. What do we do? We are afraid and start to run. We turn around again and the dinosaur is even closer. We speed up. Stressed out, we speed up and work even more; we make errors and fail to reach our goals.”
Inform, negotiate and call back
Unfortunately, not every deviation is of our own making. You can mute your phone and close your laptop to temper temptations, but neither will prevent the insistent knock of a roommate or a colleague in duress. To this point, Cirillo derived a systematic preemptive formula: inform, negotiate and call back.
Inform the intruding party that you are preoccupied, negotiate a time to connect, and then call the said party back in accordance with the agreed-upon time. Remember the Pomodoro technique survives on a placebic comprehension of workload. When we compartmentalize huge tasks into little bite-sized commitments, it becomes exceedingly difficult to see mountains as anything other than molehills. This is why it’s so important to do everything in your power to make sure you remain dedicated to the task at hand during Pomodoros.
Cirillo explains on his website, “Choose a task you’d like to get done, Something big, something small, something you’ve been putting off for a million years: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s something that deserves your full, undivided attention. Make a small oath to yourself: I will spend 25 minutes on this task and I will not interrupt myself. You can do it! After all, it’s just 25 minutes. Immerse yourself in the task for the next 25 minutes. If you suddenly realize you have something else you need to do, write the task down on a sheet of paper.Breathe, meditate, grab a cup of coffee, go for a short walk or do something else relaxing (i.e., not work-related). Your brain will thank you later.”
Although the propulsion that energized Cirillo to create the Pomodoro technique was purely anecdotal, academic research actually substantiates his pioneering postulation.
Back in 2007, a team of researchers led by American Psychologist and Professor of Brain Sciences at the University of California, Jonathan Schooler, found that the average mind wanders just about 15% to 20% of the time. This physiological regularity pointedly declares working without breaks to be counterproductive. Schooler exercised a potential solution on college students tasked with reading passages from War and Peace. Whenever the participants noticed that their thoughts were beginning to stray they were made to strike a buzzer. The buzzer was struck quite often as it were.
“But more surprisingly in such experiments, when the volunteers are interrupted at random times and asked what they’re thinking, we regularly catch people’s minds wandering before they’ve noticed it themselves,” Schooler noted in the paper. “And these stealth episodes appear to hamper reading comprehension.”
Schooler believed that these frequent wanderings were due to a clash of considerations. In addition to the charge at hand, our brains are always keenly aware of a nest of personal goals, each quaking for a morsel of attention. This is why one single momentary lapse in focus very easily condenses into a barbed mess of neglected musings. If we permit measured slots of time to ponder things outside the realm of our respective disciplines, our minds free up space to comprehend, process and retain new information more methodically.
Furthermore, a paper published in 2011 in the journal Cognition posited the following: “When faced with long tasks (such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes), it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
Exterminating preoccupations wholesale has a way of making us feel small. The inclination is subtle but the effect is wide-reaching. The reason you hate doing expense reports more after you spend hours doing expense reports is because you’re privileging one vapid aspect of your life over the other more substantial ones. When you lose sight of meaning, everything is a gray dull laborious affair. That five-minute break to think about where you might get drinks this weekend and with who and what you might talk about may seem inconsequential, but in reality you’re reaffirming that you are a person outside of your paycheck, so that when you return to doing the thing that earns it, you do so with your identity intact. When we perpetuate a full steam ahead articulation of output, we welcome a state science calls cognitive boredom.
Recently, a psychologist by the name of Wijnand A. P. Van Tilburg motioned a multilayered remedy for the condition.
“Boredom signals what you’re doing right now seems to be lacking purpose,” Van Tilburg explained. “As soon as you offer people alternative behaviors that may give them a sense of purpose, they’re more eager to engage, and this can result in negative or positive behavior.”
Efficient work is best achieved by a worker fully aware of their agency. On the surface, the Pomodoro technique is a pit stop, but the benefits are much more prismatic.
As lifestyle author, Masooma Memon adds, “The Pomodoro technique’s approach of dividing work into ‘do’ and ‘break’ sessions increases your brain’s incentives for reward. In a nutshell, science credits the periodic workflow of the Pomodoro Technique, its reward-based approach, and attempts at managing distractions for its effectiveness. Not to mention, it fights Parkinson’s law as well.”
Real work gets done, better, faster and smarter
All of the advances indexed above are just as translatable to a team setting. In fact, Ladders covered this very translation a little while back, when it was a talking point Cirillo featured in his aptly titled, The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System That Has Transformed How We Work, released back in 2018.
“In the digital era, teams are increasingly subject to time pressure: more interruptions, more change, more uncertainty. Meeting your own objectives, even simple ones sometimes always gets harder or impossible if the team doesn’t use a time management strategy,” Cirillo said. “The Pomodoro Technique can help teams be effective in these circumstances. This is the reason why I have dedicated various chapters in my new book to how to apply the Pomodoro Technique in a team.”
Ladders summarized the nutrients of the collaboration chapters via four simple steps:
1. Write on a board the list of activities to complete in order to reach the day’s goals.
2. Each team member chooses the activities they intend to complete, working on their own or often with one or more people – in the Pomodoro Technique these people are referred to as a micro team.
3. Each micro team writes out on index cards the activities they intend to complete next. They set their Pomodoro and work on the activities without interruption, taking (short
and long) breaks when the Pomodoro rings.
4. At the end of the day, team members get together for one Pomodoro – no longer – and report on a spreadsheet what tasks were carried out and the number of completed Pomodoros that were required to do so. They then review the status of the
At its core, the Pomodoro technique softens our antagonistic relationship with time. Too often the irreversible succession is framed with pejoratives; deadlines, expiration dates, and limits. Time, like any other fundamental fabric of existence, serves whatever allegiance you will it to, it’s all about perspective. Breaking up our workload per our own needs and priorities is a sure-fire way to make the most out of each and every solar rotation. Cirillo writes in his book,
“Time can help us reach our goals if we are its friend and we know how it can help us. We can use time to monitor how we are working and improve our processes. We can use time to help our brains organize information, which helps us to find and capture the solutions to complex decisions. Awareness is the key. This is how the Pomodoro Technique helps us to gradually invert our dependency on time.”