This is one of the most basic, flexible and effective productivity techniques, which I've been using for many years. I know many PhD students and academics that swear by it, but I am still surprised by others who do not know about it. In this post I come back to its origins, how to do it, and how I have combined it with other routines to keep me on track. Essential in this age of smartphones, social media and other constant distractions!
It is 8:00am. The apartment is quiet and in semi-darkness (the winter sun still hasn't gone up). I put my phone in silent mode, and keep it away from sight. As I sit down to start writing this blog post, I go to my browser and click on the small tomato icon, which turns red, signaling that I have nothing else to do in the next 25 minutes, but write.
What I just described may be quite familiar to some of you: it was me using “the pomodoro technique”. If somebody asked me which one productivity technique or lifehack I would take to a desert island with me for the rest of my life, it would be this one. By far.
But wait, wasn't this blog about PhD students and depression stuff? Well, yes and no. In fact, once people are depressed, probably what they need is a therapist/specialist (not a blogger) to help them out of it. Here, I focus more on the preventive side: how to keep yourself effective and happy so that you finish the PhD and enjoy the ride as much as possible. Once I started looking at the current science of happiness (or “positive psychology”, as they call it), it seems that having a sense of self-efficacy (read, being and feeling productive) seems to play a large role in it1. So no, not all posts will be depressing - and yes, productivity tips, tricks and routines will feature here from time to time.
But let's get back to the Pomodoro…
A bit of history
The Pomodoro Technique (R) (yes, apparently it is a registered brand) is generally attributed to Francesco Cirillo, who developed it in the 1980s, as a university student looking for “a way to get more done in less time”. Since then, it has become a very popular “lifehack”, and now there is an entire book by Cirillo about it2, training courses and certifications, etc. In any case, even if you don't build your whole work life around it, it is a nice little trick to know, and something you can adopt in your own life, right now.
This technique is very often used by knowledge workers in many industries, from software development to design, and I know for a fact that many researchers (no matter whether they are early PhD students or seasoned professors) swear by it when they try to stay productive. Oh, and where does the name come from? basically, from the Italian for “tomato” - Cirillo used a kitchen timer with the shape of a tomato, when he first developed the technique in university.
How to do it
In case you don't want to go to down to Cirillo's official page (or any of the other dozens of websites and blog posts already describing it), here is a very brief primer on how to start “pomodoring”, right now:
- Choose a task you want to get done (works especially well for tasks you alone can do, which you've been procrastinating on).
- Put away all distractions, especially your phone (which should be put in flight or silent mode) but also email notifications in your computer and other known interruption sources.
- Make an oath to yourself to work on this task (and only this task) for 25 minutes without interruption. Then, set an actual timer for 25 minutes (some people like physical kitchen timers, but small computer apps also work).
- Work on the task for the alloted 25 minutes without interruption. Come on, it's just 25 minutes, you can do it!
- When the timer rings, make a mark on a piece of paper3 and take a break (typically, 5 minutes). Well done! Take a minute to congratulate yourself for advancing in that long-procrastinated task. I'm serious. Then, breath, get off your chair, drink a glass of water, stretch, meditate, whatever.
- That's it4
Did you do it? How did it feel? Let me know in the comments.
The science behind the tomato
Despite the technique being mentioned in every other book and article about productivity and graduate students5, there is surprisingly little scientific literature about its use and effectiveness. Aside from several case studies of how it was adopted by different software development firms6, the only real studies I found trying to see if this technique really worked for people was in the field of human-computer interaction, where people design apps to facilitate the practice of the pomodoro, and then evaluate the app (not the method per se). One such study7, about an app that blocks distracting sites in your phone and computer, found that people that used the app did more pomodoros, and felt less stress (the authors argue that it is because you off-load the responsibility of keeping yourself on task to the app). But all these studies tend to be quite small-scale and exploratory.
Of course, there are plenty of conjectures out there (by Cirillo and others) about why the technique works: because it helps you re-frame time as an event you use to achieve something, instead of a resource you are running out of; the fact that it matches the human attention and focus span; its emphasis on taking breaks periodically (which we too often ignore); etc. But, in the end, it seems that most people supporting it out there, do so out of personal experience. That is also why I recommend it myself: it has worked for me. My guess is that, if you are not a procrastinator, you always get your things done in time and effortlessly… then, this is not for you. But if you feel overwhelmed by your to-do list (or you don't have a to-do list!) and tend to distract yourself too easily from the important stuff, maybe trying this for a week can change your life forever.
As I said, the Pomodoro has been one of my central productivity tricks for many years, and it has helped me greatly when I find myself procrastinating or overwhelmed by obligations at work. However, that does not mean that I use it absolutely all the time. As noted in the Pomodoro booklet and in some criticisms to the technique, there are times when avoiding the Pomodoro is probably a good idea:
- Do not use it when you know you will be interrupted. If you are in your office hours and students are probably coming to see you, or when you are in meetings or your work requires intense teamwork, then it is probably better to not do pomodoros (as it will likely be frustrating to handle what you will see as interruptions). Thankfully, some of the activities in a Ph.D. are solitary almost by definition (e.g., reading, writing your own research), so you will have plenty of opportunity to use the little tomato!
- Do not use it in your free time. This may seem obvious, but I've been guilty of trying this myself. As we will see in later posts, resting and unscheduled free time are an essential activity that should be preserved (in the same way sleep is an important part of an athlete's training). Making pomodoros out of leisure activities (e.g., reading a novel for fun) makes them goal-oriented, and will suck the fun out of them very quickly.
Personal experience, tips and tricks
In the many years I have been using the Pomodoro technique, I have come across several realizations, tips and tricks about it:
- The timer: When I first discovered the technique, I went out and bought a physical kitchen timer. There was a certain enjoyment in the physicality of setting the timer and hearing the soft tic-tac, but I very soon discovered that not everyone found it as soothing as I did (nor the loud ring at the end!). Since most of my working life occurs within (or nearby) a web browser, I used this nifty little website for a while, and now I use the Marinara Chrome extension. If those options do not fit your particular situation, just pick whatever is easy to call up within your daily routines and workflow (you can Google around for ‘pomodoro timer’ or ‘pomodoro app’). I do not recommend using a phone app (the device is often too full of notifications and other potential distractions to outweigh the benefit of the pomodoro).
- The space: I've found that how you implement the pomodoro is not as important as where you do it. Choose carefully a space where you are quite sure that no one will interrupt you, and that you will not interrupt or distract yourself. This often rules out your own office, or your kitchen (if you are prone to fridge trips). My personal favorite as of today is the library at our university, as it is close by, it's quite silent, has comfortable chairs/desks, and probably no one is looking for me there8.
- The distractions. I cannot emphasize this enough: turn off email notifications, and any other notification in your computer (if you are going to work at the computer). And do yourself a favor and put away the phone - really away, as in “off your sight, in another room” away9. Unless you are expecting a call from the hospital where your grandma is hospitalized, this alone is a productivity tip in itself: once I removed all notifications in my computer (and most of the ones in the phone), my productivity, capacity for attention and general happiness improved markedly.
- Multi-pomodoro chunks. This is already built-in if you follow Cirillo's full Pomodoro methodology as described in the book. But even if you don't: there is a benefit to doing, say, 4 or 6 pomodoros in a row. There is only so much you can do in 25 minutes, and for really difficult, analytical or creative tasks, a single pomodoro just gets you started. Hence, set aside 2-3 hours for these important, hard tasks, and do several pomodoros in a row, focused on the same task (still taking breaks, but not starting a different task).
- Peak stress use: I use the technique most intensely (and reap the most benefits from) when facing “peak stress” moments. Sometimes you have a hard, complex deadline coming close (e.g., when preparing an experiment, when writing a paper or a funding proposal you cannot postpone), and you realize there are still 10-20 different things you need to do in only a few days. In these cases, I just make a list of the tasks, decide their importance, dependencies and sequence, and then budget a number of pomodoros (up to the number of pomodoros I can realistically do in the few remaining days) to each of them. Then, I commit to doing the best I can in the very limited time allotted to each task, but no more (a use of the Pareto principle - you often can get 80% of the results with the first 20% of your efforts). The results are not perfect (tip: they never are), but they are much better than the alternative - an even lousier job due to not sleeping at all, or total breakdown and failing to meet the deadline at all.
- Effects on mood: Although I only have subjective, anecdotal evidence of this, I have observed that the days when I manage to use this technique more consistently, seem to correlate with more intense feelings of effectiveness and accomplishment. In general, not only more stuff gets done, I'm just in a better mood throughout the day!
- Collective pomodoros: This one is mentioned in Wang et al.‘s paper6, and I know of Ph.D. students that work in the same office that have used it. Basically, a co-located group of people agrees certain stretches of time to synchronize and do pomodoros together (even if everyone works on their own thing). This social variant of the pomodoro has several intuitive advantages, like reducing interruptions from your co-workers, and allowing for nicer breaks in which you can socialize with your office mates, feel less awkward stretching, etc. In a sense, this is similar to a “Shut up and write”, to which I will probably dedicate a separate entry in the future.
Just do it. Now.
This post just scratched the surface of what the Pomodoro technique can do for you10. If you have read so far and you have not done a pomodoro yet, now it is the time to do so. Go back to the step number 1 above, choose the most important and difficult thing you have to do today, and do a pomodoro. Just one. Just now.
A small notification appears in the lower right corner of the screen: take a small break. I look at my screen: the text is still convoluted and long, far from perfect, but not too bad for only 25 minutes of work11. As I get up and stretch my arms over my head, I revel in the feeling of having created something (even if it is an incomplete, imperfect something). It was worth the time.
Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68. ↩︎
There are also earlier, probably shorter versions of the book also floating around on the ‘Net, like this one. ↩︎
This is basically to record (to celebrate!) that you completed one pomodoro. If you get distracted or interrupt yourself to do something else, you don't get to make this mark. If you do more pomodoros about the same task, or about other tasks during the day, this alone can be a primitive way of measuring your productivity. ↩︎
There is an additional step, which I consider optional: If you are doing multiple “pomodoros” in a row, take a longer break (say, 15 minutes) after four of them. Take a walk around the building, go chat with somebody, do some burpees… do not spend this longer break doing email! (I'm often guilty of this one, but then it is not a break) ↩︎
See, for example, Lackey, A. E., Moshiri, M., Pandey, T., Lall, C., Lalwani, N., & Bhargava, P. (2014). Productivity, part 1: getting things done, using e-mail, scanners, reference managers, note-taking applications, and text expanders. Journal of the American College of Radiology, 11(5), 481–489. ↩︎
The pomodoro is also a quite popular strategy in the software industry, among companies adhering to “agile methodologies” for making software. An interesting example of the experiments and modifications made to the Pomodoro in one such company can be read in Wang, X., Gobbo, F., & Lane, M. (2010). Turning time from enemy into an ally using the Pomodoro technique. In Agility Across Time and Space (pp. 149–166). Springer. ↩︎
Kim, J., Cho, C., & Lee, U. (2017). Technology Supported Behavior Restriction for Mitigating Self-Interruptions in Multi-device Environments. Proceedings of the ACM on Interactive, Mobile, Wearable and Ubiquitous Technologies, 1(3), 64. ↩︎
… until my colleagues read this. Ouch! ↩︎
Ward, A. F., Duke, K., Gneezy, A., & Bos, M. W. (2017). Brain drain: the mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2(2), 140–154. ↩︎
As the software development community has found out, the Pomodoro also has other uses such as estimating and tracking your work, dealing with interruptions efficiently, and many more (go read the book if you're interested). ↩︎
In case you are wondering how fast I write, writing this post took about nine pomodoros, not counting the time I spent reading studies and doing research about the technique. ↩︎