Pomodoro: Using tomatoes for good (or evil)

Wondering why tomatoes have been on my brain? It’s because I have joined the Cult of Tomato.

Well, not really. But I have been using time management strategies that are inspired by the Pomodoro Technique. In the late 80s, some guy (not the tomato guy, at least as far as I know) developed a system involving using a timer to break down work times into manageable chunks. He named the technique Pomodoro, which is the Italian word for tomato, as the timer he used was a fairly standard tomato-shaped kitchen timer.

In a probably over-simplified way, the basics of the technique are:

  1. Pick a task to work on (typically one that is large and will take a lot of time and concentration)
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes (a “tomato”), and dig into the task.
  3. Stay focussed on the task until the timer runs out.
  4. I said stay focussed on the task!
  5. Once your 25 minutes of intensive, focussed work is finished, you get a break! Step away from your work for 5 minutes or so.
  6. Seriously, take a break. This part is important.
  7. Once your break is up, set your timer again, and dive back into the work.

I’d heard of the Pomodoro Technique before from a friend of mine from grad school, who successfully used it to actually finish her degree. I think it was about the time that she told me about it that I found and downloaded an app to use.

And that was as far as I got.

Fast forward about 2 years to the spring of this year, and I read a post Veronica wrote about her decision to start working on projects using a timer method. She asked if any of her readers wanted to join her, and I commented that I was game to try Pomodoro. And  try it, I did.

I liked it.

Using tomatoes has helped me in a few main ways:

  •  It has helped me stay on task.
    For 25 minutes, barring unforeseen interruptions, I work in a concentrated way on my designated task. If, in the course of this tomato, I have the urge to look something up or to check on something else or do whatever puttering around beckons, I put the urge on hold until the end of the tomato. I know that my break will come up soon, and I can dive into puttering then. (Admittedly I often take longer breaks than 5 minutes.)
  •  It has helped me recognize smaller chunks of time as viable for getting work done.
    My schedule is often broken by appointments or other obligations, and sometimes I only have an hour or 2 to tackle my work. In the past, this would lead to me thinking “no point in getting started with that now. I’ll barely have time to get started.” With tomatoes, an hour or two suddenly becomes 2 to 4 viable chunks of work time. Because I can be focused, I actually get more done in those chunks than in previous larger but more nebulously structured lengths of time.
  • It has given my work more continuity
    Since managing my time in this way makes it easier for me to keep going on projects even when my time is limited, I am more likely to work on the projects on any given day. Meaning that fewer days go by without me touching a big project. This helps quite a bit.

I use a little app called Pomodoro that seems to be largely defunct and no longer available, but I think it was free when I got it. There are a whole bunch of other apps available that do more-or-less the same thing. (The more that that I like from the app I use is that it logs your tomatoes. You type in your task when you start a tomato (or it leaves the last task in by default) and then it has a little log where you can see your tomatoes listed by date, with task specified. It helps me track how long some projects have taken. (Usually longer than I’ve expected.)

For more on tomatoes, check out the Pomodoro Technique website. (The full technique involves more than just the timers, but I haven’t delved much into it.) I also found this blog post from a couple of years ago to be very insightful, plus it gives reviews and descriptions of some of the apps that were available (and many that still are). A quick search for “pomodoro” on the Apple App Store shows more than a dozen apps available, many tomato-themed, and ranging in price between free and $19.99. (Most are under $5.) And if you want something more concrete, you can even buy a wind-up tomato-shaped timer.

I highly recommend trying out a timer-based time management technique for anyone who has struggled to deal with dauntingly large, nebulous projects. Like finishing a degree. Or plotting to take over the world.

10 thoughts on “Pomodoro: Using tomatoes for good (or evil)

  1. Brava! I am fully in support of breaking down large tasks into smaller, bite-sized chunks, whether by finding subtasks (which is my usual strategy) or by breaking down the time (your newish strategy). In fact, I’d never heard of this Pomodoro method, but it does sound useful and I’m glad that it has helped you, once you finally started applying it! Maybe I should try it. Viva il Pomodoro!

  2. I’m intrigued by this system. I’ve never heard of it, but it seems similar to the way a PT had me do rehab years ago when I hurt my back. I was to set a timer for 20 minutes during which time I sat at my desk. Then I was to get up and move/sway/stretch for 5 minutes. Repeat all day long.

    Interesting coincidence about the 25 minutes? Or did she know something more tomato-y than she let on?

    Am off to learn more about this technique. Thanks for the link.

  3. I do this! The program manager on my last big project pointed me here: https://kanbanflow.com/

    To be honest, I only use the timer function when I find myself avoiding something that critically needs doing. I’ll close Outlook, turn off my IM (we use IM a lot at work), hide my cell phone under my desk and then FOCUS on the task at hand for 25 minutes. I did that today, actually. Cool thing was, I only needed 15 minutes to complete the task! All that angst in avoiding a task that took only 15 minutes. That’ll learn me.

  4. Yes, this method has helped me get a handle on my day and shown me how much I can accomplish in small slices of time if I just focus and do that which I’ve been avoiding doing. I tend to switch tasks after a break. I haven’t used the method lately but I plan to on too big amorphous probjects: cleaning out my overstuffed e-mail inbox and tagging/organizing digital photos.

  5. This week at work I re-instituted a similar method I call “Top of the hour tumblr” which, well, I guess it’s self explanatory. Then today I tried “don’t even f-ing look at tumblr”, which also, combined with a to-do list, worked pretty well! Of course it helps that many of the people I’ve enjoyed interacting with seem to be on hiatus.

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