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Get stuff done with the Pomodoro technique

This will be your best friend after you read this article.

I know a lot of people don’t particularly enjoy this thing called work. And of those, most of them tend to get distracted when they’re supposed to be doing this, what do you call it, work.

Fortunately, unproductive people like you did something surprisingly productive: they made a little technique to help you be more productive.

Attention span

See, you tend to get distracted when your attention span runs out. As long as your attention span lasts (up to 20 minutes for most humans, but probably far less for teenagers), you’ll pay attention. After that, you’ll be prone to getting distracted by — ooh, someone posted on Facebook!

What is this miraculous technique? It’s the Pomodoro technique. It’s a simple technique; it’s basically doing work and then taking short breaks to give your mind (or body) a rest. This maximizes your attention span while keeping you fresh, thereby increasing your productivity for long spans of time.

Doing the Pomodoro

Pomodoro, break, Pomodoro, break, Pomodoro, break, Pomodoro, long break
Each pomodoro (work session) is followed by a short break. After 4 pomodoros, take a long break.

The technique is fairly simple. First, work for a long period of time (this is called a pomodoro), normally 25 minutes. Then take a short break (usually 5 minutes.) After your 4th pomodoro (the number can vary), take a long break (usually 15 minutes.)

After the long break, start the cycle over again.

Break time

Ah, my favorite part of the pomodoro. Break time. As the name implies, after the pomodoro’s done you get a few minutes off before the next pomodoro. You need to make the most of your limited time. Here’s what you should do during the short breaks (about 5 minutes):

  • Stretch – very important; make sure you stretch your entire body well, especially your back if you’re sitting down for your pomodoros.
  • Grab a quick snack if necessary.
  • Get a drink if you need to.
  • Use the bathroom if you need to (you don’t want to interrupt your pomodoro!)

Note that you don’t have much time, so do everything quickly.

Your longer breaks afford you more time to refresh yourself. Do the same things you do during the short breaks, plus:

  • Walk around.
  • Run or jump to get your blood flowing.
  • Do some more rigorous exercise such as push-ups or squats.
  • Go outside for a bit.
  • Eat something substantial.
  • Clear your mind and zone out for a little (very fun.)
  • Surf the internet (warning: DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT, get distracted.)

You might not expect it, but it takes practice and planning to take good breaks. Yeah, you’ll never catch a break… (pun not intended.)

Making Pomodoro’ing easy

Normally, you’d have to use a stopwatch or a kitchen timer (that’s what they used in the old days; the founder used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, so he called it pomodoro, which is Italian for tomato) to record the length of a work session, or pomodoro.

Fortunately, there are some applications that do this for you. Not the actual work, mind you; they take care of the timing. All you do is click “start pomodoro” and it’ll ring when the pomodoro is over. Easy.

Here are three programs that work very well: a webservice, a desktop program, and an Android app.

One of the simplest and easiest ways to Pomodoro is to use the website 25minut.es, which obviously requires no downloading and works well out of the box (just press “start” to start a pomodoro.) However, you sacrifice some customization; you lose the ability to change how long a pomodoro lasts, which is a pretty important ability as we’ll see later. If you don’t really care for the customization, go with this; otherwise check out one of the following two programs.

Although it lacks the ability to customize, the webservice 25minut.es is an extremely easy way to Pomodoro.

If you’d like to have a program that runs on your desktop, I recommend the free and cross-platform app Tomighty. Download the installer and run it (or download the JAR and put it on your desktop), and you’ll have a shortcut on your desktop. Click it to start the app and a small window will pop up in the bottom right, minding its business as you work.

Two Tomighty windows: the starting one on the left and the during-a-pomodoro one on the right

When the pomodoro is over, a window will pop up alerting you to take a break.

Click on the arrow to open the box of icons, then right-click on the tomato and select "Options."

Additionally, you can right-click on the tomato in your tray (click the arrow in the bottom right of your screen to open the box of icons, as shown to the right.) Open the Options menu, where you can set the value for lengths of pomodoros, short breaks, and long breaks. You might also want to disable the sounds.

Meanwhile, for Android devices, I recommend a free app called Pomodroido. It’s similar to Tomighty (all pomodoro apps are similar) but it’s biggest difference is its achievement side. When you rack up enough pomodoros, you move to the next level, which is fun but sort of pointless. In other ways it works almost the same as Tomighty, so I won’t go over its features.

Number crunching

Disclaimer: you can skip this section, but it’s a good read.

Pomodoros are yours. You don’t have to do 25 minute pomodoros and 5 minute breaks. You can customize the numbers however you like to fit your style. But some time values (how long everything is) just won’t work. Quick! What’s wrong with the following?

  • Pomodoro of 5 minutes.
  • Short break of 15 minutes.
  • After 2 pomodoros, take a long break of 30 minutes.

Man, that’s productive. Right? Right? No. You can change the time values, but they have to keep you productive. You can’t have numbers like these.

So I’ve devised a little equation to check how productive your time values will be.

Let p = pomodoro length

Let s = short break length

Let b = long break length

Let f = frequency of long breaks (after how many pomodoros you’ll take the long break)

Formula: Productivity = (time spent working) / (total time)

Simple equation: Productivity = p / (p + s)

Hairy equation: Productivity = (fp) / (fp + (f-1)s + b)

The simple equation only takes into account the lengths of your pomodoros and short breaks; the impressive-looking hairy one (which is the better one to use) takes into account your long breaks and their frequency. (If you’re bored, try deriving the hairy one. Look at the scheduling graphic above.)

Again, here is the Productivity equation in all its glory. Move over, e=mc².

-"Dude, did you watch the game yesterday?" -"No, but I did make myself more productive using this equation." -"Niiiiice."

So, plug in your numbers for pomodoro length, short break length, long break length, and frequency into the equation. Let’s do an example using the standard values of 25-minute pomodoros, 5-minute breaks, and a 15-minute break after 4 pomodoros.

p = 25

s = 5

b = 15

f = 4

Productivity = (fp) / (fp + (f-1)s + b)

Productivity = (100) / (100 + 15 + 15) = 100/130 = 0.77

What does .77 mean? It means you spent 77% of your total time working. That’s fairly productive, and you should consider using these standard values to start off. (By the way, that scenario I outlined at the beginning of this section has a productivity value of .18. Ouch.)

This productivity calculation tells you a lot about how efficient your time values are. A good rule of thumb: productivity should be between .65 and .85; that is, you should spend between 65% and 85% of your time working. Any less and you’re unproductive; any more, you’re wearing yourself out and *gasp* might get distracted.

Now what?

Props to you if you’ve stuck with me through that slightly painful math exercise (although now you’ve found a cool new equation to casually toss around at parties.)

“But Neel,” you say, “what will I ever use this for?”

“Well,” I respond, “lots of stuff:”

  • Homework
  • Projects
  • Chores
  • Yard work
  • Reading
  • Writing a blog post (I spent 2 pomodoros on this)

Get Pomodoro’ing!

The Pomodoro technique is a great time management tool so you can get the most out of your time and not get distracted. You first do a work session (a pomodoro), and then you take a short break. After a certain number of pomodoros you take a longer break.

The Pomodoro technique is easy to use; just download an app and start doing some pomodoros. You’ll probably want to use the standard values when you first start. Remember, they are:

Pomodoro length = p = 25

Short break length = s = 5

Long break length = b = 15

Frequency of long breaks = f = 4

As you do more pomodoros, you’ll learn what works for you. If you find you’re drifting away in the last few minutes of a pomodoro, shorten your pomodoros. If you feel a 5-minute break isn’t enough to refresh your mind, increase your break lengths. If you feel you don’t need many long breaks, increase the frequency. Feel free to tweak.

But remember to test out your proposed values using the equation Productivity = (fp) / (fp + (f-1)s + b). Make sure your productivity is between .65 and .85. If your numbers work out, go ahead and start using them.

Well, that’s all there is to the wonderful art of Pomodoro’ing. Hope you enjoyed the article; if you have any more questions about the Pomodoro technique, you can comment here.

Good luck!

Published by

Neel Mehta

Harvard College. Web developer. Sometime philosopher. Baseball junkie.

4 thoughts on “Get stuff done with the Pomodoro technique”

  1. You are right about distraction..wouldn’t have been on Facebook in the midst of getting listing paperwork ready had it not been for distraction. Will try this technique – off for my break! By the way, I really like the Android app name -Pomodroido!

  2. Wow! I was googling for pomodoro apps for iPhone and I chanced upon this site.

    What a great formula for measuring productivity! It sure does set a bench mark of how productive I am for each session!

    Imagine if those external and internal and voided pomodoros are included; I bet the productivity value would be awfully low for me.

    Great post!

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