You're using this productivity hack wrong, here's what to do instead

Written by Emilie Brunet

The Pomodoro Technique is a widely talked about “productivity hack”, but are you actually using it in the best way?

If you look at any content on “productivity” or “focus”, almost all of them mention the Pomodoro Technique.

This method for being productive was developed in the last 1980’s by Francesco Cirillo who used a kitchen timer (in the shape of a Pomodoro Tomato) to help him get work done. He worked in small, shorter chunks of time doing uninterrupted work, followed by an intentional break.

Since then, the Technique has been adapted into it’s most common version which comprises of the following:

🧠 25 minute block of uninterrupted work
⏸️ 5 minute block for a break
🔁 Repeat the cycle 4 times, then take a longer 10-15 minutes break

You don’t need a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to do this technique — there are several websites and apps, but a simple timer on your phone works fine. (This free website is one that I use daily to practice the Pomodoro Technique).

While I use this method daily to stay productive, changing it to work with your needs will make or break the effectiveness of this productivity strategy.

Let’s dive into some key aspects of this technique and how to make it work best for you.

The Breaks

The Pomodoro Technique consists of regular breaks. The concept of taking breaks to be more productive used to be controversial, but is now integral to most people’s understanding of productivity.

Studies show that taking regular breaks throughout your workday has several benefits which include decreasing stress and minimizing fatigue — both of which can lead to being more productive.

While taking a 25-minute work period, followed by a 5-minute break is the traditional approach, depending on what you’re working on, you might find it more helpful to do a 50-minute work period, followed by a 10-minute break. Or some other rhythm altogether. Less important than how long your break is, is how you spend your break…

How to take a break

Not every break is made equally. When taking your break try to do the following:

Don’t ignore the breaks

If you’re only taking a break when you’re tired or overwhelmed, then it’s already too late. Planning for breaks gives you a few benefits:

So make sure that when you decide to take a break, you actually take it.

Prepare properly!

There are two things you need to make sure you do if you’re using the Pomodoro method:

  1. Know what you’re going to work on before you get started
  2. Only work on that one thing during that time

Know what you need to get done

Take 10-15 minutes before you start your Pomodoro session to map out how you want that time to be utilized.

Break what you need to get done into individual tasks that will take about 25 minutes each. Then assign each Pomodoro “block” to an individual task.

How to stay on task

In this preparation phase, you also need to take the time to minimize all other potential distractions while you’re working on that one task.

Don’t let other work distract you from your current work

The last thing you want to prepare is a notebook or a sheet of paper next to you while you’re doing your focus session.

One of the biggest distractions from work is more work.

You’re in the middle of working on a project and you remember that you forgot to send that email to your team lead or you realize that you need to schedule a meeting with the project manager. Instead of hopping into that task out of fear of forgetting it, or even going to your online task management system to add the task there, just jot it down in your notebook / sheet of paper.

This way, you know it needs to get done, you won’t forget it, but you haven’t been pulled out of your flow/focus state. You can get to it when you’re done with your Pomodoro session.

Now while Pomodoro works really well for me, the method sometimes needs to be adjusted to my specific situation to really see the most benefit.

Adjusting the Pomodoro method to your situation

If you are really struggling with getting started on a project…

Whether it’s because you don’t really know what the first task needs to be, or because you know what the first task is but it’s hard, then simply:

Yes, I’m serious. Tell yourself that all you’re going to do is work on this one thing for only 10 minutes. Sometimes knowing that all you’re going to do is ten minutes is enough to get started. You don’t have to think “I have to complete this project” or “I have so much to do.” All you have to think is, “I need to work on this for only ten minutes.”

When I’m really struggling with focusing and getting work done -- especially for work that I really don’t want to do, I’ll do 10 minutes on, 2 minutes off. It’s not ideal, but it works.

If you have a lot of tiny tasks (things that take 2-15 mins each)…

See if you can group tasks together.

If you have several emails to send, can you make a task of spending 25 minutes in your email inbox. If you have data entry work, can you lump that into a task with other data entry work.

Lumping your admin tasks into one big block can help you move through it faster. (You can even gamify it by seeing how many emails you can respond to in a shorter period of time!)

Maybe you just need to ride the wave

Sometimes people don’t like the idea of 25 minutes on and 5 minutes off because they don’t feel like 25 minutes is enough time for them to get into a flow state. They feel like they just got into the project and now they need to take a break.

While the Pomodoro method works to get you started and keep you going on work that you might struggle with, sometimes you get started in a Pomodoro session and then feel like the juices are flowing and you just want to keep going.

If that’s the case, then ride the wave. Go with the flow. My only caveat to that is to make sure that you still take a break before it becomes too late.

Sometimes we don’t want to stop working because “we’re in the zone” or “we’re so close to being done” but in reality our body and mind is giving us signs that we need to pause.

My suggestion is that even if you’re in a flow state, try to take at least a small break every 50-60 minutes. Maybe that break isn’t a full 5 minutes, but taking the time to stand up, do a few simple stretches, look away from the screen and take a few breaths (see above for break tips) will make a huge difference in your ability to remain in your flow state.

Have you used the Pomodoro Technique? How do you use it and adjust it to your needs?

About the author

Hey, I'm Emilie 👋🏻

I'm the People & Culture Manager at Journey Education. I have always had a passion for writing, organization and finding creative solutions. I aim to be personable, empathetic and compassionate and believe that kindness can go along way in both business and life.

Having worked and organized with anti-capitalist, feminist and queer organizations, I strongly believe that EVERYONE deserves, not just a living wage, but a thriving wage and that it should be the priority of every business to create an inclusive, caring and diverse work environment that doesn't just ensures the work happens, but allows people to be people while the work is happening!

My approach to everything I do reflects my training in trauma-informed practices, active listening and harm reduction as well as my interest in understand the way people work, behave and exist as their full human self. I want to create safer spaces for people to explore, create and excel in a supportive environment - whether that's in life or at work.