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How To Make the Pomodoro Technique Work, Even for a Chronic Procrastinator

I had to use several strategies to build my ability to focus even for 25 minutes


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Laine Kaleja

a year ago | 19 min read

One of my biggest challenges through the years has been getting myself focused and organizing my time well. I am a former perfectionist and chronic procrastinator.

When I worked full-time for a larger company, I somehow coped with this problem and didn’t really solve it. However, when I started to work from home with my own business and a smaller part-time job, the issue of low productivity, multitasking, and getting distracted became more evident than ever.

Since I started my own coaching business, I realized that I need to solve the low productivity problem as soon as possible to be an excellent example to others.

I tried different advice and tips for increasing productivity for a while, yet nothing really worked for me. Until I heard about the Pomodoro Technique from coach Rob Dial’s famous podcast “The Mindset Mentor.”

It turned out to be a great technique, helping me become focused on a single task at a particular time and allowing me to take breaks that I could use for activities that helped me reduce the stress and increase my peace and motivation.

Stress during COVID-19 uncertainty had become a common issue. And I am sure that was not just me.

At the time of writing this, I have been using the Pomodoro Technique for about three months and consistently for two months. The results are game-changing, and I don’t want to return to my old way of working anymore.

What Is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by Italian student Francesco Cirillo when in 1987 he was studying for a sociology exam. He always got distracted and felt stress as the exams were coming closer.

He used his tomato-shaped (the Italian word for tomato is “pomodoro”) kitchen timer to set uninterrupted time for studying.

He discovered this technique by accident, and during the next couple of years, worked on organizing and improving it. The end result is what we know today as the Pomodoro Technique.

The technique consists of a 25-minute focused “pomodoro” session, during which you focus on one task only and take a five-minute break. After every four “pomodoros,” you take a longer break of 15–30 min.

Back in 1987, distractions caused by the internet or social media were not as great a problem as they are these days.

So it seems like F. Cirillo invented this technique foretelling the time we live in now. Such a technique has become increasingly helpful and necessary when we are ruled by distractions so much.

The Power of Focusing on One Thing Only

One of the main things that the Pomodoro Technique helps us improve is focusing on one thing only when we work on something.

For me focusing on one thing only has been one of the hardest things. I used to get easily distracted and was addicted to multitasking.

Yet, there is great power in focusing on one thing only, as a lot of the research proves.

Giving your full, deep attention to one task when working is the healthiest way for our brain, as written by neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf in her book Switch On Your Brain: The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking and Health.

Multitasking, on the other hand, is really false productivity that does not work. And it is not only less productive but also more stressful, as I had seen in my life many times as well. Multitasking, according to neuroscientist Dr. Caroline Leaf, is damaging for our brain. It causes a “mental mess” in our brain.

Dr. Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, confirms this in his book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. He writes that certain brain areas get challenged, such as the prefrontal cortex, visual areas, auditory areas, and the hippocampus, when switching between different tasks and notifications.

However, when we engage one task at a time, the prefrontal cortex works in harmony with other parts of the brain.

A study at Microsoft Research proved that the desire to immediately answer a message or an email after receiving a notification interrupts high-level, focused thinking. Regaining the same level of focus could take up to a half-hour. Therefore, multitasking and switching between different tasks take a longer time.

Professor at the University of California Gloria Mark has found out that chronic multitasking also makes us have a shorter attention span.

Her research suggests that the most productive way to get things done is by blocking out single tasks into individual chunks. Time-chunking is precisely what the Pomodoro Technique helps to do.

As Gary W. Keller and Jay Papasan write in their book One Thing,

“Our brain just isn’t wired to handle two moderately complex tasks all at once.”

The way multitasking takes longer to accomplish something and the shorter attention span it creates were some of the results I had suffered for many years. I knew that I should focus on one thing at a time, but I lacked specific tools to implement this discipline.

Continue reading to learn how I implemented the principles of the Pomodoro Technique to learn to focus better and avoid distractions.

Principles of the Pomodoro Technique

“Pomodoro” is indivisible

The rule about the 25-minute “pomodoro” session is that it is indivisible. You can focus only on one thing during this time.

So if a thought or an urgent “to-do” comes into your mind, you cannot interrupt the “pomodoro” session. You may take a few seconds to write down in your to-do list what it is so you can review it later.

It sounds simple, but it is not easy to discipline yourself like this. Especially if you have been used to allowing yourself to get distracted previously.

As I already mentioned, focusing on one thing only has been one of the hardest things. I had gotten to the point where I would sit down and try to focus only for a few minutes, and my brain was already searching for a stimulus — to check something (messages, statistics, etc.), to write someone, to fix something, get tea, etc.

Of course, when I started using this technique, my addiction to multitasking and allowing myself to get distracted did not disappear right away. In fact, I felt this addiction stronger than ever. It was challenging to break it.

To fight this addiction to get distracted, I decided to follow one of the rules in F. Cirillo’s book The Pomodoro Techniquethe “pomodoro” session is indivisible.

Whenever I let myself get distracted — open up an email or Messenger, talk to a friend, etc. — I would not count that “pomodoro” session. I would need to start this session all over again.

As you can see in the image below, I have crossed out four “pomodoro” sessions in a row. I either allowed myself to be interrupted by talking to someone or thought of an email or a message I needed to check. Breaking this habit was not easy.

Image by the author
Image by the author

Crossing out and not counting the “pomodoro” session was a good motivator because I didn’t want to feel like I only had two successful “pomodoro” sessions at the end of the day.

After a couple of times crossing out and not counting “pomodoros,” I had learned my lesson. When I got interrupted by somebody again, I politely said that I would be available to answer the question in ten minutes.

This rule really helped me to discipline myself to focus on one thing only.

At first, it was difficult because the brain, by default, searches for distractions (the result of the multitasking habit). But the feeling that you control your attention instead of letting your subconscious mind run the show increases confidence.

The more I developed a habit of being devoted to one task at a time, I found out how it helps me get more done and be more creative and less stressed.

And it is important to add for this paragraph that, of course, you turn off any notifications (or at least the sound notifications) on your phone or laptop while you are in the “pomodoro” session.

I had turned off several notifications permanently already before starting the Pomodoro Technique. And I turned off all notifications when I started this technique.

But what can you do if you get interrupted by someone? I have always found it hard to say “no” to people, and it was hard for me to say to my friend, “I will answer this later.”

However, I realized it is better to give my full attention to something. When I am working on a task, I can accomplish more that way. When I am talking to a friend later, I can be more focused and present then.

If you are working in your own office or a room, you may put a sign at the door “Leave me a post-it note, and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” And then, during a longer break, you may check those notes and get back to them. Or you can just put a sign, “Genius at work.”

Writing down everything that comes to mind

A big part of why something like a Pomodoro Technique is needed is because our brains are constantly looking for stimulants. Addiction to social media means that you are addicted to the dopamine that increases each time you see a new notification, message, comment, or email.

And I was so addicted to this kind of dopamine. When working and focusing on one thing, I would remember I had to do another — a completely different thing. I was suddenly even interested in checking some people’s or company’s profiles that I never check because otherwise, I would count it as a waste of time.

Here is something that helped me with getting my mind decluttered. Another great principle regarding the Pomodoro Technique that I learned from Rob Dial’s podcast I mentioned earlier was writing down any thought that comes to mind during these 25 minutes.

To track my thoughts, I started to write down everything else that comes into my mind during my 25 minutes of complete focus. Most of the time (as you can see in the image below), it is just trivial things that don’t even matter after the “pomodoro” session is over.

Image by the author
Image by the author

Also, I got a lot of nagging thoughts to check Instagram, email, or news.

It’s funny, but literally, when I just sat down and started to focus, a thought crossed my mind, “What if this person answered me?”, “I need to ask this question to that person…”, etc.

Writing these nagging thoughts down was a sort of a ritual for leaving this thought for later. I wrote it down with intention — I’ll do it later, and sometimes it didn’t even feel that important when the break came.

As written by F. Cirillo himself, the “interruptions are often just ways for our mind to distract us, taking us away from what we are supposed to be doing.”

The Pomodoro Technique provides us a way to deal with interruptions because most of the things that come to mind during this focused time can wait for some 20 minutes until the break.

So have a notebook or a piece of paper next to you for writing down everything non-related that comes to mind. After a while, you’ll notice you get fewer thoughts like that popping into your mind.

Why does the Pomodoro Technique work so well?

I think the Pomodoro Technique works so well because it helps find the right balance for productivity by removing multitasking and organizing time in measurable chunks.

I like to have as few different focuses per day as possible because it takes time to switch between various activities. And also, when I have many different priorities for the day, I easily slip into multitasking.

On the other side, if I know I only have one focus for the day, for example, to write a new article, I procrastinate a lot because I feel like I have all day to do that.

And when you feel like you have all day to do that, you feel like you can always do something else first, and then get to it in an hour, a few hours later, in the evening, etc.

The Pomodoro Technique helps to divide the day into measurable chunks and therefore you have a sense of accountability.

The technique kind of reminds me of this principle of a goal card which I am used to already.

During the summers, I have worked a sales job that has been pretty intensive — we put in 12–13 hours per day. (We do that to maximize the time of the summer as far as the earnings and experience.) That’s where I learned the principle of a goal card.

When we think about working 12–13 hours, it seems like an incredibly long day. However, we had a goal card to divide the day into two-hour goal periods. And then we set measurable goals, for example, a certain amount of sales presentations during those two hours that we focused on.

The company I worked for used a funny example to illustrate why this works. It is the example of eating an elephant (of course, no one eats elephants, but, for the sake of an example).

Let’s say if you’d want to eat an elephant, it would be impossible for you to eat it all. You would need to divide it into smaller chunks, and then day by day, you could eat it step by step.

That is the same about our time.

Dividing my day into smaller goal periods in this sales job helped me successfully endure the long day and achieve my controllable goals on that day.

I feel that is the same with the Pomodoro Technique when I set a specific focus for the 25-minute “Pomodoro” session. That specific focus alone is what is important at that particular moment. And with these small steps of focused action, I can get a lot done during the day.

And by writing other thoughts and distractions down, I train my mind not to give my energy to ruminating about the past or worrying about the future.

And when I take a break, I don’t feel guilty because it is a scheduled break.

To sum it up, the Pomodoro technique helps me become more present by removing distractions in the external environment and mind. When I am more present, I can be more productive both physically and mentally.

To divide your day into these kinds of goal periods, you need to begin each day (or do it the previous night) by setting the main intentions or priorities for the next day.

Setting daily intentions or priorities

In the original Pomodoro Technique, F. Cirillo suggests planning how many “pomodoros” would be needed for each vital task of the day and draw boxes, just like in this image below.

Image by F. Cirillo from his book “The Pomodoro Technique.”
Image by F. Cirillo from his book “The Pomodoro Technique.”

Since what I often do is creative, such as writing an article, creating worksheets for the coaching program, or preparing a social media post, it is harder to predict the exact amount of time it will take.

Therefore, I found it more helpful to write down my 3–5 main goals/focuses/priorities at the beginning of each day (or the previous night) and start with the most urgent one.

Some priorities might take longer, some less than I think, but at least that way, I am not cutting away my creativity by rigorously focusing on a set amount of time for each activity.

Once one priority is done, I love to cross it off and start the next one. And I could mark down how many “pomodoros” each activity took for my statistics.

Image by the author
Image by the author

Having “pomodoro” sessions also helps switch off one type of work after finishing it and switch on for a different kind of work, since I also work part-time for a company helping with PR management.

Suppose you are also somebody who works on different types of freelance projects, jobs, or businesses at the same time. In that case, you will find the Pomodoro Technique helpful for allowing you not to bring the energy of the previous activity into the new activity you start.

Once the “pomodoro” session is done and the activity is finished for the day, you have a break for recharge, and you can start with a new focus.

How I Adjusted the Pomodoro Technique to Overcome Stress

The original F. Cirillo technique consists of four pomodoro sessions and then a 15 to 30-minute break.

I adjusted it to 25 min — 5 min break — 25 min — 10 min break cycles.

The reason is that longer breaks for me tend to take my focus away and make it harder to start focusing again. I sort of get lazy when I have longer breaks.

During COVID-19, building my own business and dealing with several personal issues, I found my stress levels rising more than ever. I started to worry about more and more things until I realized I had become a constant worrier for a couple of months.

I realized how this high level of stress affects my concentration and ability to focus. In fact, during this stressful time, I became a bigger multi-tasker than ever. Checking social media and email all the time had become my avoidance mechanism before I started using the Pomodoro Technique consistently.

I knew I had to tackle this problem to increase my productivity and make the most out of my “pomodoro” sessions.

One of the biggest problems for constant worriers (people who give in to stressful thoughts, like I had been doing) is controlling their imagination. Once worry becomes a habit, the subconscious mind automatically makes scenarios of the worst case possible.

Dr. Joe Dispenza talks about this issue a lot in his book, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself. We can either envision positive or negative outcomes of future situations. The fact is that for most people, it comes naturally to imagine more negative consequences by default.

I also found out that it is easier to envision negative outcomes, especially during stressful times. And it takes a lot of conscious effort and constant self-reminders to imagine positive outcomes.

The problem with ruminating on negative outcomes that pop into the mind is that you begin to feel like you are experiencing that. You feel anxiety, fear, anger, or sadness. As Dr. Joe Dispenza writes, the brain and body do not know the difference between envisioned and actual events.

Studies confirm this — according to brain imaging research done at the University of Colorado at Boulder, imagining a threat lights up similar regions in the brain as experiencing it does.

That is what also happened to me — imagining negative scenarios made me feel worse and worse, which affected my productivity and creativity.

“When we begin to experience the emotion of that event ahead of its possible occurrence, the body (as the unconscious mind) begins to respond as though the event is actually unfolding.” — Dr. Joe Dispenza

So I decided to use these five and ten-minute breaks to reduce my stress levels and increase my positivity and peace during the day and work on my goals and vision.

Because if you continue dwelling on the same thoughts and living out the same mood, it only amplifies. Therefore, you need to let that go as soon as possible to keep up the productivity and replace it with something positive.

I started to use these little five or ten-minute breaks for:

  • Visualization exercises. I creatively visualized myself reaching the goals I aim for. When I imagine how I feel reaching my goals or attaining my vision, it elevates my emotions. Therefore, it lets my body know that I am safe and have positive things to look forward to.
  • Breathing exercises. Breathing helps you release tension and stress, and that will also increase your performance. The flow of oxygen helps to think more clearly. My favorite one is “Breathe in love, breathe out fear. Breathe in peace, breathe out anxiety, etc.” You can also do short meditations.
  • Drinking water. It is a good reminder that I need to drink more water and more often.
  • Cuddling with my cat. Studies have proved that the presence of a cat helps to reduce negative emotions and stress.
Image  by the author. Not a perfect example, but illustrates how I wrote down  non-related thoughts that came into my mind during “pomodoro” sessions  and relaxing activities I did during the breaks.
Image by the author. Not a perfect example, but illustrates how I wrote down non-related thoughts that came into my mind during “pomodoro” sessions and relaxing activities I did during the breaks.

These little breaks of five or ten minutes helped me avoid extra stress by checking social media or email messages (when I did not have anything urgent). Instead, I devoted my time to activities that helped me relax and focus on my goals.

Because I was calmer, I was also able to be more productive. Because I had visualized my goals, I was also more motivated.

Overall, being disciplined and focusing on one activity at a time, and using my breaks wisely for my own well-being and personal development, helped me to have more confidence and less stress during my day.

If you have a hard time deciding which of these activities you’d like to implement, ask yourself what you need the most right now? Do you need to release stress and overwhelm, or do you need to increase motivation because you are working on achieving a specific goal and vision?

If you feel like you need to release stress and overwhelm, do meditation or breathing exercises. If you are working on accomplishing a specific goal, do a visualization exercise.

For me, visualization exercises help to reduce stress as well.

Visualizing what I want to happen or achieve helps to take away my focus on outcomes I fear and elevates my emotions, so I feel more safe, joyful, and excited. That altogether increases my motivation and productivity even more.

Importance of Taking a Break

If you are like me before I started using the Pomodoro Technique, then you are not really “a taking-breaks person.” That is, you are such a workaholic or a hustler that you don’t like taking breaks.

I used to be sitting at the task for hours, often checking on social media or emails, without stepping away from the laptop.

The only thing that got me moving was my eyes hurting from the computer screen or a need for a restroom break.

The Pomodoro Technique helps to make sure you are taking the necessary breaks because studies show that breaks increase productivity.

Studies show that taking regular breaks helps to boost your performance. Breaks reduce or prevent stress, help to maintain performance throughout the day, and reduce the need for a long recovery at the end of the day.

On top of that, taking breaks also helps with creativity. A study has shown how “aha” moments came more often to those who took regular breaks.

Another important principle in F. Cirillo’s book is that once the “pomodoro” session is over, you don’t continue working even if it feels like there are just a few more minutes needed to finish something. You take a break and then continue that in the following “pomodoro” session.

What Difference Has the Pomodoro Technique Really Made?

To help better assess the positive results of using the Pomodoro Technique, I decided to try two days without it while writing this article.

I didn’t use a timer anymore and took breaks only when I remembered them.

I fell back quickly to the same habits I had had for many years before.

I mostly remembered breaks when my focus was lost and when I just couldn’t concentrate anymore.

I didn’t accomplish as much as when I had used the Pomodoro Technique, and simple tasks took longer to complete. Instead of getting done with all my three main focuses for the day, I barely accomplished two of them. The old habit of procrastinating because “I have the whole day” was back.

After sitting at the task for about an hour, it was harder to focus. I felt an urge to check social media or messages, and my thoughts became filled with anticipating the future.

Perhaps this reaction was the result of my brain and body getting used to 25–5–25–10 min cycles.

Also, at the end of the day, I felt more tired — I felt like I really needed time off because my brain felt overwhelmed, and it was harder to think and focus at the end of the day. One day, the clock was just 7 p.m., and I realized I just couldn’t go on, so I had to take a walk outside.

Conclusion

Implementing the Pomodoro Technique in the period of three months at the time of writing this article has been a game-changer for me.

Not only has it increased my productivity, but I also started to realize where my time goes.

I began to realize how I barely had accomplished one task well during the day because I let myself be so easily distracted. My time had disappeared, answering to interruptions many times.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me increase my focus on a single task and become aware of what other non-related thoughts come to mind.

I remember when I multitasked, I could almost feel how my brain got messy and how my mind became heavy. However, removing distractions helped to declutter and create a clearer mind.

I also decided to use breaks productively to reduce my stress levels and increase positive emotions.

If I did not have an urgent phone call to answer or email to write during my break, I went to the other room and either did visualization exercises, a little meditation, breathing exercises or was just cuddling with my cat. Removing stress this way helped me increase my productivity even more.

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