How I used the Pomodoro technique to Improve Focus and Increase Productivity

A very helpful technique to ward of distractions and interruptions

I have never been big on productivity hack or tricks. Or to put it another way, none of the productivity strategies I employed earlier worked for me. I have tried writing down my tasks in a list, I have tried task management apps like Things, etc, but I always seemed to digress.

I’m the type of person who gets distracted very easily. I get anxious when I get any new notification or I see the red unread sign — whether it is a new email, a software update notification, or a WhatsApp message — I need to read it. So, although I work for long hours at a stretch, I am mostly engaging myself on things that are not what I planned for.

And maybe that's the reason my other task management techniques never worked.

Finding the Flow

A few months back I was reading the book Ikagai, and the authors emphasized the importance of “Finding Flow” in the work we do. It is very important that we get completely immersed in our work, not thinking about or distracted by anything else. The complete dedication should dissolve our ego and we should become part of what we are doing. This is the kind of experience Bruce lee described with his famous

Be water, my friend

And realization struck me that I was the complete opposite of Flow. I was Anti Flow. This is how a typical day looks like for me — I would start working on an office project when suddenly I would get a new email notification about uploading some documents for my mortgage. I would stop everything and run to search for the document. While searching I realize it is tough to easily find the required papers, since my document management system is not good, and I would start arranging them. And I would leave that also in between and pick up something else.

And although I had a plan to get my office work done on time, I usually struggle to meet the deadline and have to work extra hours to get it completed.

The Pomodoro Technique

In the same book, the authors also mentioned the Pomodoro technique to increase focus and productivity. Although I had heard about it earlier, I never really believed in it. Because I was so used to working in a continuous stretch of time (during which I thought I was being productive), the idea of splitting up my workday and wasting time on breaks seemed totally counter-productive.

But when I read about this in the book, I thought of giving it a try.

The Pomodoro Technique was created by Francesco Cirillo back in the early 90s as a way to harness the power of focused work and frequent breaks to be more productive. Based on the official website

Over 2 million people have already used the Pomodoro Technique to transform their lives, making them more productive, more focused and even smarter

The idea behind this technique is to budget your time into short increments to promote sustained concentration and stave off mental fatigue. Each 25-minute work period is called a “Pomodoro”, named after the Italian word for tomato.

How I Effectively Used the Pomodoro technique

I used the Pomodoro technique in combination with a task tracker. I used the App ‘Things’ for listing my work. Every morning, or sometimes the previous evening/night, I would try to list down all the work that I think needs to be done during the day. Here is one such example:

I try to order the list based on how I want my work to be ordered. I want to start my day by reviewing the open items and replying to any emails that I may have missed. Then I want to continue on the office coding project. The coding effort is not one Pomodoro, instead, it is multiple, and I stagger it throughout the day.

For following strict timelines for each task I use the app — Tomato Timer. It is a free app without too many hassles. When picking up any task I use this app to start the timer.

During the course of the work, I force myself to not look at any notification or to reply to any other task. Sometimes, I even switch off notifications on my Mac.

I usually have a couple of meetings every day, which are mostly scheduled at the half-hour or the hourly mark. So the 25-minute sessions with a 5-minute break work perfectly for me. My longer break is 30 minutes, where I give myself the option to do whatever I want.

The Results

I have been practicing the Pomodoro technique for a few months now, and I have been pretty pleased with the results. At first, working in small increments felt uncomfortable, but it soon gained on me. I have seen a steady improvement in my performance and also in my time-management ability.

Here are some areas that I have personally seen a marked improvement:

→ Combating distractions

When I started off this process, my biggest problem was getting distracted. I had an urge to acknowledge the latest email or reply to the last message on Slack.

The Pomodoro Technique helped me resist all of those self-interruptions and re-train my brain to focus. I started off by disabling notifications on my laptop as well as my iPhone. But soon, I was able to live alongside these notifications, without getting distracted by them — I knew I just had to stay 25 minutes without getting distracted.

I kept a separate session for managing these interruptions.

→ Managing small and mundane tasks

In between high-priority activities, smaller mundane tasks would get ignored. When I started with the Pomodoro technique, I remember there was one task pending on me for few months — I had to crunch some numbers and generate the active users that were using a particular application. It was not that critical but needed to be done. But I kept overlooking the task.

One of the advantages of having the Pomodoro technique was that I could pay attention to these smaller tasks. The knowledge that it will not take more than 25 minutes, made these smaller chores fun.

→ Finding the flow

With reduced distractions and interruptions, I was able to fully focus on the work at hand. As psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi asserts in this book, “Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience”, flow is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else matters.

These 25-minute sessions had a very clear and concrete objective that made it very simple to fully engage in the work I did. I made progress faster, I completed tasks sooner.

→ Less Stress and Anxiety

Having a lot of tasks at hand made me anxious and stressed. Without proper planning, these tasks were a bit overwhelming, resulting in doing a whole lot of nothing.

The planning associated with following the Pomodoro technique made me attentive to all the tasks. I realized that some of the tasks do not take more than one Pomodoro and it was just a matter of starting on these chores. I learned to prioritize my work.

In Conclusion

The Pomodoro technique is just another technique for planning and time management. In the end, the results would depend on how well you are following it. What matters is how dedicated you are to fight off distractions and working with full focus.

If you are struggling and stressed out with managing time, try out this technique. Keep hitting at it for at least a month to see the difference.

Remember,

  1. Pick a task

2. Set a 25 or 30-minute timer

3. Work on the task till the time is up

4. Take a 5-minute break after each session

5. Take a longer break after 4 session

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