Slicing and Dicing with the Pomodoro Technique

When I first decided that I wanted to improve my levels of productivity, I became inundated with advice, both from colleagues and online articles. Some of the advice wasn't so great - at least, not for me. Productivity is a personal thing and what works for some, may not necessarily work for all.

One piece of advice that has worked for me is using the Pomodoro Technique. It first hit me because of the name (I'm the only person in my house that loves tomatoes, so what?) and when I delved further into it, I realised it could answer a lot of my problems. I had difficulty maintaining levels of focus and the Pomodoro Technique helps with this weakness.


Francesco Cirillo created the Pomodoro Technique in the late 1980's and involves six key steps:

  • Decide on a task to be completed
  • Using a timer (the original timer looked like a tomato, hence the name) allocate 25 minutes to focus on a particular task.
  • Work solidly on the task until the timer goes off
  • When the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper, or text document (this is optional, I don't do this myself).
  • If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a 5 minute break. We refer to the thirty minute period as a single pomodoro
  • Repeat the process. When you have four pomodoros, take a longer break, up to 30 minutes

####How I Use It

I largely follow the steps above directly, however there are some slight deviations, so let me give a brief overview as to how I use the Pomodoro Technique.

Firstly, I use it predominantly when I'm working from home or in a coffee shop/office space. If I'm working in a busy office with a lot of people around, vying for my attention, I find that despite my best intentions the Pomodoro Technique can suffer. Even if I have my largest size headphones one which silently scream to people "I'm busy, don't talk to me", someone will interrupt and the benefits of solid, focused attention disappear.

Next, I set up my environment accordingly. I'm sure to have a full glass of water, or fresh coffee dependant on the time of day. My phone and Macbook are in Do Not Disturb mode and I'm sure to have only the applications open that I need.

Lastly (and this is the part most people miss) - I make sure that the task(s) I intend to work on are broken down into the smallest possible chunks!

That's where the title for this post comes from. I slice and dice my tasks to ensure there is little thinking to do about the task itself. I won't spend 5 minutes of the pomodoro trying to work out what I need to do. There won't be those agonising moments where I look at the task and think "Hmmm, OK, I can't do that at the moment because I need to do this other part first"

Let's take this blog post as an example. I could easily have a task in my task manager that said "Publish Blog Post on using the Pomodoro Technique" however that would only lead to friction. If I set the timer and looked at that as my task, I'd wonder where on earth I would start. Firstly, I need an outline - how should I construct the post so that it's easy to read, what information should it contain? Once I have an outline, there may be different sections to the piece (dependant on it's length). Do I have an image that I can use with the title? What about proofing?

As you can see, you can slice and dice a task into several sub tasks.

1) Outline Slicing and Dicing with the Pomodoro Technique 2) Draft Intro and Overview 3) Draft How I Use It 4) Run post through proofing tools (I use Marked 2 5) Source stock image for post 6) Upload draft to web hosting platform 7) Schedule post for release 8) Add the .md file to my blog post archive (in DEVONthink) 9) Schedule next post in OmniFocus (my task manager)

Now I'm not going to use 9 Pomodoros to get those done. Experience tells me that they will take no longer than three, as long as I have set up my environment to be as distraction-free as possible.

What follows is where I may deviate from the default Pomodoro steps mentioned in the overview. The outline would be completed in the first pomodoro and perhaps part of the intro. If my timer goes off and I find myself in a sense of flow with a particular task, then I will double the length of my pomodoro. Instead of twenty five minutes focused work, I will make it fifty minutes instead. This helps to eradicate the effect of losing focus on a task during my break and then regaining it again. There is an attention cost there that I will always try to avoid.

Breaking down the tasks in this manner will also allow you to make greater use of working with contexts as opposed to projects. Contexts refer to the materials, the locations, people, applications, energy levels required to complete certain tasks. One example is that you may have an application such as Excel open. You may wish to spend one Pomodoro just working on a list of outstanding tasks that need completing within Excel. Or perhaps you could spend a pomodoro solely making phone calls. It's pliable to your own needs and work strategies.

I love the Pomodoro technique in certain situations. It helps manage my focus and, with that, my energy levels and output.

Do you use it? How has it improved your ability to produce? I'd love to hear from you.