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On a cloudy September 1987 afternoon in the terrace of a house in a medieval village 30 miles north of Rome in 1987, Francesco Cirillo, then a university student, struggling with procrastination of studying the first chapter of sociology book for an exam due in a few weeks, wound up a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to fully concentrate at a task in hand without distractions within the set time of 2 minutes.
Little did he imagine then that his technique improved over the years will be utilized by millions of people worldwide to structure their workday, beat distractions, achieve objectives, and improve their productivity within defined periods of time. Cirillo named his technique after the tomato (Pomodoro in Italian) shaped timer he first used and still possesses. He claims to have utilized the idea of timeboxing (where a day or week—is divided into smaller segments or blocks for specific tasks), dynamics of play, knowledge of how the mind works, and notions of structuring objectives and activities incrementally in refining his technique. It is a simple yet effective method to reduce the complexity of your tasks, manage interruptions, gain more control over your work and make it more rewarding.
In his book, “The Pomodoro Technique,” Francesco Cirillo lists the six steps of the core process of the Pomodoro technique.
1. Pick the task you want to complete : Any task, big or small that deserves your full, undivided attention.
2. Set the timer for 25 minutes : This marks your willingness to focus on task at hand for 25 minutes entirely.
3. Work on the task until the timer rings : Immerse yourself in the task for the next 25 minutes. Manage distractions by marking them on a sheet of paper.
4. When the timer rings, put a checkmark : This marks the completion of an interruption free focussed session on your task.
5. Take a short break of 5 minutes : Breathe, meditate, grab a cup of coffee, go for a short walk or do something else relaxing (i.e., not work-related).
6. After every 4 such cycles, take a longer break : Take a longer break of 20-30 minutes once you’ve completed four cycles. This helps the brain assimilate new information and rest before the next rounds.
One cycle of the above 6 steps is referred as a single Pomodoro.
However, to benefit the most from the technique, one needs to implement the process in stages and follow some rules. The five stages of the technique are:
You begin by listing your tasks for the day on your ‘To Do Today’ sheet and estimate the no. of Pomodoros ( timebox of 25 minutes work plus 5-minute break) required to complete the assigned tasks. The book has templates for ‘To do Today’ sheet along with record sheet and Activity Inventory sheet to list all tasks you want to complete over a longer duration of time.
During every Pomodoro – you collect data like the number of times you get interrupted and how many Pomodoros an activity took to complete.
You compile your observations on the Records sheet at the end of the day—for example, the total number of interruptions.
After recording, you convert the raw data into information. For example, you might calculate how many interruptions you get in an average 25-minute timebox or how much time/pomodoros it takes to complete an activity.
Finally, you organize the information in a way that helps you understand your tasks and see how to improve your process. This is a daily retrospective to align your estimation with your reality.
The rules you need to follow while using this technique are:
If it takes more than five to seven Pomodoros, break it down.
While planning your day, ensure that any activity does not take more than 5 to 7 Pomodoros. Complex activities should be divided into several smaller activities. Similarly, simple tasks which may take less than one Pomodoro for completion could be combined to fill up a Pomodoro.
A Pomodoro consists of 25 minutes plus a 5-minute break. The length of the Pomodoro shall represent an effective measure of work. Smaller time intervals such as 10 minutes may not be interrupted, but they don’t allow us to achieve appreciable results, and tracking becomes too intrusive. The book cites that it’s been proved that 20 to 45-minute time intervals can maximize a person’s attention and mental activity if a short break follows them. The book further claims that experience has shown that the Pomodoro Technique works best with 30 minute periods. The 5 minute break makes us more productive. Ensure that you do not engage in any activity that requires significant mental work. Don’t use your cell phone or check emails.
After every four Pomodoros, take a 15- to 30-minute break. Breaks that exceed 30 minutes can interrupt the rhythm between sets of Pomodoros. It may set off a mental alarm signaling the need for rest and free time. At the same time, don’t restrict yourself to shorter breaks between sets even if you’re under pressure to finish work, as your mind needs time to integrate old information and get ready to receive new information to solve the problems in the next round.
The Pomodoro is indivisible.
There are no half or quarter Pomodoros. All activities are divided into units of complete Pomodoros. If you have to interrupt a Pomodoro because you give in to temptation or something genuinely urgent comes up, there’s only one thing to do: Void the current Pomodoro even if it’s about to ring.
If a Pomodoro begins, it has to ring. If you finish a task while the Pomodoro is still ticking, use the remaining portion of the Pomodoro to review or repeat what you’ve done, make minor improvements, and note what you’ve learned until the Pomodoro rings.
If a Pomodoro is interrupted definitively, it’s void. If something urgent comes up and you have to stop working while on a Pomodoro, mark that Pomodoro void and begin with a new Pomodoro when you get back.
Protect the Pomodoro from interruptions. Interruptions are hindrances in successfully completing a Pomodoro. That’s why an effective strategy is needed to minimize interruptions and increase the number of Pomodoros without interruptions. There are two kinds of interruptions: internal and external.
Internal interruptions originate from your mind, and they are the urges to eat, drink or check the phone, walk a bit while working or talk to someone.
The book suggests several measures to free ourselves from these internal interruptions.
1. Make these interruptions visible. Every time you feel a potential interruption coming on, put an apostrophe (‘) on the sheet where you record your Pomodoro
2. Decide what to do. You can choose to : (a) Write down the new activity on the ‘To Do Today’ Sheet under “Unplanned & Urgent” if you think it’s imminent and can’t be put off. (b) Write it down in the Activity Inventory, marking it with a “U” (unplanned); add a deadline if necessary. (c) Intensify your determination to finish the current Pomodoro. Once you’ve marked the apostrophe, continue working on the task till the Pomodoro rings.
External Interruptions originate from other people you are working with, in a social environment, like a colleague or even a phone call while working alone. The mechanism for dealing with external interruptions is similar to internal interruptions. You mark a dash on your sheet and assign a time for it later in the day or some other time in the activity inventory sheet. However, the difference between internal and external interruptions is that with the latter, we need to communicate with other people to inform effectively, negotiate quickly to reschedule the interruption and get back to them as agreed.
The book also details the importance of devising a timetable, using record sheets to analyse and improve your estimation’s quantitative and qualitative aspects while setting up the days ‘To Do Sheet,’ and how to use the Pomodoro Technique in a team setting to achieve the objectives.
The book ends on a note that despite initial hiccups, errors, and failures to complete the planned pomodoros, a path of improvement lies before all of us, involving discipline, observation, and fun. All we need to remember is that each and every Pomodoro is important, and the next Pomodoro will be better.