Sometimes, I have no problem focusing. I can sit down, tackle a task and feel good about myself. Other times, I have the attention span of a 4-year-old after three Mountain Dews. I look at pointless crap on the internet to no end and fall into a shame spiral of unproductiveness.
When I was in graduate school, I heard that working in 90-minute chunks was the magic number for productivity. I found this tactic really useful when I was in a crunch. I would set up at my desk, light a candle (“dear lord, help me finish this problem set”) and not allow myself to do anything other than the task at hand for 90 minutes. I was blown away by how much I could accomplish in that hour and a half. Tasks took half the time I expected them to.
Fast forward to today. I have a smartphone that I check constantly, I manage multiple projects with different deadlines and I’m working on complex challenges that require my full concentration. There are times I’m not as productive at work as I’d like to be, and it feels terrible when I can’t focus. So I started thinking about how I could work more efficiently and feel more accomplished at the end of the day.
I heard about “the Pomodoro Technique” for increasing focus and productivity and decided to try it for a week. The technique is named after its Italian creator’s use of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro means tomato in Italian) to time his work and break intervals. A typical Pomodoro Technique set looks like this:
- Define the task you want to work on
- Set a timer for 25 minutes and get to work
- Take a short break (5 minutes)
- Do another 25-minute work interval
- After four work intervals, take a longer break (15–30 minutes)
What I Did
Twenty-five minutes felt short to me, but I didn’t think I had the stamina to jump back into the 90-minute intervals I had used in grad school. I chose 50 minutes as a happy medium. Here are the rules I set for myself:
No checking my phone
I put it out of sight in a place where I couldn’t easily reach it, because it turns out that even having your phone near you makes you dumber. Yay.
No checking email
I closed that shit.
No searching for unrelated crap on the internet
The endless hunt for the perfect high-waisted mom jeans had to wait.
I set a timer on my laptop and started my work interval. If I felt an urge to check something online, or send a text or email, I wrote it down so that I wouldn’t worry about forgetting it. It was also a relief to see it – like a reminder that I wouldn’t have to resist temptation forever. These lists were humbling and revealing — the stuff I wrote down seemed much less important after 50 minutes. It turns out I didn’t die because I had to wait to check if the jeans I wanted were on sale.
There were times during work intervals when it was really hard to keep working. I would come to a task that seemed difficult or boring and feel tempted to grab my phone for a “break.” I tried my best to resist that urge by sitting back in my chair for a second, or looking out the window. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
Overall, I found the Pomodoro Technique helpful. Finishing an “interval” made me feel proud and productive. When I stuck to it, I was able to accomplish more in a short period of time because I eliminated “small” distracting breaks. There were times when I would finish what felt like a lot of work, then check to see that only 20 minutes had gone by. And the list of “important” things I wrote down to check while I was in a work interval? I usually flew through it in five minutes.
The only reason it wasn’t more effective for me is that I didn’t have the discipline to fully stick to it for the whole week. I cheated a bunch of times. It’s easy to justify that you’re just going to check your phone “really quickly.” But for me it’s rarely quick, and whatever I’m doing on my phone or online (hello, Instagram) basically throws my train of thought in the garbage.
If you’re going to try the Pomodoro Technique, here are my tips:
- Don’t use your phone as a timer. It will distract you.
- Use whatever time interval feels good to you. If you feel ready to try 90 minutes, rock on. If 25 minutes is a good starting place, good for you, too.
- Keep a list of things you don’t want to forget (like checking something online or sending a text).
- Take a real break during break time. Fully disconnect from the task (bonus points for stepping away from screens), do the things on your to-do list if you must and then jump back in.
Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique or a similar method? How did it work for you? Let us know by commenting below.