You Say Tomato, I Say a Great Way to Stay Focused

As a freelance writer, I love productivity hacks. I could spend an entire day reading Lifehacker, checking out the latest productivity apps, and scanning message boards devoted to Getting Things Done. However, under the guise of ‘learning to be more productive,’ I’ve often ended up at a net loss for wasting time as opposed to saving time. Or that was the case before I discovered one simple tool that I now use daily in my content writing.

The Pomodoro Technique was created in the early nineies by an Italian entrepreneur named Francesco Cirillo. And yes, that same “pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato. In the days before the built-in timer was available on our smart phones, the Pomodoro technique relied on a tomato-shaped timer, similar to a novelty kitchen egg timer. You can still purchase that timer, as well as Cirillo’s book on the Pomodoro Technique.

As a modern alternative, you can also use any timer app and learn the key concepts by following these simple steps:

  1. Work on a designated task for 25 minutes
  2. Take a short 5-minute break
  3. Return to working on a single task for another 25 minutes
  4. After completing four 25-minute sessions, which are called Pomodoros, take a longer break of 15 minutes

Spending 25 minutes fully focused on a single task, with no multi-tasking and no disruptions, is key to the Pomodoro Technique’s success. Today, where there are constant pings from emails, the siren call of Facebook, and real-life distractions buzzing all around you, you’ll quickly come to appreciate how precious and useful 25 minutes of concentrated focus can truly be.

The Pomodoro Technique asserts that imposed breaks in between sustained work allow people to achieve maximum concentration and avoid burnout, keeping the mind rested and fresh. Many who incorporate this structure into their work routine increase their productivity immeasurably.

Critics of the technique, however, argue that the program is too rigid and makes it impossible to achieve the state of flow. Whether I am working as content marketing writer or spending time on my own creative projects, I agree that “flow” is essential to creating my best writing. Psychologist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” And once I hit that state of flow, you can bet I’m not going to want to exit it just because a tomato timer has told me that my work time is up.

But wasn’t I just insisting that the Pomodoro Technique is an invaluable tool for time management and productivity as a writer?

I believe it is — I just use my own modified version.

When trying to achieve flow, the hardest part is always getting into it, for the same reason that the 25-minute Pomodoro of concentrated work is so valuable: there are countless distractions out there that are intent on stealing your focus. For me, my number one distraction is my own brain. If I can just get my body seated at my desk and my mind focused on the task at hand, I usually arrive at that happy, ego-less, concentrated state pretty quickly.

Still, it is shockingly hard for me to get started. So rather than sitting down and hoping for a magical surge of concentration, I set my app of choice for 25 minutes and don’t let my brain spend time on anything but the task at hand. It’s the current project, or it’s nothing. Eventually, the project starts looking a lot more appealing than staring at a blank screen for 25-minute blocks of time, and I get to work. It’s only a matter of time before the part of me that wants to do ten million other things just slips away. All that is left is my hands moving quickly over a keyboard and my brain taking great pleasure in being fully consumed in the current project. When I reach flow, if the 5-minute break reminder suddenly comes up in the corner of my screen, I cancel it and head right into the next Pomodoro.

Devotees of the Pomodoro Technique just cringed at reading that I regularly skip the breaks. The entire theory of the Pomodoro Technique is founded on those mandated breaks. But my modified version works well for me. It allows me to find that concentrated state that I need to produce my own writing, and it also has the added advantage of letting me honestly track the amount of time I spend working.

While it’s easy to say, “oh, I began working at 11am and worked straight through until 7pm,” the Pomodoros help me log the exact amount of work time. If my focus does drift off, I can assess how to set more realistic goals, and when I finally take a break, I’ll know I have truly earned it.

If you haven’t tried the Pomodoro Technique, I recommend using it to help establish the workflow and time management that best suits your life and style. If you’ve already tried it, I’d love to hear how it’s gone for you. Are you a traditionalist when it comes to using this popular time management tool, or do you modify it as well?

A freelance writer and content strategist for the last eight years, Alexandra M is a highly skilled writer, editor, proofreader and researcher. From an educational background based in English literature and poetry, she brings a deep understanding of the artistic use of language at its most basic level. Experience in overcoming research obstacles such as language, censorship and bureaucracies, has prepared her to tackle any inquiry with creativity and depth. Drawing on a breadth of personal and professional experience, she uses original thinking to apply these skills to produce and write creative, corporate and technical materials. When editing, her attention to detail combined with a quick grasp of overall coherency allows her to respect the author’s voice and intention while steering a work toward its best possible form.


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