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Pomodoro technique

October 21, 2022

This guide will show you how to use the Pomodoro technique with Workflowy. The Pomodoro method is great for maintaining focus over long stretches of time without getting burned out. Whether you struggle to get started or struggle to stop working, this system will help you maintain a healthy cadence.

What is the pomodoro technique

The Pomodoro technique was popularized by Francesco Cirillo in the early 2000s. It's essentially a system for working in short pre-defined chunks of time with a built in break called 'Pomodoros'.

The idea being that by artificially setting a time-limit on each session, you're psychologically more inclined to want to push forward and finish within the time limit. By keeping the sessions short, and knowing exactly how long you're going to work ahead of time - it's easier to get over the initial desire to procrastinate.

Additionally, by measuring our progress in Pomodoros instead of when we're completely done with our task, we feel better about making steady, measurable progress. It might take several hours to finish an activity but if we measure our progress in Pomodoros, we get a sense of steady accomplishment as we get closer and closer to finishing.

Another benefit of the system is the constant short breaks that punctuate each work session and keep you from getting bogged down. They're short enough to let you relax for a moment without being so long that you lose focus on what you were doing.


How the Pomodoro method works

The method itself is very simple. You basically decide what you're going to work on, set a timer for 25 minutes, and then get to work. Once the timer is over, you take a short break, set the timer again and work some more. After your fourth Pomodoro, you take a longer break. You continue working like this until you decide to stop or are finished.

1. Choose your tasks for the day
At the start of each day you choose what tasks you want to focus on. Take those items and put them on a list, these will be your todos for the day.

You should also estimate how many Pomodoros you think each activity will take you. The first couple of times you do this, your estimates will likely be way off. The point is to get into the habit of doing this for each todo on your list. This will help you gain a better understanding of how much effort each task actually takes.

Rarely do we keep track of how long our todos take and so we end up relying on our gut feeling when deciding how much time to allocate to each activity. By estimating and then reviewing the actual time spent, you'll develop a sense of how much effort your activities will require - which will help you better plan and manage your time.

2. Prioritize your tasks
Next you'll want to put your todos in the order that you'll tackle them.

The Pomodoro method doesn't have a lot to say about how you go about doing this. A good place to start is by choosing one or two items on your list that will create the most significant results. In other words, if you only had enough time and energy to get one or two things done on your list, which would give you the most bang for your buck.

3. Start doing Pomodoros
Once your todos are sorted you start your first Pomodoro and get down to business.

If you complete an item, you cross it off and move on to the next one, starting from the top of your list and working your way down.

The standard time used for a Pomodoro is working for 25 minutes and then taking break for 5 minutes. The longer break after the fourth Pomodoro is 15 minutes. However, you should feel free to adjust these times based on your personal experience and the type of work you're trying to do.

For example, if you're trying to do some very light work, then a shorter Pomodoro with a shorter break might make more sense. On the other hand if you're working on something that requires a deeper than average level of concentration, say writing your thesis or doing creative work then longer Pomodoros might make more sense.

Pomodoros that are longer than necessary will lead you to be bored and get distracted. Conversely, if the Pomodoro length is too short, you'll constantly get interrupted just as you're deep in thought. Neither situation is ideal, so we recommend you start with the standard 25/5/15 times and adjust from there if you feel that something doesn't seem quite right for you.

4. Review your daily progress
At the end of each day you remove any completed items from your list and review what you've accomplished.

You also review how much effort is going into each activity, this can be a source of insight and help you plan ahead if you're taking longer than you expect or if a task you thought would be difficult turned out to be relatively quick and simple.

Once you have a baseline of approximately how long a task takes you to complete - how many Pomodoros, you can then set goals around reducing the time it takes to complete that activity. In other words you can begin to challenge yourself to be more mindful of your work and see if you can't optimize what you're doing to accomplish the same task in less time.

The first time you use the pomodoro method, you won't have a good idea of how long something will take you to complete. By doing the daily review you'll start to develop a sense for how many Pomodoros an activity should require. This will let you estimate how many Pomodoros on average you can do and also how many tasks you can realistically complete in a day. That means you'll be able to better estimate what you can actually get done and plan ahead.

That's it for the method but there are some important things to keep in mind.

Seriously focus
When you're in a pomodoro session, you should do your best to focus and not let anything interfere. If anything comes up during a Pomodoro, you should add it to your todo list and handle it during your break if it's something simple. That means, emails, calls, alerts, etc., your Pomodoro time should be given the highest priority. If it's going to take longer than your break then add it to your todo list and keep working.

Take your breaks
Once the timer ends, you should stop what you're working on and start your break. Unless you're in a state of flow and are really doing some of your best work - you should drop what you're doing.

Your breaks serve the important purpose of giving your mind a chance to zoom out for a moment and consolidate what you were just working on. Breaks also keep you from pushing yourself towards mental fatigue. It's better to take your breaks and start your next Pomodoro refreshed and focused rather than trying to power through and burning yourself out.

No multitasking allowed
Studies have shown multitasking just doesn't work. You can certainly do it, but the work you produce is not going to be as good, you're not going to be nearly as efficient, and you'll be more prone to errors. If you want to do your best work, you're going to have to pick just one thing to work on at a time.

The Pomodoro method follows this insight and asks that you pick only one thing to work on during each session and don't switch until the Pomodoro ends. The only exception is if you finish your task within the first couple of minutes of a new Pomodoro.


How to use the Pomodoro method with Workflowy

Before we get started, we're going to need a timer. The original method used a tomato shaped kitchen timer for that, we'll use something a little more convenient.


0. Pick a Pomodoro timer
There are a lot of time tracking apps out there but most charge either a one-time fee or a monthly subscription. We've rounded up the best free options so you can get started without having to open your wallet. We also included some web based options if you don't want to download anything to get started.

These apps are all cross platform meaning they'll work on Windows, Mac, and Linux machines. The only exceptions are the last one on the list which only runs on Mac, and the second to last option which is for mobile devices.


Desktop app - https://splode.github.io/pomotroid/
Desktop app - https://roldanjr.github.io/pomatez/
Web based - https://pomodor.app/
Web based - https://pomofocus.io/
Mobile (iOS/Android) - https://www.bchen.dev/work/clockwise
Desktop app (Mac only) - https://tomito.app/

1. Make a list of todos & prioritize
The original Pomodoro method doesn't say much about how you make this list, so we'll start with one or two of our most impactful items and then add everything else.

2. Estimate effort
Now let's take a moment to think about how long each activity will take us - how many Pomodoros. We're using the recommended Pomodoro times of 25 minutes of work and a 5 minute break, so each Pomodoro will take us 30 minutes.

As we mentioned before, the first time you do this, your estimates will likely be way off. Over time they'll become more and more accurate as you get a sense of how long each type of activity takes you.

3.Start your timer and go
We'll start working and add a counter to the current item after each complete Pomodoro. So that at the end of the day our list could look a little something like this.

4.Review your list
At the end of the day we'll take a look at our list and move any complete items into an 'Archive' section with the day's date. Incomplete items will stay on our list for tomorrow.

During our review we can see where we underestimated the amount of time we needed to complete an item, for example with the 'Plan social media strategy' item. We can also see where we overestimated the amount of time needed, for example with the 'Clean out the garage' item.

This type of review could also suggest where we might need to break down a task into smaller activities to better understand where we're spending most of our time and effort - and crucially, where we could optimize.

In our example, the 'Plan social media strategy' should have been broken down into smaller chunks like 'Research competitors' and 'Structure our content strategy'. We can go ahead and make that change, nest them as subtasks and track their Pomodoros to get a clearer picture as we move forward. By doing this crucial step, we'll get better at estimating how long something is going to take us to complete and what we can actually get done in a day.

Conclusion

The Pomodoro technique is a simple but effective way to get over the initial difficulty of getting started. By working in small pre-defined sprints we artificially create a bit of pressure to focus and get things done. The regular breaks keep us from burning out and make things interesting by giving us time to relax and process the progress we've made so far.

If you struggle with procrastination, getting started on your work, or simply need some structure to help you work through activities that are open-ended with no strict deadline - the Pomodoro system is definitely one worth trying out.

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