The Pomodoro Technique: A $2 app that changed the way I work

I was working on everything — and not getting anything done. With The Pomodoro Technique, I traded multitasking for 25-minute work sprints.
Image: A woman uses her cell phone
With the Pomodoro Technique, you pick a task, set a timer for 25 minutes to work on that one thing, take a 5-minute break when the timer rings and repeat. lechatnoir / Getty Images
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By Dana McMahan

I'm working against the clock. Nine minutes remain on a little red timer on my phone, and I'm to keep writing until the alarm goes off, then take a five-minute break. No matter how in the flow I am, I must step away from the computer.

Who's making me? Nobody. Well, I am, but my only enforcement is a $2 app I downloaded recently, a desperate measure to help me wrangle my work day into something approaching manageable.

As a freelancer working from home, days can disappear in a whirlwind of answering emails, dealing with that load of laundry or dishes that simply must be put away, and other means of procrastination that leave me scrambling, frantic, come deadline time. I've lost hours, days, down rabbit holes of research that may be interesting, but doesn't contribute to the story at hand, and instead sucks time away that — if I'm to continue the freelance hustle — should be spent on actually, you know, making an income. Freelance life is feast or famine and I always choose feast, which leaves me in a constant state of not knowing if I can get everything done on time.

Of course these issues aren't the sole province of freelancing. These habits were just as entrenched when I worked a more traditional job for an employer. And I was at the end of my rope. Every year a new day planner, a new plan to stay on top of things, and every year the same old thing.

What is The Pomodoro Technique?

Until I decided to try an approach I kept hearing about from other freelancers. The Pomodoro Technique sounded far too basic to actually work. You pick a task, set a timer for 25 minutes to work on that one thing, take a 5-minute break when the timer rings and repeat. What's that have to do with the Italian word for tomato? The technique's creator, then-student Francesco Cirillo, used a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato. So what's magic about a cute tomato timer?

You might be surprised. When we later compared notes, “[My] most productive times were doing this technique,” said Eleazar Cruz Eusebio, Psy.D., NCSP, executive director at Insight Neurodevelopmental Associates and Nationally Certified School Psychologist at Prince George's County Public Schools in greater D.C.

I found the same. With nothing to lose I gave it a try using one of the many apps that have sprung up around Pomodoro and by the second day wondered how I'd managed my entire working life without it. The beauty of this approach is that it eliminates multi-tasking: that time-sucking, mind-draining, frenzied state of activity many of us thrash about in all day (and night). I was always working on everything, and therefore had no idea how long anything really took, or should take, or if I was spending my time wisely.

Now I break my work into 25-minute segments where I work on only one publication, or one other area (like my Airbnb, or the admin/business side of this gig economy life). Using the app, I set the timer for the task in question, and work furiously until the alarm. Instead of dragging out the work all day, I try to see how few sessions I can complete the work in. Having a finite end time is one part of the marvel this has been for me. And in keeping with The Pomodoro Technique, if I finish before the alarm, I take the time to refine my work, learn more, or brainstorm more ideas for the same publication.

Why does the Pomodoro method work?

“It's ridiculously simple,” Eusebio said. But it works on multiple levels. “The first reason it's absolutely effective is because it's breaking the workload into manageable units.” Instead of looking at whatever mammoth project you're on, you just have to do one Pomodoro, then one more, until you're done.

You're also not wasting time, he said. That's been huge for me; learning how quickly I can accomplish things without distractions. When I set the timer I have everything else shut down. All browser tabs are closed, and social media notifications off. My husband knows if he texts and I don't answer it's because I'm on my timer. (Now if someone could only explain to my dogs that it's not convenient for me to take them out during those time blocks!). There's no idly checking Facebook only to find half an hour has passed. No searching for photos to accompany a post and looking up from my screen 45 minutes later. Nope, I only have eyes for this one thing in front of me.

And you're building in a reward system. The break between sessions alone can be the reward, Eusebio said, but he suggested taking it a step further and using those minutes to text a friend or have your favorite snack (I like to pet my dogs).

But it all boils down to intentionality, Eusebio said. “A lot of us lead our lives unintentionally … we just see what's next,” he said. When what's next is answering that email or text or checking your Instagram notifications (guilty!), no wonder we're always busy but never productive. “The reason you are able to accomplish more is because now you're intentional. With Pomodoro you have harnessed control over your time.”

The result of taking this approach so far has been nothing short of a miracle. I get so much more work done so much more quickly that I've been able to take time off to do things like spend a day with visiting family at a park. And not only take time off, but do it free of worry about what work needs to be done, because I know I'm up to date, and that I can stay on schedule with what's left.

As I spend a few more weeks using the technique and app it will also reveal some findings. I upgraded to premium (it looks like the cost now is $9, but still exponentially worth it), which lets me see reports breaking down how much time I spend on various projects; assignments for NBC News, for example, account for about a quarter of my working hours. This reporting will help me determine how worthwhile projects are, at least financially. If I find out I'm spending more hours on work that pays a fraction, well, that'll make the decision to cut something easier. This prioritization — in this case based on economics — is at the heart of what makes this approach so successful, Eusebio said.

The app and technique can go much deeper, but honestly, just using the timer has changed everything. And an app isn't even necessary. In fact, said Eusebio, who uses an old school wind-up timer, Cirillo would probably tell you to step away from the technology.

It's not always possible to use Pomodoro — some days are simply too hectic with too many competing demands, though ironically those are the days it would be most beneficial. But on the days I can commit, I'm most calm, most productive and happiest at the end of the day. When I'm just not feeling it, I can at least make myself do just one Pomodoro. Often that success encourages me to do another one, and it keeps going (and if not, well, at least I got a solid block of work in).

I plan to build on the success so far by plotting out how many Pomodoros I'll spend each day — and learning more and more how many it takes to do certain things. Gradually my to-do list that has never worked will evolve to a Pomodoro list, and I think I'll even be able to do more work (or better yet, find more time for my dogs, husband, and hey, maybe even self-care).

Not too bad for a sub-$10 app! And with that — and time left on the counter — on to my next NBC task.

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