Application of the Pomodoro Technique: Take the Best, Ignore the Rest

by Lucas Kleinschmitt on July 19, 2011

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method in which you work in units of 25 minutes, called “pomodoros”. After each pomodoro, there is a five-minute break. In addition, a 15- to 30-minute break is scheduled every four pomodoros.

A pomodoro is like an atomic unit of time. It must never be interrupted, never be “finished early” and never be overextended.

While many time management practitioners love the Pomodoro Technique, it is heavily criticized by others, mostly for its lack of flexibility. That’s a pity, because the basic time management principles and ideas underlying this method are great — and the rest is merely a question of proper application of the method.

For this reason, I would like to give you a quick guide to the optimal application of the Pomodoro Technique — or rather, the productivity principles underlying it.

Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

Here are some of the time management benefits that come with using the Pomodoro Method:

  1. You work in intervals of undistracted focus. Francesco Cirillo, the inventor of the Pomodoro Technique, calls them “pomodoros”. In my ebook Beat Stress, Boost Success, I call them “work units”.

  2. Since you cannot interrupt a pomodoro, you need to delay interruptions such as phone calls and emails, which will eventually lead you to batching them together in an extra work unit. This is much more effective than handling interruptions scattered throughout the day.

  3. To expand on this point: thinking in work units requires you to batch small tasks together so that they fill at least one unit. It also forces you to break big tasks down into smaller, manageable chunks.

  4. When applying the Pomodoro Method, you take regular breaks. This is so important that I have written an entire article about how to take breaks the right way.

  5. As an additional rule, the Pomodoro Technique requires you to plan your work units in advance by creating a task list for the whole day. This is another general productivity principle that you absolutely should employ.

  6. You are also asked to track your progress and the amount of time each task took you, review your tracking sheet every night, and spend 25 minutes analysing it and trying to find ways to perform your work more effectively so that you can cut down the amount of time spent on individual tasks. I’ve described a simple way to track your progress throughout the day in my blog post How Folding a Sheet of Paper Can Double Your Productivity.

After this quick overview, we can see that the Pomodoro Technique combines the principle of work units with the techniques of planning and tracking tasks, and of analysing your workflow.

The One Big Flaw

While all this is great, the strict 25-minute rule of the Pomodoro Technique is not very practical. If you chose to follow the Pomodoro Principles 100%, then all of your work units would need to be exactly 25 minutes long.

However, in reality, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. The ideal duration of one work unit depends on the sort of task you are performing and on your ability to focus. In most situations, it will be somewhere between 45 minutes and two hours.

Applying the Pomodoro rules too strictly is also impractical for your day-to-day work life, because you will often have different amounts of time available. Say you have only 20 minutes left before a meeting — according to the Pomodoro Technique, these would be worthless. What a shame!

Or, to give another example: if you finish your task before the 25 minutes are up, the Pomodoro Technique doesn’t allow you to stop. Instead, it asks you to “overlearn”, meaning that you should repeat what you just studied. This, of course, is impractical if your task has nothing to do with studying.

The truth is that the Pomodoro Technique was developed by a student who was fighting his weak ability to focus. I’m not criticizing that student — the 25-minute rule may have worked well for him. What I’m saying is that for most of us who are engaged in our work life, this time frame is both too short and too rigid.

Sure, the strictness of the Pomodoro Technique can be good for you if you are very undisciplined. After all, it keeps you from using “flexibility” as an excuse for procrastination. But if you’ve got yourself together at least in a basic sort of way, then the strict application of the Pomodoro Technique keeps you from truly optimising your workflow.

Smart Application of the Pomodoro Principles

The good news is that you can easily make use of the outlined productivity principles without going all “Pomodoro” — i.e., apply them without sticking to the strict 25-minute rule.

Adding some flexibility to the Pomodoro Technique will help you to employ it efficiently in your work day. Work in focussed units, plan your tasks and track your progress, but don’t obsess about those 25 minutes. Instead, choose a time frame that suits your individual needs.

If a task is finished before your work unit has ended, take note to adjust your planning next time, then stop the work unit, take a small break to get ready for the next set of tasks and start a new work unit.

This flexible use of work units will allow you to make much better use of your time.

As a reminder, here is a summary of the core principles of the Pomodoro Technique: