The Pomodoro Technique: How to Make It Work for You

Written by
Will Goto

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the pomodoro technique calls for using a timer to break down work into 25-minute intervals separated by short 5-minute breaks. After four sessions of work, the pomodoro technique subscribes a longer 30-minute break.

While Cirillo prescribes 25-minute intervals, there are many variations of time intervals that are possible, but which are more conducive to deep work and flow? And which variation will work best for you?

The main benefit from using shorter 25-minute intervals with the pomodoro technique has more to do with the psychological affect of reward reinforcements. Having a clearly defined amount of time for work followed by break time, especially in shorter and more frequent time intervals, reinforces the incentive of doing a little bit of work to get a reward (the break).

Dr. Gazzaley, a neuroscientist, and Dr. Rosen, a psychologist talk about this in their book: The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World:

From decades of research on learning and behavior, we know that the shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.

Thus, using pomodoro with 25-minute intervals is probably most helpful to those who need to overcome the initial barrier to start working i.e. procrastination (note that procrastination is the exact opposite investment-reward structure). It is possible that the retraining of your brain with pomodoro is even more effective with smaller time intervals. However, if you want to get lots of quality work done, it is likely that longer periods of time are more effective.

A study published in the scientific journal, Cognition, claimed that brief diversions from a task can dramatically improve one’s ability to focus on that task over the course of an hour. This supports the notion that using smaller 25-minute intervals is better for work. However, you could argue that the simple “distraction” used in the experiment in 2011 isn’t comparable to the present-day work environment, especially now that a large number of knowledge workers are working from home due to COVID. Previous studies have shown that modern-day distractions reduce your cognition even when they aren’t actively distracting you.

Anders Ericsson published a study in 1993 that suggested the more advanced your are in your work, the more effective prolonged periods of concentration become (up to a maximum of 4 hours). Cal Newport, author of Deep Work and computer science professor at Georgetown University, similarly proposes that quality work comes from longer 1-4 hour sessions of uninterrupted focus time. Anecdotally, many people report that the 25-minute interval is too short to really get into the zone and complete more intensive tasks that need 100% of our cognition.

While Cirillo prescribes 25-minute intervals, there are many variations of time intervals that are possible, but which are more conducive to deep work and flow? And which variation will work best for you?

So in short, if you’re struggling with procrastination or tasks with a high barrier to entry like studying, start with shorter time intervals. If you need to focus and deliver on work that you are already an expert in, try 50-minute or longer intervals.

Will is the Cofounder & CEO of Rize, a simple, intelligent time tracker that improves your focus to help you become more productive.

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