Using the Pomodoro technique to become your own boss

The method helps people structure daily workflows in a more efficient, personalized way. So what is the '80s technique, and how does it work?

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In the era of big data and omnipresent metrics, a time management technique made in the 1980s is trending.

Time management methods are designed to give people an edge in their daily routines by incorporating structured approaches and philosophies into standard workflows. Over time, these various strategies provide people with a greater understanding of their executive functions to help maximize productivity and more. 

Across industries, the Pomodoro method is one of the more popular time management techniques and for good reason. The Pomodoro technique leverages a beautifully simplistic framework, which means there's no need for lengthy how-to tutorials or prerequisite knowledge before jumping in. So what is the Pomodoro technique exactly?

What is the Pomodoro technique?

Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro method in the 1980s. The word "Pomodoro" is Italian for "tomato" and the name itself is a nod to the tomato-shaped timer Cirillo used while developing this method. The Pomodoro method itself involves a recurrent framework of balanced work and rest cycles.

As part of the method, people divide their workday into 25-minute intervals; each known as an individual Pomodoro. After each Pomodoro, people then take a short break of approximately five minutes. After completing four Pomodoro work intervals, individuals take a longer break of approximately 25 minutes.

At the core of the philosophy, time management techniques like Pomodoro encourage people to gain a better understanding of their mental processes and procedures surrounding planning, multitasking, and the art of self-regulation. 

"When I'm working with students, whether it's a sixth-grader or a Fortune 50 executive, I often say that working on these skills, these executive functions entails really learning how to become your own CEO," said Rebecca Mannis, learning specialist and founder of Ivy Prep.

Sequencing and strategizing

Effective scheduling is one of the core components of the Pomodoro technique. Rather than approaching a task as one colossal undertaking, the method encourages people to step back and assess the individual components of the larger project.

"People naturally tend to focus on completing tasks, as in "I've got to finish this report by Monday!"  But tasks can often be formidably difficult and time-consuming—like staring up at Mount Everest and being intimidated by the sheer size of the thing. But all that really matters is that you put in the time, bit by bit, to complete the task.  

Break the climb up Mount Everest into step-by-step walks and climbs, and it's doable," said Barb Oakley, a professor at Oakland University.

As part of the overall approach, people often create a list of the individual tasks required to complete the larger project. This creates a chronological workflow of the processes necessary to complete a particular endeavor. This enhances a person's knowledge of the amount of time it will take them to accomplish their goals in a more realistic way.

"When you see it, it enables you to then think through the sequence, both the sequence of what needs to come first, second, or third, as well as we know that being able to anticipate the amount of time to do something also taps into that same visual part of the cortex, of the thinking part of the brain," Mannis said.

Overall, the system asks individuals to become more attuned to their own processes and to adjust the approach as needed. In the long run, the Pomodoro technique allows people to look back and reassess workflows in hindsight. The lessons learned retrospectively can then be applied proactively to future projects.

"It's one thing to set aside time to do something, it's another thing to be able to step back and evaluate what about the use of that time worked well? How could a person continue doing that? Why my certain tasks or situations lends themself better to approaching the task differently?" said Mannis. "So Pomodoro is one method of helping us try to use the best of what we have that makes us unique as humans, that metacognitive awareness, that self-awareness."

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Stress and systematic procrastination

Over the course of a workday, there's always potential for stress to arise. People are routinely managing tight deadlines and last-minute projects alongside the rigors present outside of the workplace. While not all stressful situations are avoidable, the Pomodoro method attempts to help people eliminate undue stress by first assessing the project, understanding their limited time and energy before jumping headlong into a project.

"When a person or an animal is overwhelmed that starts tapping into what we call the subcortical system, the more basic part sometimes called the reptilian brain, probably because reptiles have them too, that's how they survive and what happens then is that there's an increase in cortisol, the hormone connected to stress response. And very often people or animals will go into what we call fight or flight. That we either run away and withdraw and think about what procrastination is, or they'll lash out to keep away the danger," Mannis said.

Procrastination is another productivity quagmire altogether. If a person is feeling overwhelmed with a project they may be more inclined to hesitate or delay. Dithering may also appeal to individuals who have hit a snag with an ongoing task and may need to start from scratch. In this way, stress and procrastination can effectively compound each other in a self-perpetuating cycle. Interestingly, there's an underlying physiology to the human art of deliberate procrastination.

"When you even just think about something you don't want to do, it activates the pain centers of the brain. But when you switch your attention to something more entertaining (Facebook! Instagram!), the pain goes away instantly. You've also just procrastinated." Oakley said.

The Pomodoro method effectively implements short stints of structured procrastination into the daily workflow. Rather than distracting yourself from a new or overwhelming task, the Pomodoro method rewards people with small breaks peppered in following small periods of work. It's in essence a self-implemented Pavlovian approach to efficiency and task sequencing.

An overwhelmed workforce

Although the Pomodoro technique was created decades ago, the basic philosophy is particularly timely in 2020. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many organizations have been forced to quickly transition from the traditional office to the digital workplace. Needless to say, this transformation hasn't gone swimmingly for everyone. An already challenging situation is only compounded by the outside stress many employees are feeling as the pandemic continues to take its toll on communities around the globe.

"Nowadays we've got so much going on in our lives and we need to juggle so much that people can understandably feel quite overwhelmed by needing to juggle those two realities and so that can contribute to people either not doing as comprehensive or complete a job that they know they must meet or they feel they must meet," said Mannis.

The Pomodoro technique allows people to add structures to new tasks that can be physiological stressful in a particularly chaotic and stressful time. Situationally, this time management technique acts as an instrument of personal empowerment, enabling people to better assess the storage and use of their limited time and finite energies.

"It gives them the tool to both manage those resources with an eye toward being effective and efficient. It also serves as what educational psychologists or neuropsychologists might call a scaffold, right? It's an instrument. It's a tool in which you can engage in some of that self-assessment," Mannis said.

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Fine-tuning the approach

Overall, the Pomodoro technique is an adaptable time management method. This encourages individuals to tweak the instrument to better fit their learning style and nuanced approach to new tasks. The underlying philosophy is focused on understanding your cognitive functions and creating healthy strategies based on this knowledge.

"It doesn't matter if it's a Pomodoro or a Post-it, what's important is that you've got a tool. You've got an instrument. And the trick is to use that instrument and practice it to make it your own, and to develop that heightened awareness, metacognitive awareness," said Mannis.

In general, the Pomodoro technique is a tool; an enabler of an end result. The same tool can be leveraged in innumerable ways. This particular tool allows people to harness their time and energy in a more focused deliberate way. What this tool allows someone to create is wholly up to them. Mannis likens the method and the possibilities to other instruments.

"You can take a Stratocaster guitar, the Kinks could play a song or Keith Urban could play a song. The beauty is in their mastering the basics and then making it their own," Mannis said.

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