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Brain Training for Productivity

Ever find yourself staring blankly at an extensive to-do list? Maybe it even glared back at you. It might be boredom, analysis paralysis, or plain old procrastination keeping you from ticking off your tasks. Either way, you’re caught in a trap.

Enter the Pomodoro Technique — an impossibly simple, yet incredibly effective, time management system.

How it works

Choose a task — any task on your to-do list. It can be anything from proofreading an article to researching an idea or drafting an editorial. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Work on your chosen task until the timer sounds — and here’s the important part — without interruption. Don’t check your email, send a text, or pick up another project. If your brain wanders off task, write down the distraction on a separate sheet of paper, and remind yourself: You only have to focus for 25 minutes.

Once the timer goes off, give yourself a five-minute break to stretch, drink some water, check your email, or stand on your head. Set another timer for your chosen break activity. Five minutes goes by faster than you think. When your five minutes are up, congratulate yourself for completing one pomodoro, and get all set up for your next 25-minute focus round. Give yourself a more extended break — 15 to 30 minutes — every four pomodoros.

You can even adjust the length of your focus periods. If 25 minutes feels insufficient, extend it to thirty minutes or even an hour. If 25 minutes is too long, start with 15-minute rounds. The goal is to figure out how much time you need for maximum productivity.

Why “Pomodoro”?

In the late 1980s, Italian writer Francesco Cirillo was still struggling to focus on his university studies. To counteract his tendency toward procrastination, he challenged himself to focus for 10 minutes, reached for his trusty tomato-shaped kitchen timer, and got to work. The method worked so well that he continued to use it. Eventually, he wrote a whole book about the technique, and he named it after his old kitchen timer. Why “pomodoro”? It’s the Italian word for “tomato.”

Why it works

Why is the Pomodoro Technique so effective?

  1. Its brilliance lies in its simplicity. The human brain struggles to process too much information at once. To avoid getting overwhelmed, and increase understanding, humans need big concepts broken down into bite-size pieces. It’s the same with to-do lists. Pomodoros shrink intimidating projects into small, easily surmountable tasks.
  2. It helps eliminate distractions. An inability to get things done is often the result of our tendency to flit from one distracting activity to another. Emails, calls, instant messages, and rumbling tummies keep us from achieving the deep, sustained flow state necessary to get hard work done — and done well.
  3. The timer provides a sense of urgency. Only seven more minutes until you can have a snack. Only five more minutes until you can text your partner. Only three more minutes until you can … and suddenly, you’re ticking big items off what once felt like an endless to-do list.

Next time you’re struggling to finish a task, grab a kitchen timer, and ask yourself: What do you get when you cross time management with a tomato? More productivity than you ever thought possible.