Remember, Time is a greedy player who wins without cheating, every round !
— Charles Baudelaire, The Clock
Confronted with any deadline, the feelings are identical: The ever-ticking clock, more oppressive with each twitch; the concurrent anxiety; the sense of time dwindling like water in a tub that’s never quite full, and a drain that’s a bit too efficient.
The analogy ends here. Unlike water, time can’t be recycled. It’s finite. It’s set on killing you and in no special hurry.
Unlike you, time has all the time in the world.
Luckily, as Abraham Lincoln realized, there’s a trick to defeating any enemy. Befriend them. That’s what Francesco Cirillo did in 1987 when — as a bewildered college student slogging through a dreary sociology textbook at a dreary cafe on a dreary September afternoon — he befriended time. He needed nothing more than a pencil, a paper, and a tomato-shaped timer. (“Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato.”)
Cirillo originally published his Pomodoro Technique manual in 2006 as a free e-book, which was downloaded more than two million times by several readers, including myself. I recently read the newest version — the first available in bookstores — and found it to be as revolutionary and insightful as the e-book — for two reasons.
First, the technique effectively redefines your relationship to time, converting anxious stress into productive stress(eustress). As Cirillo explains, we tend to have two sorts of relationships with time, one (“Becoming”) that’s more abstract and qualitative, the other (“Succession of Events”) that’s more natural, experienced by children.
This is why the technique can improve not only your work but also your life. It frees you to live presently, enabling you to experience more pleasure from work by activating a feeling that psychologist’s call “flow,” and that the rest of us call “being in the zone.” As Cirillo writes:
Pleasure does not come from hurrying on nervously to the next objective but from consciously experiencing the current one.
Second — and relatedly — unlike many self-help books, the technique relies on scientific research concerning topics like timeboxing. That is, it allows you to forget about time — letting your trusty pomodoro timer do the worrying instead. In this way, time becomes a friend. You no longer have that constant, pestering awareness of dwindling time. You defeat neuroticism. You become more productive, your brain less segmented, devoted more wholly to the task at hand because its free from an abstract worry over efficiency.
There are six basic steps to the main part of the technique:
- Decide on the task to be done.
- Set the “pomodoro” timer (traditionally, the magic number is twenty-five minutes).
- Work on the task — and only that task — until the timer rings. If you’re interrupted by a thought, briefly mark that thought down and return to the task at hand.
- No matter what, immediately stop working when the timer rings. Put a checkmark on your piece of paper, next to the completed task. (When writing this article, I didn’t hear my timer ring because I was in a state of flow. That can be a problem — so make sure the timer’s loud.)
- Take a five minute break. The twenty-five minutes of work, combined with the five minute break, equals one pomodoro. Congratulations! Congratulate yourself — go eat a tomato or something.
- Complete however many more pomodoros you’d like, continuing to take a five-minute break after each twenty-five minute work period. After four pomodoros, the typical length of a “set,” take a longer break (15–30 minutes).
In the newest edition of Cirillo’s book, The Pomodoro Technique: The Acclaimed Time-Management System That Has Transformed How We Work, he also breaks down (1) how the technique can be applied to teams and (2) goes into more detail about the entire process of incorporating the technique into one’s life (for example, by planning, tracking, recording, processing, and visualizing the day’s pomodoros).
“Simplify, Simplify” — and Take a Break
It’s that simple and—like life—the technique works best if you keep it simple. Personally, I prefer pencil, paper, and an analog timer to one of the dozens of phone apps peddled by money-hungry developers.
Indeed, because Cirillo’s method aims at reducing the impact of internal and external interruptions, an added benefit of doing things the old way is that you’ll minimize the constant stream of interruptions defining modern life. (Texts, emails, calls, etc.)
Finally — and refreshingly — Cirillo emphasizes the importance of taking a break. Indeed, breaks are just as important as the actual pomodoros.
As Cirillo recognizes (and as thinkers like Einstein recognized):
Leisure time is fuel for our minds. Without it, creativity, interest, and curiosity are lost and we run ourselves down until our energy is depleted. Without gas, the engine won’t run.
So head out and buy a notepad, a pencil, and a kitchen timer. Time doesn’t have to be an enemy; with the Pomodoro Technique, it can become a friend.
And the best way to defeat an enemy is to make them a friend.
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