Anybody who has done any kind of self-directed work is likely familiar with clichéd tales of procrastination involving obsessive (re)organization and internet black holes. Predictably, talk of procrastination habits is common amongst the particular species of loosely regimented worker that is the graduate student (hence, I wasn’t surprised to find this topic discussed previously in this forum). For this population, the lack of fixed hours or consistent supervision creates ideal conditions for work deferment and nightmarish last-minute cramming. All of this ultimately dashes any hope of achieving that elusive dream of “work-life balance.” So it was that I found myself rehashing these themes over dinner with fellow doctoral students one night when a friend mentioned a quasi-revolutionary productivity and time management tool: tomatoes.
But just what are these magical fruits? A “tomato” is the 25-minute chunk of time over which you do your work when using the quirkily named pomodoro technique. The basic idea (and it really is basic) is that you set a timer (the technique is named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer its Italian inventor used) for twenty-five minutes during which you set yourself to a task and only attend to that task—in other words, avoid any other distraction (e.g. email, facebook, chat, texts, this blog, kittens, etc., etc., etc.). You get five-minute breaks between pomodori, or tomatoes, plus a longer break after four of them, and you keep track of your completed tomatoes. And that’s it.
[END TOMATO; 5-MINUTE BREAK; NEXT TOMATO]
Well, actually, there appear to be other steps towards truly honing the technique for ultimate productivity and becoming a “Pomodoro Master,” which are spelled out in the book and courses on offer on the official pomodoro technique website. But for me, for now, the three simplest components of the system have proven most helpful:
- Breaking tasks into manageable segments: The prospect of facing twenty-five minutes of work is really not daunting; it often goes by much faster than I would have thought. And if you find yourself flagging in the middle of a tomato, a quick glance at the twelve minutes left on the timer may be consoling—or, who knows, drive you to get something concrete done in the remaining time. This method seems more realistic than gimmicky approaches like Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day and has the added benefit of giving you frequent breaks from sitting.
- Uninterrupted work time: The effect that just having a timer on can have on disciplining yourself to avoid the temptation of distractions is surprising. Just as certain smoking cessation tools purport to get you off cigarettes by telling you when to smoke, the technique can help you quit your procrastination addiction by breaking your ingrained patterns and telling you when you are allowed to take a break. As a rule, I don’t look at texts or answer Gchat messages while I’m on a tomato, and I am quicker to realize when my internet “research” is getting off topic. The key thing here is that you’re supposed to “squash” your in-progress tomato if it gets interrupted, and once you’re invested in this wacky system, that becomes very undesirable.
- Tomato tracking: In the world of long-horizon deadlines that is the PhD candidate’s life, I’ve found that setting a very modest daily goal for completed tomatoes and tracking my progress have helped me strike a more evenly balanced work schedule. I often end up making up some missed tomatoes on weekends, but once I’m done, I feel less of the ominous “you could be getting more work done” cloud hanging over me. [I’m not disclosing my daily objective here lest a future prospective employer read this and decide that it will never suffice for achieving professorial tenure!]
Ultimately, I think the pomodoro technique has helped me waste a bit less time and organize my work a little better (though I doubt it’s made me smarter). It’s still hard for me to press go on that first tomato of the day—obviously, I have to check my email and facebook before doing that—but once I get going I can usually maintain a good rhythm. Although the method was first devised to be carried out with a mechanical timer and a pencil-and-paper log, there are now numerous technological aids. Personally, I’ve been satisfied with this simple (and free) pomodoro tracker, which basically just times and tracks, though I found dozens of pomodoro apps for Android and possibly hundreds for iPhone through cursory searches.
Obviously, this isn’t for everyone, despite claims by technique founder Franceso Cirillo’s company (see the “Who” section on this page). A friend who tried tomatoes told me she doesn’t like being forced to stop working on things after twenty-five minutes when she’s on a roll (and also that 5-minute breaks aren’t long enough!). But my partner uses tomatoes to help structure and stay focussed on tasks at her more conventional ten-to-six job, which is somewhat ironic, since I use the pomodoro technique precisely to try to emulate the circumscription of work time that comes with that kind of job.
Would tomatoes work for you?