The Pomodoro technique was created in the 1980s, but TikTok is popularising it again. We asked an expert what the benefits are for our waning concentration, and how to do it.
Welcome to The Curiosity Academy, Stylist’s new learning hub where you can access workshops, how-to guides, new research and learn the most up-to-date skills from the UK’s most in-the-know people.
Back in the 1980s, a university student called Francesco Cirillo started using the classic red tomato-shaped kitchen timer to help him organise his work. More than 40 years later, Cirillo’s time-management technique is now a huge TikTok trend – with social media influencers crediting it with helping them get all kinds of work done, from studying to cleaning.
“The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, and separated by short breaks,” explains Emma Jefferys, productivity coach at Action Woman. Although the practice is being touted as a saviour for people living with ADHD, the expert says, it can be used by “anyone who wants to get stuff done and it is especially your friend if you recognise yourself as a productivity saboteur.”
As of 2019, research suggested that our collective attention span is on the decline. Given the challenges many of us have faced with sleeplessness, lethargy and mood over the past year, it’s not a stretch to imagine our concentration has taken a bit of a hit too.
If this sounds like you, here’s everything you need to know about the concentration hack TikTokers and experts alike swear by.
What’s the science behind the pomodoro technique?
The pomodoro technique is basically like HIIT training, but for the brain. Emma says there are three main ways it helps to rewire our productivity.
It reduces boredom
Despite how counterproductive boredom is to getting stuff done, it’s natural for us to lose attention or get distracted because our minds are geared to wander. The pomodoro method is a great antidote for this because she says, “A short blast of focused work means we can fully engage in the task, and then when we break our brains are naturally stimulated by the change of scene and activity – so that when we return we are even more focused.”
It promises a reward
You don’t need to be a psychology buff to know that reward is one of the greatest motivators. Emma says, “As humans, we benefit both from intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.” So, sometimes knowing you have to do something isn’t enough motivation, you need the added push of a reward at the finish line.
She explains: “By building regular breaks – the rewards – into our working pattern we are more motivated to get our head down and earn that break – especially as it is so tangible and in the near distance each time. It’s a win-win as we get the gratification of having made progress on the task and then the reward of the break itself.”
It stops multi-tasking
If you have a tendency to put work off by picking up other tasks, you’ll know that multi-tasking can be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to productivity. And that’s because “we are much more productive when we focus on a single task at hand,” Emma says.
She continues: “The technique encourages us to enter a productivity zone for 25 minutes – phones off – and just focus on getting the thing in front of us done. Studies have proven that what you see as a harmless flit between activities actually costs you a whopping 23 minutes and 15 seconds to refocus fully where you were! Monotasking is where it’s at.”
Who can benefit from using the pomodoro technique?
According to Emma, there are three types of individuals who can expect improved focus and concentration from implementing the pomodoro technique.
People who procrastinate:
The thought of committing to a hefty chunk of work can be daunting enough that we find any and every viable reason to put it off. If big tasks are your kryptonite, Emma insists this technique is for you, saying, “It allows you just to commit to 25 minutes. Just set the timer and see what you can get done in that time. It chunks it down, takes the pressure off and reduces boredom – which is often why we procrastinate.”
People who are easily distracted:
If you’re losing chunks of time to mid-task social trawls, the pomodoro technique is just the thing for you, because it “commits you to just a short blast of work with no interruptions or distractions.” As an incentive, Emma says, “The Insta scroll can be your reward over a cuppa!”
People who find it hard to stay focused:
A lot of people may be this way due to habit, but for some a natural propensity to lose attention can be the sign of a neorodivergency such as ADHD. Emma says the impulse to focus on something else will still be there while you practice the pomodoro technique. But, she explains, “writing down the places your mind wanders to during the focus period allows you to stay on the task in hand – but also know you have captured where your brain wants to go next, for later sessions.”
How do you do the pomodoro technique?
Emma follows the creator Francesco Cirillo’s original method to a T. She advises you break the process down into the following steps:
- Choose a task you’d like to get done.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes (see my thoughts on timers below) and set an intention to spend 25 minutes on this task without interrupting yourself.
- Work on the task until the timer rings. If anything pops into your head and threatens to distract you like an email you forgot to send then just write it down and carry on.
- When the timer rings mark that down on a piece of paper and celebrate the fact you spent an entire Pomodoro productively.
- Take a short break that is completely unrelated to the work you were doing. You can use this time to stretch, do a dance, make a drink or go for a short walk. Whatever it is, choose to do something relaxing and enjoyable.
- Start all over again. Once you’ve celebrated four Pomodoros take a 30 minute break. This extended break will help to reset your brain, and make you feel ready for the next round.
Tips for making the pomodoro technique work for you
- Phones can be a source of distraction so Emma advises using a kitchen timer or a stopwatch to time your intervals as they’re unlikely to distract you from the task at hand.
- If you’re not keen on the idea of a buzzer or alarm going off to mark the end of a productive period, try creating a 25 minute-long focus playlist to mark the time.
- The pomodoro technique is customisable, so play around with the focus periods and adjust break times accordingly. You’ll know if you’ve made your intervals too long or short if “you start losing focus and getting distracted, or you feel frustrated as you haven’t got much done”, respectively.
Emma Jefferys, coach and licensed NLP practitioner
Emma Jefferys – aka Action Woman – is an accredited coach and licensed NLP Practitioner living in Tunbridge Wells. After a 20-year career as a planner in advertising, Emma was fascinated about how people think, how we make decisions, how we can reframe things to change the perspective.
Her motto: “Change your thoughts and you change your world”.
Image: Getty/ Alys Tomlinson