I used to work a lot — 60, 80, or even 100 hours a week…

I let my work be a big part of how I defined myself. I wore those insane hours like a badge of honor…I loved telling people how “busy” I was…and how much I “had to do”.

Sound familiar?

Looking back, I realize I used my work to try and fill a void in myself. The problem was that this void was like a black hole. No matter how many hours I worked, it never seemed to fill it up. If anything, it made me feel worse.

One day I’d had enough. Truth be told, I’d had way more than enough. I stopped and reevaluated my life, trying to figure out what was important to me, and what wasn’t.

I had to make a big change. I had to figure out how to work smarter, not harder. I needed to optimize my work process to do more in less time.

I needed the Pomodoro Technique. Here’s how this incredible simple time management system changed my workday—and ultimately, my life. I think it can do the same for you.

pomodoro guide

What is the Pomodoro?

Over the years I‘d heard about a time management system called the Pomodoro Technique. It seemed too simple, but as they say, the simplest things often work best.

I read the 2006 paper written by its creator, Francesco Cirilio, which explained the technique and as importantly, the psychology behind it. This revolutionary time management system is deceptively simple to learn, but life-changing when applied correctly. The Pomodoro Technique can be broken down into the following four basic principles.

Pomodoro Principles

1. Work with time, not against it: Many of us live as if time is our enemy.We race the clock to finish assignments and meet deadlines. The Pomodoro Technique teaches us to work with time, instead of struggling against it.

2. Eliminate burnout: Taking short, scheduled breaks while working eliminates the “running on fumes” feeling you get when you push yourself too hard. It’s impossible to overwork when you stick to the system.

3. Manage distractions: Phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, or suddenly realizing you need to change the oil in your car — distractions constantly bombard us. Usually, these distractions can wait. The Pomodoro Technique helps you log your distractions…and prioritize them for later.

4. Create a better work/life balance: Most of us are far too intimately acquainted with the guilt that comes from procrastination. If we haven’t had a productive day, we can’t seem to enjoy our free time. As a Pomodoro master, you create an effective timetable and achieve your high-priority tasks, so you truly enjoy your time off.

The Pomodoro process: 25 minutes of focus

Right now you’re probably thinking: “This all sounds great, but what the heck do I actually do?”

It’s actually quite simple…

Pomodoro Technique

Right now, you’re probably thinking “Twenty five minutes of work? That’s nothing! This is gonna be easy!”

Not so fast…

That’s 25 minutes of steady, focused work on ONE task. No multitasking. No emails. No phone calls. No checking Facebook. Nothing! No distractions allowed.

Get started: Here are the tools you need

For me, this took some getting used to, and required some tools and hacks. Here’s what I used:

Pomodoro tools

My first tries with Pomodoro: “Ugh.”

Like most things in my life, I learned through experimentation, experiencing a lot of pain and frustration but ultimately growth.

At first, I thought I could do 16 Pomodoros each day…no problem. I was used to working so much, that less than seven hours of work seemed like a breeze!

The first day I completed 12 Pomodoros. I got a ton done, but still felt like a failure because I fell short of my goal. I felt tired…and miserable.

Ugh…

Over the following days, I tried cutting back on my target number. When it worked, I got a ton of stuff done and felt amazingly productive. I knew I was onto something good. Other days, I did too little or too much and I felt like crap…and I was convinced this was the dumbest system in the world.

Double ugh.

One day, I just ignored the system altogether and went back to multitasking. I was unfocused, unproductive, and frustrated. I gritted my teeth and kept doing things my old way for a few more days. What I found was that I got things done, but my productivity simply couldn’t compare to when it all clicked with the Pomodoros.

Triple ugh.

Finding my balance: The magic of “8”

Eventually my sanity returned. I began experimenting with smaller numbers of Pomodoros, starting with five per day and gradually working my way up to eight. My goal was eight Pomodoros each weekday, for a total of 40 per week.

This worked (sort of) but as they say, life happens. Some days I had so many meetings to attend, or my daughter had a recital at school which I didn’t want to miss, and I just couldn’t find fit in eight Pomodoros.

It was clear to me that 40 was my magic weekly number…but I needed to be less rigid with how I approached my work-week.

The math was straightforward: 

My Pomodoro math

However, when I had too much going on, or felt physically or mentally off, I couldn’t fit in eight Pomodoros. I’d fall behind, and next day I’d try to cram in 14, leaving me exhausted and not very happy with the quality of my work.

I realized I had to step back and rethink my week, paying attention to my moods. To refocus on what was right for me. The Pomodoro Technique was great, but something was missing to make it really work for me.

How I learned to love the 7-day workweek (really!)

When I decided to change, I swore to myself I’d never work on weekends, holidays, vacations, or even after 5 PM. Great, right? Well, I’m happy to report I’ve broken all of these promises…and that’s actually a good thing.

On those days when I couldn’t finish eight Pomodoros by 5 PM, I’d feel stressed. I’d feel like a failure. Suddenly I realized my view of the work week was too limiting. Why did I make those commitments to myself, limiting when I could work? I did it because I was coming from an unfulfilling work life, working too many hours, and for the wrong reasons.

Fountain of youth

I transitioned from just working…to working on things that fulfilled me.What’s more, I gave myself the freedom to do non-work stuff, such as attending my daughter’s recital during what most people consider work hours. This made it easy to shift my mindset about when I could or couldn’t work.

The final piece to my puzzle was moving from a five-day work-week, where I had to stop by 5 PM, to a seven-day work-week, where I could work when it suited me. This took me from 40–45 hours available to get my 40 Pomodoros in, to having 168 hours each week. Since I only need 16.7 hours net, that means I only work 10% of my time. What a difference!

Everything in just 16.7 hours a week?!

Right now you’re probably thinking, “I work more than that in two days! And you’re trying to tell me that’s all I need to work in an entire week?”

YES! That’s exactly what I’m telling you. And NO, you’ll probably still ‘work’ more than 16.7 hours a week. Let me explain…

I ‘work’ 35–40 hours a week, but I spend at least 20–25 of those hours on calls, meetings, networking on- and offline, and other less-focused tasks. These are important, but I don’t count them as ‘work’ time.

I truly work 16.7 hours each week…and I get about five times more accomplished in those few hours than in the other 25 hours.

There’s no avoiding it. Life happens. As long as humans are involved, and especially if you live in modern society with its 24/7 connectedness, it’s next to impossible to have a perfect working environment. However, you can work smarter without having to work harder.

The psychology of motivation: Mastering your energy

In a perfect world, I’d have eight high-value tasks identified at the start of each workday. I’d prioritize these, and knock them off one by one, from most important to least. I’d be equally enthusiastic and motivated about each one, wouldn’t be interrupted, and would finish my day’s work in less than three hours.

Sounds great, right? Unfortunately, “we live nowhere near perfect”.

The reality is that I’m a human being, living in a world full of other humans. I have emotions I don’t control, and I often get tired. Some tasks I simply don’t feel like doing, even though I know they’re important—possibly even urgent.

To make this work long-term, I had to face these things and learn to work with, rather than against them.

My energy level and attitude affect my work and output, so I had to stay present to how I was feeling, and master myself. This post on mastering one’s energy made it all click. I found these questions especially helpful:

The 4 Energy Questions
These questions helped me take into account my mood and energy when prioritizing tasks. As a result, I no longer do anything just because I feel I have to.

When my physical energy is low, I work on my health and wellness.When my emotional energy is low, I find something that makes me happy, like spending time with my wife and daughter.

Of course, I also had to find work I enjoyed, that fulfilled me…rather than work that drained me. By doing this, I have more time to improve myself, be with friends and family, and truly be healthy on all levels — mind, body, and soul.

Want to go further?

Slowly but surely, Pomodoro has forever change how I work…

Are you up for it?

Action Idea: Why not try one Pomodoro today? Twenty-five minutes of concentrated work on one task. Start with one and work up from there.

And if you want to go further, I want to make it as easy as possible for you.

Click here to get access to my free 32-page guide that explains my simple system in detail…and includes worksheets, tools and resources that you can print out and use. Save 23.3 hours each week and get MORE accomplished!

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Written by Chris Winfield

Chris Winfield is an entrepreneur, writer and coach in New York City. Using simple systems & techniques, Chris teaches people how to save time and increase their value in the marketplace. Check out his special bonus area for Buffer readers.

  • mattcantstop

    I have heard about this technique many times. I really like your focus on manageable chunks of them during the week. Being 100% focused all week (including breaks) was always too daunting of a task for me to even try. Thanks for writing this. I like this focus.

    I found this cool app which tracks your Pomodoros and it is a simple menu bar app. I am not affiliated with the app in any way. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/pomodoro-time-focus-timer/id973134470?mt=12

    • Hey @mattcantstop:disqus thanks for the app recommendation!

  • I discovered the Pomodoro Technique and absolutely love it. I get far more done when I do things that way. I use it for work related stuff, and also find that when I use it for writing (I’d done this before and just called them writing “sprints”), I could write far more in the much shorter period of time.

    At my last job, I worked from home on Fridays, and using the Pomodoro Technique, I would usually get my work for the day done in 2-3 hours, at most, and then I had the whole rest of my day free.

    I really think if more companies moved to a productivity based system and more people utilized things like Pomodoro instead of multitasking, we’d have a far more productive society and a much happier and healthier one, because people would be spending less time “working” and more time actually doing things they care about.

    • Hi Sarah Anne Hayes — thanks for the comment!

      “I worked from home on Fridays, and using the Pomodoro Technique, I would usually get my work for the day done in 2-3 hours, at most, and then I had the whole rest of my day free.”

      Amazing how that works, right?

      “I really think if more companies moved to a productivity based system and more people utilized things like Pomodoro instead of multitasking, we’d have a far more productive society and a much happier and healthier one, because people would be spending less time “working” and more time actually doing things they care about.”

      Agreed! I think our friends here at Buffer are a good example of this :)

  • Paul Tucker

    Thanks for this Chris. I’ve been exploring new ways to “GTD” and stay healthy and balanced. I work in a management role in a customer-centric, IT support environment where things are constantly changing and intense. Any words of wisdom for Pomodero-ing your way through a day where the channels and streams of work are constantly changing?

    Regardless, the four energy questions you posed are fantastic. Shew… talk about brain food! :)

    • Hi Paul Tucker I like your that your focus isn’t just on getting things done but also staying healthy & balanced!

      “Any words of wisdom for Pomodero-ing your way through a day where the channels and streams of work are constantly changing?”

      Great question…this is something that actually comes up a lot. Some (many?) jobs involve lots of interaction and thus lots of “interruptions”. What I always recommend to people in these roles is to try to block out some time (even if it’s just 25 minutes per day) of focused work.

      Would you be able to do that?

      • Paul Tucker

        Good stuff, Chris! Yes, there’s definitely projects to be done during much of my day – you’ve definitely motivated me to re-think how my team can re-work the typical, “panic culture of IT” into a more focused, task-oriented workflow. Thanks sir!

  • Chelsea Cohen

    Great ideas. I need to implement the Pomodoro :-)

  • Michael Rosata

    If you did count the 25 hours of work calls (which I would) then you are still working over 40 hours a week, which is very nice, but not compared to 16.7. You stated that there was a void inside you tried filling with work, now you work 7 days a week and still put in over 40 hours so I’m not sure I understand how this system filled the void in your life. I wish the article was a little more clear on the input and output of the system because I am searching for streamlined workflow.

    • Hi @michaelrosata:disqus — thanks for the comment, you bring up a lot of good points!

      “If you did count the 25 hours of work calls (which I would) then you are still working over 40 hours a week, which is very nice, but not compared to 16.7”

      Yep, that’s right. I never claimed to only work 16.7 hours per week but rather that I get the equivalent of 40 hours done in 16.7. I’m not sure how exact that is but I know for me I get more done in those 16.7 hours of focused work than I can in 40+ hours of unfocused work. Hope that makes sense.

      “You stated that there was a void inside you tried filling with work, now you work 7 days a week and still put in over 40 hours so I’m not sure I understand how this system filled the void in your life.”

      Interesting point. I don’t always work 7 days per week, it’s all based on my flow and energy levels. For example, I might wind up taking off a random Tuesday to take my daughter to the park for the day and there might be a Saturday that I work 5 hours because I was really in the zone.

      I really love what I do now so I don’t really think of it as “work” (as corny as that might sound) but it’s also not what rules my life.

      “I wish the article was a little more clear on the input and output of the system because I am searching for streamlined workflow.”

      Hopefully my comments above cleared some of that up — let me know.

  • This is a good article, but I think it is only relevant to the author or someone who does a similar job. I’m struggling with focus on tasks at the moment and found that the Pomodoro Technique does work, but my role involves desk and lab based tasks. When moving around the lab, or between the two areas, the technique falls flat.

    Also, this will only work if your employer allows you a fully flexible work agreement. If you are on a clock based system and need to punch times, it’s not going to work.

    • Hey @deanrowntree:disqus great points — thanks for your comment.

      Take a look at the reply I left to Paul’s similar comment here -> https://open.buffer.com/work-less/#comment-2324764625

      Hopefully that clears it up a bit…let me know if it doesn’t.

      • Hey Chris, what you said to Paul is pretty much how I work. I look at what’s on the agenda and then decide how to tackle it. If there’s a lot of desk based work, then I try to do that first, using the Pomodoro technique. After successfully completing those tasks in a focussed manner, then the “distracting” work can come later without the feeling that I haven’t been getting anywhere.

  • I don’t know that this would work for me in my current situation, but I love the idea of using this technique to become more productive and to feel slightly less overwhelmed. I can totally see the Pomodoro technique working well with my board obligations and side projects if not in my full time job. Thanks for the tips.

    • Hi @tlumpkins:disqus — my pleasure, let me know how it goes!

  • I have good experiences with the Pomodoro technique as well. A good realization that the number of Pomodoros that one gets done on a typical day is much less than one expects.

    However I found there are some downsides of the Pomodoro technique as well when you use it too much, something I blogged about recently in “Confessions of a Pomodoro Technique Addict”: https://lukasrosenstock.net/post/62250298

  • Nice Chris! I smiled because I had two minutes left on my current Pomodoro when I read your post. I cheated on my singluar focus. My new thing is only checking email once per week on Monday’s. It’s amazing. More info here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/50-benefits-1-downside-checking-email-once-per-week-ryan-honeyman?trk=prof-post

  • Ryan Easttum

    Pomodoro is excellent and I personally love it. That said, you have to be mindful and creative with its uses. For example, Pomodoring household chores is pure awesome. Also, I’ve tried Pomodoroing meetings, which essentially challenges us (a small group or one-on-one) to get it done in 25 minutes, and if not, take a break, and come back charged to tackle it in the next 25. Even if you can just do a few Pomodoros on a Monday and a Friday, bookending your week that way is fantastic and productive.

  • Hi Chris, thanks for the inspiration. The insight that taking regular breaks at work has already helped me in the last few days. It’s a challenge to take a break, if you’re “certainly almost done solving this problem” (which in my case usually means, I’m stuck with it for another two hours), but I’m working on that too.

  • Mats

    Great post Chris. I feel that this post only relates to people who enjoy their work. I can’t see myself implementing this technique simply because I have no passion for what I do. I’m currently in the process of a huge change in my life to solve this problem. Have you blogged about anything related to life changing decisions or doing what you love? If so, I’d really like to hear your thoughts.

    Thanks.

    -Mats

  • CMGRMelissa

    Thanks for sharing, Chris! These are some great tips to try. I’m going to start with a few Pomodoro sprints today!

    I also appreciate you touching on the importance of health. I had to learn the hard way about neglecting this part of my life. Now, when I see a successful entrepreneur emphasize the importance of health, good sleep, and/or nutrition, I find myself nodding in agreement and clicking the “Follow” button. ;)

  • Patrick Sawler

    As a self employed business owner this is exactly what I need.. I will have to put it into practice. Thanks for the great advice.

  • Jim Kent

    I am definitely on the same boat. It’s about time to try out the Pomodoro. I’m starting to fray at the edges!

  • steinm10

    I’ve been using Pomodoro technique much more frequently the last couple weeks. I’ve built up to 7, 25 minute sessions. You definitely feel much more accomplished, motivated, and focused on a SINGLE task. I like to sync it up with my daily and weekly Trello tasks. Highly recommend these techniques throughout your workday/week.

  • Hi Chris, awesome post. I’m currently also trying to move towards a single task and slot scheduled day/week (it was pretty tough for me in the beginning to let go of multitasking though). I am using focus periods of around 60 minutes, because my head is still telling me that longer work equals good work :) but towards the end I sometimes catch my mind wandering off, peaking at my phone or clicking the email icon on my browser. I will check out your guide and will give those 25mins a shot for a couple of days and see how things might be changing. Thanks for sharing and have a great day.

  • Rayfil Wong

    such as useful read thanks Chris!!

  • cherubsta

    Awesome post. I use timeboxing daily. Though it does require a bit of discipline. Created an Watch app to help with just that (http://silofocus.com). Everyone is different and should find out what works for them.

  • Andres

    There is one thing that I am having trouble with, once in a state of focus and flow, why would you want to just stop at 25mins. You are likely to be in a very productive state, to interrupt that and then have to restart after the break is very counter productive.

    Thoughts?