Posted by: Ken Brown | January 12, 2010

Pomodoro what?

In High School I simply could not write  a paper before the last minute. Up until the night before it was due, I just couldn’t focus, so most of my work was rushed and finished with only minutes to spare. Many papers were submitted without ever having been read, much less edited, and the fact that I still managed good grades probably says more about the lax standards of my public school education than my innate ability. When I got to college, this approach got me into trouble. One night simply wasn’t enough time to finish most college-level research papers, so my work was often full of typos and other embarrassments. Sometimes the stress I relied on for motivation got to be too much, and I wasn’t able to finish on time at all.

These days I am much better about starting projects early, and if anything I tend to over edit my work, but I haven’t completely overcome my procrastination–as my inconsistent blogging no doubt attests–it’s just that nowadays it usually takes the form of distractibility. The Internet is a huge time-drain, and when you add to that kids and work and church responsibilities, I constantly find myself fighting distraction and a short attention span. For years I’ve told myself that I need to better discipline my time, focus on First things First, and so on, but such platitudes don’t seem to make much difference. I needed something more practical, and I think I may have finally found it.

I only discovered Pomodoro a few weeks ago, but I’m already finding it surprisingly helpful. It’s a rather silly name for an even sillier gimmick (a ticking tomato), but somehow it works. The idea is extraordinarily simple: just pick a task, set a timer for 25 minutes, and do nothing else until the timer goes off. Then take a 5 minute break and start over. Every two hours, you can take a longer break. I use my wristwatch–yes, I still have one–rather than a kitchen timer, as I can’t stand ticking, but it works just as well. In a way, it’s rather like those all-nighters I used to pull, but without the sleep deprivation and stress. The ticking clock (literally or figuratively) adds just enough pressure to overcome the draw of external distractions, and the time frame is short enough to be easily manageable.

I don’t use it all the time–some days things just flow on their own–but for all those other days, when Twitter and Hulu and ESPN seem oh so much more interesting than that thesis chapter, Personal Statement or blog post that you really ought to be working on, you wouldn’t believe how much a set timeline can focus the mind. Especially in the latter hours of a distracting day, I’m finding that it is much easier to devote 25 minutes to a particular project, then repeating, than it is to try and work up the motivation to focus for the rest of the day. It is also much easier to bounce back from those times when you are distracted by simply setting yourself a timer. My own real difficulty so far has been keeping my breaks to five minutes, as I don’t generally set a second timer, and sometimes lose track of time.

So I’m curious if anyone else has tried this method (other than Carmen), or found another that they like. I imagine it’s not the sort of thing that would work for everyone–some people find deadlines more distracting rather than less–but for those who find they work best under the gun, I highly recommend it. It won’t solve all your time-management problems, but it does offer a very simple and effective means of cutting through the distractions–at least for the next 25 minutes.


  1. I feel your pain. I am a full-time pastor, just started PhD work today, and have a wife and four kids! When I am sitting at my laptop at the church, it’s very hard to focus on sermon prep or reading or studying for a quiz, but that blog reader sure does call my name! I may have to give your method a try; maybe I need some meds for undiagnosed ADD!

  2. Congrats on starting your PhD! Where are you doing it?

  3. I am at Dallas Seminary in NT. I have been out of school since 2004, so this will be quite the rude awakening!

  4. Best of luck!

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