The best productivity system for procrastinators is to work with your natural tendencies

Adapt the Pomodoro technique to suit your preferences.
Adapt the Pomodoro technique to suit your preferences.
Image: Flickr/Andy Roberts/CC 2.0
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In an age where an overloaded schedule is a badge of honor, there’s no shortage of time-management apps and systems for the ambitious worker. But the classic Pomodoro Technique remains one of the most popular productivity options—and for good reason.

The Pomodoro Technique, designed by developer and entrepreneur Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, is named after those cute tomato-shaped kitchen timers that start ticking with a twist of the top. (Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato.) Initially, Cirillo created the system to help him get through the frustration of his low productivity at university. In the 1990s, the technique started to take off in professional teams, and more recently it’s become a popular personal productivity system as well.

But while the Pomodoro Technique has been vaunted in the pages of the New York Times and the Harvard Business Review, it’s not necessarily right for everyone. This article will break down the classic technique, and then explain how to adapt it to your personal working preferences.

To get started, all you need is a timer that can count down from 25 minutes. Then you just follow the next few steps:

  1. Choose a task (or a batch of tasks, like answering emails) to work on.
  1. Set the timer for 25 minutes and start working.
  2. Keep working on your task until the timer goes off. Do your best to avoid switching tasks or getting distracted.
  3. When the timer goes off, take a five-minute break to stretch or grab a drink. This built-in break helps ensure that you don’t get burned out on a particular task.
  4. Repeat.

Each 25-minute block of work is a pomodoro. Once you’ve completed four pomodoros, take a longer break of around 20 to 30 minutes. This will help you brain relax and refocus before your next session.

As you can tell, the system is extremely simple. You don’t even need to buy any special equipment. Any kitchen timer, or the timer app built into your smartphone, will do. And a simple sheet of paper is all you need to track of how many pomodoros you’ve completed.

According to Cirillo, it takes between seven and twenty days to truly master the system, but you should see benefits immediately. Tracking your completed pomodoros can help you understand how you’re spending your time every day, and the times during the day when you struggle most to get things done. Then you can adjust the way you work accordingly.

For instance, I tend to think I’m a “morning person.” But anytime I’ve actually tracked how much I get done before lunch, the data has told me a different story. I’m often surprised by how much more productive I am in the afternoons. So this week I’ve pushed my working hours back, to take advantage of the time of day when I’m most productive naturally.

The Pomodoro Technique is also designed to help you stay focused. If you’ve committed to working on a single task for 25 minutes straight, you’ve eliminated the possibility that you’ll get distracted by a new email or wander over to check what’s new on Twitter. If you quit working on a task before your timer goes off, the Pomodoro isn’t completed, and you’ll have to start again from the top next time. This acts as an incentive to stay on task and get through your current Pomodoro.

And because the system relies on blocks of time, it helps you better estimate how long your tasks will take. For repeatable tasks in particular, you’ll know how many Pomodoros they usually take, and be able to plan your days more accurately. You’ll also know how many Pomodoros you can get through most days, so you can plan a more realistic workload for yourself rather than getting overwhelmed by overly ambitious plans.

But before you start dividing your working life into neat 25-minute blocks, I should mention that this system isn’t necessarily perfect for you. As Quartz writer Olivia Goldhill points out, we all work a little differently, and have different optimal periods of working time.

Goldhill cites Daniel Levitin, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at McGill University, who suggests using trial and error to figure out what length of time you can focus for before you need a break. It may be longer or shorter than 25 minutes. But you can still use the basics of the Pomodoro Technique once you’ve found your optimal focus time.

Personally, I’ve never stuck with the timed Pomodoro Technique for long. I have a tendency to procrastinate, and then when I finally do start working, I don’t leave my chair until the work is done. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s my natural way of working, so setting out to work in planned 25-minute blocks never quite suited my style.

However, I did make a slight adjustment to the system that made it much more amenable to my optimal way of working. I came up with an approach I call “real-life Pomodoro,” in which I use events that are happening around me as timers.

For instance, since I work from home, waiting for the dishwasher or clothes dryer to finish is often part of my day. Using the real-life Pomodoro method, I use these events as timers, working on a task until the dishes are clean or my clothes are dry. Then I take my break.

None of my Pomodoros are the same length, so this approach isn’t as useful for estimating and planning the day ahead. But if you struggle with simply getting your butt in the chair and getting to work, this is a great way to get started. It fits into what’s happening around you, rather than a prescribed time period, which—for me, anyway—is a more natural way of working. It also feels less official, which I prefer. I’ve never been very good at sticking to schedules and rules, despite liking those approaches in theory.

Options for real-life Pomodoros are abundant, whether you work from home or not. You could work for the duration of a Led Zeppelin album, take your laptop to a café without your power cord and wait until the computer dies, or go into the office early and work on a given task until the next person arrives.

You’ll also find that real-life Pomodoro opportunities arise naturally all the time, and learn to take advantage of those pockets of time for quick tasks you can do on the go. If you arrive early to a meeting, you might decide to work on slides for a presentation until your other colleagues arrive. Or if you’re waiting for a barista to finish making your latte, you might decide to respond to a few emails until it’s ready.

Whether you stick to the original technique as Cirillo designed it, or adjust it to suit your own needs, it’s worth giving the Pomodoro technique a try. Not only can it help you better manage your time, you’ll get to have lots of delicious coffee breaks along the way.