All you need to start focusing better at work with the aid of a twenty-five minute timer.

The pomodoro is fairly well known now - the system where you spend 25 minutes of focused work, and then take a five minute break. If that’s all you know of the system then you might think it just a quirky way to get a ten minute break every hour. You’d be missing the crux of the system though - the heart of it where the benefits are really reaped.

It is a very simple system, but not quite as simple as that. Here’s the breakdown, and all you really need to know:

  1. Planning phase. Decide what you want to work on.
  2. Do the work. Focus for a predetermined amount of time.
    1. Track disruptions.
  3. Pause focused work.
  4. Retrospective. How could today be better tomorrow?

The system was developed by Francesco Cirillo whilst they were a student, and was painfully unable to do any work. His book, The Pomodoro Technique, talks about how he struggled to sit down and work on his coursework for more than a few minutes before getting distracted. His first focus time period was just a few minutes - being able to do 25 minutes was a ways off.

Unfortunately, I imagine the publishers of the book had a much higher word count than the system needed, and so it’s filled with quite a lot of guff that I can imagine is useful for filling an afternoon of consultancy presentations. The book includes additional steps, like reviewing the logs you’ve compiled periodically to get better at estimating how long a task will take. I don’t use this. I’m not sure I would recommend you do.

The idea at its core has helped me immensely through my embarrassing attention span issues. It also makes long days sail by.

Step 1: Planning phase

Imagine you’ve skipped this phase: you’ve sat down and set your timing going for 25 minutes, and… you finish the task you wanted to do in 10 minutes. Nice job! But now what? There’s another ticket to pick up, probably, but before that… lets just check the BBC in case something important has happened. Decisions are slow and prone to procrastination. You don’t want to be deciding anything mid-focus period.

The planning phase makes sure you have a stream of work that will get you through the day. Or maybe you have to have a planning phase in the morning, and then again after lunch. Whatever you need to do, you should rarely have to stop a focus period to figure out what to do next.

The book talks about having an Activity Inventory Log, which is a living document you’re continually populating with stuff you need to get done soon. As a software developer, that’s split between my list of “stuff to do at some point” and the tickets that my team have prioritised.

I have a daily Obsidian document where I copy important details of the ticket I’m working on, then make a list of checkboxes of things that need to be done. These should be tiny tasks, broken down as much as they can be. (As an aside, this is also a good way to make sure I’ve thought through the entire ticket to avoid bumping into an issue at the end of the ticket that’s crept up on me. “Ah, it turns out that API doesn’t actually have an #index endpoint.”)

The plan you’ve made isn’t a commitment of work. Maybe you won’t get through the whole list in one or five focus periods. Maybe not even the whole day. That’s fine. It’s just about knowing what to move onto next.

Each day, I copy any of the unchecked boxes to the next day’s note. That’s my planning phase done. (As another aside, I delete any unchecked boxes from the previous day. This gives you a really good daily log of the work you’ve done which will pay dividends during an appraisal period when someone asks you what you’ve done this year.)

Step 2: The work

Lots of people, including myself, will call this a sprint but lets avoid that idea. It’s not a rush to get everything done.

There are two reasons to start each focus period:

  1. Give yourself permission to ignore everything else. After all, it’s just 25 minutes. That email can wait. That colleague is not expecting an instant Slack back.
  2. Give yourself an easily completable goal. Just work, without distractions, for 25 minutes. There’s nothing wrong with checking the BBC - but it can wait 14 minutes, right? Do it then.

It’s not about typing for 25 minutes straight. It’s not about trying to speed up progress or go into a crunch mode. It’s certainly not about punishing yourself for having bad focus.

First on the length: it does not have to be 25 minutes.

Make it shorter if you can’t handle the 25 minutes. Concentration is a learned trait. It’s possible - likely even - that you are physically unable to control your brain enough to work for 25 minutes without practice. Start at 15 or 10. Or jump right down to Cirillo’s early attempts and go for just three minutes. It gets easier.

Sometimes, a focus period can have exactly the same feeling as I have on the treadmill. It’s physically hard to keep going. If that timer wasn’t there, I wouldn’t keep going even though I know I’m physically capable of doing it. My brain, for whatever reason, is rebelling. The thing that saves me from completely giving up is the clock: there’s only ten minutes left. That’s easy. We can do this.

So, don’t go too short.

You must not go too long either. In fact, I would not go longer than 25 minutes. Even if you’re physically capable concentrating on one task for longer, should you? Problem solving (not just a key part of a software engineer’s job, but anyone’s job) is never done whilst facing the problem head-on.

Stepping away from any problem will speed up resolving it. Sometimes, you’re not even aware you’re ankle deep in the mud of a problem until you take a step back to see where you’re going.

Lets not forget about those interruptions building up, which we’ll get to shortly.

The pomodoro technique is named after a bright red, beef tomato shaped, kitchen timer. This kitchen timer rings loudly, to let you know your eggs are done, when the time runs out. Obviously, I hear you say, that’s just a flashy timer. You can use any timer. But you’d be incredibly wrong. The system does not work with a phone timer. It doesn’t work by glancing at a clock. And let me pose this to you: that eponymous timer also doesn’t work. Ditch the tomato.

Using your phone - or another electronic timer like a desktop app or even a clock - fail for a duality of reasons.

First, if the timer pulls you away from your work then it has failed. If you need to switch to that Google timer tab or (god forbid) prod your phone into life then you are immediately distracted. Avoidable distractions are the death of a focus period, no matter how minor. In fact, the book recommends scrapping the whole pomo and starting again.

Second, if the timer tells you exactly how long you have left in the focus period, it has also failed.

The pomodoro timer rings loudly when you’re done, and it’s difficult to look at and see that you’ve exactly 3 minutes left. You may be able to look at it and see you have “not long” left, and that’s fine. But I’ve found knowing that there’s only three minutes left can be disastrous: “well, that’s nearly done then! Time to relax.”

Another wonderful feature of the pomodoro, which will drive you mad to start with, is that it constantly ticks. Its analog timer can’t help it. After listening to it for a while though something Pavlovian happens: your brains starts associating the ticking with productivity and focus. I’m not pulling your leg here. This genuinely happens. I can feel my brain quieten when I hear the sound of my timer. “Okay,” it says, “time to work.”

Shane, I hear you ask, didn’t you just say that the pomodoro timer was also a bit shit?

Yes! And it’s because of the constant ticking and loud end to the period that I’ve gone off them. These days, I prefer a 25 minute sand timer, preferably a glass one. There’s two key reasons: it makes a noise, and it doesn’t end ceremoniously.

Once turned over, the sand will hit the glass making enough of that Pavlovian noise for me to quiet myself. Then, after a few minutes, the sand makes a soft bed for itself and the noise stops, taking me back to a peaceful silence. Second, when it ends it stays silent. Contrary to what I said above, I’m not the kind of person who will accidentally run a focus period into an uncomfortable amount of time. If my focus period can last 28 instead of 25 minutes, then that’s gone very well for me!

Step 2b. Managing distractions

Another step that’s rarely mentioned, despite being probably more important than any other step.

Distractions will happen. These range from realising that the dishwasher just finished, to getting a message, to realising you’d quite like a jumper. The important thing is realising that they’re rarely anything that you need to act on immediately. More often than not, I find my brain is just making stuff up because it’s itching to think about something else.

This is where we take a tip that works for some people suffering with compulsive thoughts: get it out of your head. There should always be a pen and paper nearby to write these things down. I forgot to turn on some music; Maybe I should open a window; I’d love a cup of tea; Ask about how this feature should work. Likely, these things can all wait. Possibly, once you’re done with the focus period, you won’t even care about music any more.

Even “moments of human weakness,” as Cirillo puts it, can often wait a few minutes.

Once they’re written down on paper though, your brain will stop thinking about it. It’s dealt with.

Here’s another part of the system that’s important to follow: this must be on paper. A pen and paper is instant. It doesn’t need you to switch tabs or applications to type it up. Your computer monitor can stay frozen in a focused state whilst you’re writing. Don’t let your brain trick you into being distracted. The pad of paper in front of you will only contain distractions to be dealt with, and nothing else that can draw your attention.

If something will take longer than a few moments to resolve at the end of your focus period, add it to your Activity Inventory Log. You can move onto it once you’ve finished your current task.

Step 3: Taking a break

The traditional pomodoro method is 25 minutes of focused work, and then five minutes break. This works out really nicely to have two whole pomos in an hour, so you can plan fit it reliably around meetings.

There’s nothing committing you to five minutes though. You can go less, but before you think that it’s a cheeky five minutes of dossing around, consider the two important things to do during the break:

  1. Handle distractions.
  2. Stand up.

I’m not saying that it’s forbidden, but very rarely do I have time to check reddit or read a couple pages of my book during the break. That’s not really what they’re for.

The list of distractions you’ve built up was a promise to yourself: I’ll handle this at the end of the 25 minutes. Renege on this promise and the system falls apart: the mental workout you’re doing with yourself to delay distraction will go bottoms up.

Take the break, pick a new playlist, open the window, make that cup of tea. Maybe you don’t get through the whole list. That’s okay. Just another 25 minutes before you get another go.

I’ll write about this elsewhere, but it’s important to note that doing at desk job does not mean chaining yourself to the desk. You’ll get bored, tired, and

  • yes - physically weak from it. If, like me, you’re interested in this system because you’re struggled to stay focused, sitting around from breakfast till lunch and then from lunch til home time will drive you to dispair.

Stand up. Stretch a bit. In times where I don’t have something else to do during the break, I’ll do 12 push ups. (And then feel really pleased at the end of the day when I’ve managed to do 48 in total!)

If, you’ve done your distractions and had a bit of a stretch you’ve still got a minute left, feel free to go back to work. A 4 minute break is as useful as a 5 minute one if you’re moving a little.

Step 4: Retrospective

This step happens at the end of the day, rather than during the normal 30 minute cycles.

At the end of each day, take a look through your distractions. Are there any that can be avoided tomorrow? Making a pot of tea, maybe? A bigger jug of water nearby. Maybe during the planning phase you could have reached out to the product manager to clear up some ticket ambiguity.

The aim is that over time you’ll know the kind of things which throw a spanner in the fluidity of the a focus period, and then avoid them.

Next, turn to your completed task list and ask similar questions. Did one of these tasks take longer than usual? This part has nothing to do with maintaining or improving focus, and could be outside the scope of this blog post, but it’s worth mentioning now. Is there a tool that could make common tasks faster, or even automate them away entirely?

And there you have it.

Decide what you want to work on. Work on it to the exclusion of anything else; noting distractions along the way. Take a break to stretch and make a change to make the next focus period more protected.

Working like this speeds up days. Instead of hours of work ahead of you, there’s only twenty five minutes to get through. That’s easy!