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How I Write and Learn

One Tomato, Two Tomato: How I Use the Pomodoro Technique

By Josh, a Writing Coach

The hours seemed to pass me by as I worked. Afternoon turned to dusk, dusk to night, and soon I realized that I hadn’t stopped to rest, let alone eat. In the best cases, I had accomplished a great deal. In the worst, I’d done little more than “half-work” all day. By the end of my first week in quarantine, the worst case scenario had become my only scenario.

Lost and frustrated, I did what I’ve done many times before: I asked my advisor for, well, advice. When he first recommended the Pomodoro technique, I was admittedly skeptical. Sure, I needed a new system to manage my dissertation project, especially now that I worked exclusively from home, but I wasn’t convinced that a method named after a tomato was my best bet. (In Italian, pomodoro means tomato, so named for the inventor’s use of a tomato-shaped timer.) Despite my reservations, I decided to try the technique.

The pomodoro technique

The technique is simple enough: set a timer (tomato shape not required) for some amount of time, usually twenty-five minutes, and work on one specific task until the timer beeps. Hear the beep, take a five-minute break. Rinse, repeat. After four blocks of time, or four so-called pomodoros, take an extended break lasting fifteen to thirty minutes.

An illustration of four red tomatoes with a blue line drawn from one to the next to emphasize counting them.

Pomodoros as time management

Over the last two weeks, my skepticism has given way to gratitude. By encouraging, even forcing, me to concentrate on a specific task, this technique helps me think carefully about how I divide my time. Penciling in “do research” in my planner doesn’t quite cut it. What does research include? What can I feasibly complete in twenty-five minutes? The answers to these questions constitute the “specific task” for my pomodoro. Some pomodoros might be as simple as “write a topic sentence”; others involve a set of related tasks, as in “annotate two newspaper articles,” or stretch across multiple pomodoros. Here’s an example:

Pre-Pomodoro Technique

Tuesday, March 31

  • Do research
  • Annotate de Neuville biography
  • Work on dissertation chapter

Post-Pomodoro Technique

Wednesday, April 1

  • Annotate article #1 from Le monde illusté on the panorama of Champigny (1 Pomodoro)
  • Annotate article #2 from Le monde illusté on the panorama of Champigny (1 Pomodoro)
  • Annotate section on de Neuville in En campagne (2 Pomodoros)

Rarely do I complete one task in exactly twenty-five minutes—I can only aspire to that level of precision. On the few occasions when I’ve finished a task early, I simply move on to whichever task requires the least time to complete. If nothing else, I know what I’ve accomplished in one block and what I need to do in the next. That kind of awareness empowers me.

Before, my work time resembled a meandering path: a dozen or so minutes spent transcribing a nineteenth-century text in Zotero, another dozen flipping back and forth between the text and a recent news article, a few following an unexpected lead from my source, and a couple here and there replying to emails. After thirty minutes had passed, I would notice that I had written more words in my emails than I had transcribed in my notes. With this new technique, I feel better equipped to prioritize my time. Less urgent tasks, emails in particular, receive their own time slots later in the day, when I feel the least productive.

On the importance of taking breaks

Once infrequent, breaks now feature prominently in my schedule. While five minutes may not feel like much, that time allows me to decompress and readjust. Longer breaks, say a half-hour, provide welcome opportunities to stretch my legs. Perhaps more importantly, these breaks let me spend time with my dog, Lulu, who firmly believes that all breaks should include leisurely walks. She just might be right.

Pomodoro today, pomodoro tomorrow, pomodoro forever?

Of course, this technique has its disadvantages. After only two hours of work—four 25-minute work periods, three five-minute breaks, one fifteen-minute break—my life seemed endlessly regimented. Every minute needed to be accounted for and every task documented. The timer on my phone blared like an irate drill sergeant.

Here adjustments help. Since beginning this process, I’ve changed the length and number of my pomodoros. A set of four fifty-five-minute periods both better suits my working rhythm and reduces the number of alarms that I endure. And by tackling difficult tasks early in the day, I ensure that, even when I lose focus later on, I still feel accomplished. A consistent, rigid schedule has never come easily to me, but this technique, at least for now, has offered a path forward. I can’t say if the technique will always work. But for now I’ll count tomatoes.

This blog showcases the perspectives of UNC Chapel Hill community members learning and writing online. If you want to talk to a Writing and Learning Center coach about implementing strategies described in the blog, make an appointment with a writing coach or an academic coach today. Have an idea for a blog post about how you are learning and writing remotely? Contact us here.

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