Why the Pomodoro Technique Is Failing You
The wildly popular productivity hack may be doing more damage than good.
From replying to customer emails to planning the next marketing campaign, entrepreneurs are constantly juggling the various needs of their business to propel it forward. But by being pulled in so many directions, it is easy for a founder to lose hours, if not days, trying to get everything done.
To help with productivity, some have sworn by the Pomodoro Technique, a strategy that uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks. The idea is that by giving your mind a mini break, you can reset it and be able to focus more at the task at hand.
But does it really work?
As someone who has helped thousands of executives, leaders and entrepreneurs improve their productivity, I do think there are better ways to go about increasing output. While the theory behind the Pomodoro Technique is solid -- giving yourself focused, intentional blocks of time to dive into important work is extremely powerful -- the problem is that the times are way too short. Research proves it takes an average of 23 minutes to get into our deep work zone where we are doing our best work. With the Pomodoro Technique, you interrupt yourself with a break just as you’re getting into that deep work zone. Plus, the micro breaks of allotted time are not long enough to allow your brain to recover.
So, what should you do to maximize output? In honor of World Productivity Day (June 20), here are a few suggestions:
Work within your ultradian rhythm.
You are better off working within your ultradian rhythm, which is your body’s natural energy and alertness cycle. The concept, also known as the basic rest-activity cycle, proposed by physiologist and sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman, basically says that during the day we have periods of increased alertness and energy – usually in 90- to 120-minute increments.
During the first part of the ultradian rhythm, our alertness and brain-wave activity both increase, making us feel energized and focused. After that initial peak, though, our brains begin to crave rest and renewal. Your brain needs around 15 to 20 minutes for recovery. So, use those energy spurts to get work done, and use the slower period to rest, as trying to fight it will do little in the productivity department.
Choose what to focus on.
Use the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, to help you decide where to focus. Under this principle, 80 percent of your outcomes can be attributed to 20 percent of your input. For example, say that 20 percent of your clients bring in 80 percent of your sales. Using this theory, it’s better to spend time on those vital few tasks (the 20 percent) rather than the many trivial ones in order to maximize our output.
Many successful businesses use this principle to help them focus in on what’s important. Warren Buffet attributes 90 percent of his wealth to 10 of the companies he invested in. When it comes to productivity, you have only so much time in the day. So focus on what counts.
Get rid of distractions.
It’s estimated that the average office worker is interrupted every 11 minutes, making it almost impossible to ever get into that deep work zone. To be productive, you need to stake out some boundaries so you can actually accomplish the tasks you want. To help set those boundaries, make sure you clearly communicate them. For instance, you can put on headphones to broadcast to others that you are in a focused work block or, if you work in a cubicle, you can turn your back to the main hallway.
For me, those “just-a-minute” meetings are one of the biggest interruptions, so I find it helpful to put a sign up on my desk asking to not be disturbed and to follow up with a text message or email.
Use the batch-task approach.
Batching entails grouping similar activities together to maximize your energy and focus to get the most done in the smallest amount of time. You can group tasks by action (repetitive tasks like calls or email) or context (grouping tasks by tools needed like writing a week's worth of blog content). When we group similar tasks together, we are working with the way our brains work. We are moving with our ultradian rhythm, so we use our energy effectively.
Set hours of business, not hours of availability.
Many people find it helpful to work late in the evening, but if you are replying to clients at 11 p.m. at night, not only does this appear unprofessional, but you also communicate to them that you are always available. Once you start replying to emails late at night, your availability becomes an expectation.
It’s fine to work in the evening after hours, but schedule emails to go out during your published business hours.
Again, communication is key, so include in any contracts your website and even on the footer of your email the times you are available, to help set those boundaries. By doing so, you will be able to get in your zone of productivity without any disruptions.
Shonda Rhimes, one of the most successful producers in Hollywood, uses her email signature to share: I don’t read work emails after 7 p.m. or on weekends. And if you work for me, may I suggest you put down your phone.
Remember that when we don’t communicate our boundaries, we end up being overrun by the demands others put on us.
Real productivity helps you know where to start -- and what to focus on each day. It’s cutting through the clutter and the noise in our lives to really begin taking the time to create personalized systems that help us spend more time on the things that truly matter.
Too often we’re struggling to fit into systems that don’t work for us. This is why productivity may have failed you in the past: The tight constraints of a rigid system, like the Pomodoro Technique, don't really work for "real" life. Productivity is something that needs to be personalized to you, your own personal goals and the way you want to live. Using these techniques, you can maximize your productivity in a way that places your life and your priorities at the center.