Make the pomodoro technique work for you: Five tips to personalise your pomodoros

Most of us know the pomodoro productivity technique as the strict aunt, rigid about her rules. 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of break and repeat. These timeboxes can be anxiety-inducing for some people. 25 minutes may sound like a lot of pressure. Or, they may just not be enough to cover anything.

In reality, however, the pomodoro technique is more like a doting aunt who lets you have your way. You can tweak the productivity hack to make it workable for you. For instance, you can adjust your work session length to 35 minutes instead of 25 minutes, use music to time your pomodoros, and so on.

Such changes are what we refer to as pomodoro variations, alterations to the hack for customizing it as per your work preferences.

So now that you’ve had a peep at the pomodoro technique’s flexibility, let’s explore some of its interesting variations to make the technique work for you:

Ideas start here
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1. Alter the length of your pomodoro session

It’s not set in stone that your pomodoro session should last for 25 minutes come hell or high water. While science appreciates boxed time for boosting concentration, Gloria Mark’s research highlights that our personality traits can affect our potential to focus.

A professor in the department of informatics at University of California, Mark shares that those who are inclined to get stressed easily and score high on impulsivity and neuroticism showcase a short attention span.

For such people being trapped in a rigid, 25-minute pomodoro may sound like a vain attempt at boosting productivity. Fortunately, you can always tinker with the timer and select a pomodoro duration that serves you well and suits your work preference.

This may take some initial trial and error, but you’ll eventually get there just as the co-founder and CEO of Aimtal, Janet Mesh figured one hour as the optimal pomodoro length for her. She shares, “I actually extend my Pomodoro work sessions to about an hour. If I have to work on a task that requires deep work, then I pop in my headphones, turn off all notifications, and give myself an hour to get as much done as possible.”

2. Use your household chores to define your pomodoro length

Another way to customize the pomodoro technique is to schedule in tasks as you manage household work or parent your child. For instance, get some work done between the time you put your laundry in the washer and take it out from the dryer.

Bella Beth Cooper writing in Quartz calls this approach, “real-life Pomodoro” where she uses events in her vicinity as timers. She explains, “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.”

You can use a similar approach, lay out a pomodoro session while waiting for client calls. Let’s suppose you are a social media manager and you’ve 15 minutes before a Twitter chat commences. You should quickly watch the teaser for His Dark Materials: Season 1, right?

Wrong! Try this workflow instead:

Step 1: Choose a task, say replying to emails
Step 2: Set your timer to 15 minutes (suggestion: use focus booster)
Step 3: Get something productive done in your work hours

Ideas start here
Credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

3. Set up musical timers

The shrieking timer can leave lots of people anxious, reminding them of their time at school when the bell would go off, and lunchtime would end. If the buzzer disturbs you, try musical timers instead as Fred Castagnac, Editor of Azendoo Team does.

She shares, “I prioritize the things I have to do and I estimate how long each task is probably going to take me. Then I select a musical mix for each task and I start working. I even add the link to my music mix in my task description so when I open it I start the music and I begin to work immediately.”

If you’re a music enthusiast, musical timers for your pomodoros can help boost your productivity significantly. Be careful about selecting the music type though because each plays a different role. For example, lyrics can be distracting.

Certain researchers insist that the tempo, not the type of music, you listen to impacts your focus and productivity. Dr Emma Gray, a cognitive behavioral therapist collaborated with Spotify to learn the benefits of different music types. She concluded that music set in the 50-80s range is the best for stimulating and enhancing creativity.

Some songs that are set at this beat include “Chasing Pavements” by Adele and “Mirrors” by Justin Timberlake. Cinematic, classical, video game, and nature music can also enhance productivity.

4. Shift the focus to your state of flow

In his book, “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience”, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discussed productivity flow, a mental state in which a person performs at his optimal, all thanks to intense focus during that time. A 10-year study by Mckinsey and Co. tested this flow and learned that top executives were five times more productive in their flow.

The only catch is that we spend less than 5% of our day in flow. So should you let it go just because your buzzer dinged? Absolutely not. Once your pomodoro is over, do a quick 2-minute assessment of whether you should take the break or continue working.

Dino, a web developer at focus booster does just that. He notes, “Sometimes, when my pomodoro session ends, I’m very close to tackling an issue. In such cases, I start another pomodoro straightaway and complete my work before taking a long break.”

Deciding to omit breaks for maintaining your flow can be helpful. However, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you lose all respect of the breaks that the pomodoro technique offers. Science agrees that these breaks are critical for your performance and focus, giving you time to blow off some steam and zone back into a period of razor-sharp concentration.

The only way to assess your situation then is to understand your productivity flow. You’ll feel the following, and may find that sidelining your break would be beneficial:

You’d lose track of time and be at your most creative self
You will be in control, more focused, and know exactly what you’re doing
You will be entirely immersed in the task at hand, finding solutions faster than you normally do

Put simply, it’s the state when you work your best without having to look outside the window.

Get the crreativity flowing
Credit: Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

5. Be flexible with your breaks

The dreaded burnout can you hit at any point in a week.

While your immediate thought might be to take some time off, book a holiday or chuck a sicky, not everyone will have the vacation days or financial means to escape.

Stop what you are doing and recognise the signs. Do you feel emotionally exhausted? Tired and unmotivated, as if you are dragging yourself through the mud and yet, still soldier on to get the job done.

On these days, take longer and more frequent breaks. While you might feel like you aren't as productive as normal, you definitely won't achieve anything greater by half-assing a job.

So, be flexible and listen to your body when it is telling you to stop. But remain disciplined when doing so.

Take home message

Undoubtedly, the pomodoro session can leave some people anxious with its timeboxing and alarm blares. However, it doesn’t have to be like that. Try finding your focus period and set your timer accordingly. Or power through pomodoros that are set between other events in your life. You can also set up musical timers among other creative ways to bend this productive hack as per your preference.

Found these tips useful? Share them with 3 friends who have been on the fence about using the pomodoro technique.