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Let’s Talk Tomatoes

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A huge secret to improving your productivity is tomatoes. Okay, not really. But the word pomodoro—which is tomato in Italian—is one to remember.

The “Pomodoro technique” is all over the Internet now, but a nice explanation appears on the website of an Indianapolis-based business coach, Deseri Garcia. She writes:

The technique has 5 simple steps:

  • Choose a task to be accomplished
  • Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer. I use the timer on my cell phone)
  • Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings, then put a check on your sheet of paper
  • Take a short break (5 minutes is OK- or, give yourself a reward)
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break

Simple, right? Simple but not easy. You have to be motivated enough to actually DO it.


© Flickr user Manjith Kainickara

She’s right, of course, especially with that last line. Every approach you could use to better manage your time requires a degree of discipline. But one of the key benefits of this concept is that the timer is there to remind you to work, and also to remind you to relax.

Why Does It Work?

There are lots of theories about why the Pomodoro technique is effective. But it may be especially powerful because we need it more than ever. A BBC article about focus outlines the problem:

Professor Gloria Mark of the Department of Informatics at the University of California says email, social media, notifications and countless other digital distractions are eroding our ability to concentrate on individual tasks in the 21st Century.

“Back in 2004 we followed American information workers around with stopwatches and timed every action,” she says.
“They switched their attention every three minutes on average. In 2012, we found that the time spent on one computer screen before switching to another computer screen was one minute 15 seconds.

“By the summer of 2014 it was an average of 59.5 seconds.”

A longer piece titled Driven to distraction: Have we lost the ability to focus on a single task? notes that the phenomenon may be even more profound:

After not checking her mobile for a while, a publishing executive confesses she gets “a jangly feeling. You miss that hit you get when there’s a text. You know it’s not right to check your phone when you’re with someone, but it’s addictive.” So she and her husband have a pact: “When we get home from work we put our phones in a drawer. If it’s in front of me I get anxious; I’ve just got to check it. But now we try to be more present for each other. We talk.”

Our focus continually fights distractions, both inner and outer. The question is, what are they costing us? An executive at a financial firm tells me, “When I notice that my mind has been somewhere else during a meeting, I wonder what opportunities I’ve been missing right here.”

Patients are telling a doctor I know that they are “self-medicating” with drugs for attention deficit disorder or narcolepsy to keep up with their work. A lawyer tells him, “If I didn’t take this, I couldn’t read contracts”. Once patients needed a diagnosis for such prescriptions; now, for many, those medications have become routine performance enhancers.

Perhaps the reason that the tomato timer can help us be more productive is that it winds back the clock to a simpler time. Our ancestors worked by candlelight, reading or writing for hours at a time with nothing to draw them away. The quiet promise of a stopwatch means that we know we’re going to be stopped when the time is right. The pomodoro says “go ahead and work, I’ll let you know when it’s time to take a break.”

Try it yourself. Finish reading this article and close your eyes to think about whatever is on your mind. Then, get back to work.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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