Dr. Mac's Working Smarter: Apps that Help You With the Pomodoro Technique

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #167

Are you familiar with The Pomodoro Technique®? If you’re not, you really should check it out. I use it every single day to help me focus on a task and remain focused on it for as long as necessary (in 25 minute chunks). Because I’m focused on a single task, I can do better work on it and finish it faster than if I try to multitask or work on it between interruptions.

​The Pomodoro Technique, invented by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, promotes short intense bursts of work—typically 25 minutes each—separated by breaks of 5 to 30 minutes. Each burst is called a pomodoro, which is the Italian word for tomato (supposedly because of a tomato-shaped kitchen timer Cirillo used as a student).

Here’s how it works: Pick a single task, and then set a timer for 25 minutes. There’s no magic about the number 25 and, in fact, I often make my pomodoros 20 or 30 minutes rather than 25 depending on my mood and the task.

The key is you may only work on that specific task until the timer rings. Should a distraction occur, you can jot yourself a quick note (if necessary) and get back to work immediately, or you can abandon the pomodoro and begin again when the interruption is over.

When the timer rings, you take a short break (3–5 minutes), and then start your next pomodoro. After every 4th pomodoro, you take a long break (15–30 minutes), and then return to step 1 and start over.

The object is to stay focused on one task long enough to make progress but not long enough to get burned out. I’ve been using it for over a decade and I’m not exaggerating when I tell you it’s perhaps the most valuable tool in my quiver.

Hollywood film director Oliver Stone once said, “The secret to writing a screenplay is keeping your ass in the chair.” He’s right but it applies to every kind of writing, not just screenplays.

Here’s my secret: When I start a pomodoro, I put my phone, iPad, and Mac on Do Not Disturb, and then pretend my ass is glued to the chair, at least until the timer dings. This helps me get over the hardest part of writing: Keeping your ass in the chair (at least according to director Oliver Stone).

OK, so Stone actually said, “The secret to writing a screenplay is keeping your ass in the chair,” but I say it applies to any kind of writing and my first axiom of Working Smarter proves it's true:

Dr. Mac's Working Smarter Axiom #1: If your ass isn’t in the chair, then your fingers aren’t on the keyboard. If your fingers aren’t on the keyboard, you’re not writing.

You can use any timer for your pomodoros, but in this day and age it’s easy to use your iPhone’s timer or one of the myriad pomodoro apps in the Mac App Store.

I admit I’m a pomodoro app junkie; I found more than half a dozen in my Applications folder.

My main squeeze for pomodoros is Zonebox, a $4.99 Mac app that does more than just time your sessions. I love it because I can create pomodoros for my whole day (or week, even) all at once:

This is Zonebox, with its list of variable-length pomodoros, plus two different on-screen time indicators.

One last thing: If you happen to be a dictator (not that kind; I’m talking about those who prefer dictation over typing), just substitute the words, “lips on the microphone” for “ass in the chair” and you’ll be good to go.

If you hang around with me for long, you're sure to hear more about pomodoros and how to use them effectively. For the time being, may I recommend you give the pomodoro method a try? Just pick a task, set a timer for 20/25/30 minutes, and then pretend your ass is glued to the chair until the timer dings. You’ll be amazed at how productive you can become when you focus on a single task and pretend your ass is glued to the chair. 

And that's all he wrote...