How an Italian Tomato Fixed My Brain

Posted by Jonathon Arnold on August 21, 2013

I’m a productivity nerd. I’ve tried more to-do applications and note-taking systems than I can remember, and have built up several ridiculous systems to help me stay organized over the years. I think geeks typically build systems for three reasons:

  1. Most geeks have some form of ADD. Seriously.
  2. Geeks typically have a lot of complex tasks and projects to manage, and our brains aren’t dependable enough on their own to remember everything.
  3. The mind of a geek is constantly looking for ways to streamline, like a river cutting a more efficient path through a field.

So, we love systems. Building structured habits is something I believe in, and I wanted something that would help me stay focused rather than distracting myself into pulling all-nighters. (It’s funny: sometimes I get the same amount of work done in six hours as I do twelve!)

After playing around with various systems and accountability methods, I dug up the old Pomodoro technique to help keep me disciplined.

Pomodoro Pomodoro is the Italian word for “tomato”, aptly named after the Italian kitchen timers the system was born from.

A Pomodoro is simply twenty-five minutes of work followed by a five minute break. The Pomodoro system allows you a nice solid chunk of time to focus in on a task, dissect it into it’s basic moving parts, and take care of it in an organized manner. I choose one task or task group to work on and when the break bell rings, I’m often amazed at how much I accomplished just by refusing to devote attention to anything else.

Thirty minutes is also a sufficient length for most meetings, so this method provides a good reminder to wrap up the meeting at 25 past and move to action items. The cadence of work, break, work, break becomes very natural throughout the context of a day: I find that I get more work done in less time and am less distracted when trying to get things done. Since you’re keeping track of your work output in this fluid, yet disciplined way, you can give yourself the freedom to time shift your work day around the other aspects of your life.

As a recovering workaholic, I find Pomodoros help me do just enough work each day. It’s a nice feeling to stack up a pile of tomatoes and call it quits for the day.

Currently I use a Pomodoro app from the Mac App Store, which is extremely simple yet customizable to your own cadence and notification preferences. There are also great apps for iOS and Android, which can be extremely helpful towards managing this flow in a workshop or meeting.

Recently, I was reminded of a system called (10 2)*5, which cycles ten minutes of work for a two minute break. Do this five times to compile sixty minutes, or one hour of productive work completed. I tried this and honestly found the (10 2)*5 system to be a little too spastic: I’d find myself just digging into a task when the break bell rang. Consequently the two minutes would fly by, leaving me knee deep in reading tweets or checking email but with a system that told me to get back to work.

A little science: our caffeine-riddled and overworked brains often misinterpret a new email or IM message as an urgent need and so we get caught up in things that really could wait in line behind the task at hand. author Tim Ferriss refers to these as “manufactured emergencies”, and many have mentioned our brain’s amygdala (or “The Lizard Brain”) creating fear about scenarios that likely will not take place. By focusing in on what’s really important and ignoring those nagging feelings of dread when you don’t check your email every two minutes, you’re refusing your base instincts and pushing forward to creating your best work.