Using a timer to get more done

Using a timer to increase productivity works because it supports focusing long enough to get difficult or unpleasant tasks done. I’ve been touting this method since childhood. I learned it from my mom.

The simple idea is to set the timer for a short amount of time that you need to focus on a particular task, and get to it.  While the timer is counting down, no checking email or surfing the web.  No chats with colleagues or answering the phone. Focus only on the task.

It turns out there’s a name for this idea and it’s called The Pomodoro Technique.  Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, it’s called Pomodoro because it calls for a kitchen timer that looks like a tomato. Pomodoro is tomato in Italian which, I’ll agree, sounds more intriguing than The Tomato Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique

The rule of the technique is to break up work into 25-minute segments – or Pomodoros, which cannot be interrupted.  Set the timer and focus like a laser beam. In my view the most important aspect of this technique is the “no interruptions” part. If you want your “pomodoro” to be shorter or longer than 25 minutes, do what works for you.

Dozens of work tasks benefit from this kind of uninterrupted focus. Writing reports, responding to email (in batches, not all day long), reviewing complex documents, making sales calls, etc. Any task that would benefit from a solid focus you rarely manage. Unpleasant tasks or ones you tend to put off are good opportunities to use this technique.

Time for focus breaks

Another way using a timer increases productivity is to remind you to take breaks. In between each focus segment take a quick 1-3 minute break to get up from your chair, put away files on your desk, check your To Do list, grab a drink of water, top off your coffee, stretch, etc. Nothing that taxes your brain during this recovery time. Every couple of hours it’s good to take a longer break. 5- 10 minutes, perhaps. Quick, regular breaks are imperative to do your best work.

Use a kitchen timer or phone timer?

The best reason for using an actual kitchen timer to increase productivity instead of an app on your phone, is that in the few seconds it takes to navigate to the app to set the time on your phone, you’ll get distracted by something else on your phone.  It’s mind boggling how quickly our focus can shift once that device is in hand. Then it saps your productivity instead of improving it.

It also helps if your timer makes the ticking sound. As long as it’s still ticking, you know it’s counting down. With a silent digital timer you may be tempted to check it occasionally to make certain it’s working. Again, it’s a small but precarious opportunity to lose focus.

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