[Workflow Guide] Make Time Your Friend with the Pomodoro Technique

A step-by-step guide to integrating the classic Pomodoro time management method with Todoist

Illustration by Margarida Mouta

The Pomodoro technique is a popular time management strategy you can use to build your concentration muscles, invest your time more intentionally, and accomplish more each workday. The method balances pomodoros – in-depth work sessions – with short breaks to promote sustained focus and clarity of thought.

This technique is particularly powerful for people who:

  • Have trouble staying focused and on task
  • Often find little distractions derail the whole workday
  • Consistently work past the point of optimal productivity
  • More often than not end the workday feeling mentally burned out
  • Want more awareness around how they actually spend the minutes of their workday
  • Enjoy gamified goal-setting
Already familiar with the Pomodoro technique? Skip down to the last section to learn how to implement it in Todoist.

Distraction culture and how Pomodoro can help you focus

If you’ve ever been interrupted when you were in a flow state, you know how difficult regaining focus can be. Yet, the constant stream of information pouring in via emails, team chats, and social media notifications demands more and more of our attention.

While it would be nice to blame technology for everything, recent studies suggest over half of all workday distractions are self-inflicted — meaning we pull ourselves out of focus. In the moment, it can be easy to justify these internal pulls — “This email is too important to wait,” or “It took less than a minute to check my Twitter; it isn’t a real distraction.”

But those small interruptions add up. The average smartphone user touches their phone 2,617 times a day with almost 2.5 hours of total phone screen time. On top of that, a recent study found 62% of workers report spending at least an hour of each workday looking at their phone.

It isn’t just the time you lose on distractions, it also takes time and energy to refocus your attention. After switching gears, our mental attention can linger over the previous task for upwards of 20 minutes until regaining full concentration. Indulging the impulse to check Facebook “just for a minute” can turn into 20 minutes of trying to get back on task.

How can we teach ourselves to resist all of those self-interruptions and re-train our brains to focus? That’s where the Pomodoro technique comes in.

What is the Pomodoro technique?

The Pomodoro technique was developed in the late 1980s by then university student Francesco Cirillo, who was struggling to focus on his studies and complete assignments. Feeling overwhelmed, he asked himself to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time. Encouraged by the challenge, he found a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) shaped kitchen timer, and the Pomodoro technique was born.

Though Cirillo went on to write a 130-page book about the method,  its biggest strength is its simplicity:

  1. Get a to-do list and a timer.
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes, and focus on a single task until the timer rings.
  3. When your session ends, mark off one pomodoro and record what you completed.
  4. Then enjoy a five-minute break.
  5. After four intervals, or “pomodori,” take a longer, more restorative 15-20 minute break.
Pomodoro technique Todoist

The 25-minute work sprints are the core of the method, but a Pomodoro practice also includes three rules for getting the most out of each interval:

  1. Break down complex projects. If a task requires 5-7 pomodori, it needs to be divided into smaller, actionable steps. Sticking to this rule will help ensure you make clear progress on your projects.
  2. Small tasks go together. Any tasks that will take less than one Pomodoro should be combined with other simple tasks. For example, “write rent check,” “set vet appointment,” and “read Pomodoro article” could go together in one session.
  3. Once a pomodoro is set, it must ring. The pomodoro is an indivisible unit of time and can not be broken, especially not to check incoming emails, team chats, or text messages. Any ideas, tasks, or requests that come up should be taken note of (Todoist is a great place for these) to come back to later.

In the event of an unavoidable disruption, take your five-minute break and start again. Cirillo recommends that you track interruptions (internal or external) as they occur and reflect on how to avoid them in your next session.

The rule applies even if you do finish your given task before the timer goes off. Use the rest of your time for overlearning, or improving skills or scope of knowledge. For example, you could spend the extra time reading up on professional journals or researching networking opportunities.

Tip: Keep an “Overlearning” project in Todoist with a list of tasks you can quickly choose from the next time you find yourself with pomodoro time to spare.

If the system seems simple, that’s because it is. The Pomodoro technique is all about getting your mind in the zone to finish your tasks. Though there are many productivity systems that help identify what you should do, including Eisenhower Matrix, Eat the Frog, and Getting Things Done, only Pomodoro focuses on how those tasks actually get done.

Inverting your perception of time

What makes the Pomodoro method so effective? It completely changes your sense of time.

When planning out our future projects, most of us fall victim to the planning fallacy — our tendency to vastly underestimate the time needed to complete future tasks, even when we know similar tasks have taken longer in the past. Your present self imagines your future self  operating under entirely different circumstances and time restraints.

The Pomodoro technique can be a valuable weapon against the planning fallacy. When you start working in short, timed sessions, time is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete event. It becomes a pomodoro — a unit of both time and effort. Distinct from the idea of 25 minutes of general “work,” the pomodoro is an event that measures focus on a single task (or several simple tasks).

When you start working in short, timed sessions, time is no longer an abstract concept but a concrete event.

The concept of time changes from a negative — something that has been lost — to a positive representation of events accomplished. Cirillo calls this “inverting time” because it changes the perception of time passing from an abstract source of anxiety to an exact measure of productivity. This leads to much more realistic time estimates.

Pomodoro concept of time Todoist

Writer Ben Dolnick describes how his perception of time changed while using the method:

“Five minutes on the internet, as measured by my timer, would pass in what seemed to me about 35 seconds. A timed hour of research would seem to take between three and four hours. My timer was a crisp metal yardstick laid down in the fog of my temporal intuitions.”

When you use the Pomodoro technique, you have a clear measurement of your finite time and your efforts, allowing you to reflect and plan your days more accurately and efficiently. With practice, you’ll be able to accurately assess how many pomodoros a task will take and build more consistent work habits.

The next pomodoro will go better

Every pomodoro provides an opportunity to improve upon the last. Cirillo argues that “concentration and consciousness lead to speed, one pomodoro at a time.”

The Pomodoro technique is approachable because it is more about consistency than perfection. Each session is a fresh start to reevaluate your goals, challenge yourself to focus, and limit distractions. You can make the system work for you. Motivate yourself to build on your success by setting a goal to add an extra pomodoro each day. Challenge yourself to finish a big task in a set number of pomodoros. Try setting a goal number of pomodoros for each day without breaking the chain.

The key is to continue working in your sessions to avoid falling into the cycle of frantic and draining bursts of work.

You can also experiment with the length and frequency of your pomodoro sessions. If you struggle to complete even one pomodoro — set a smaller work goal of 10 minutes and build up to a full 25-minute session. Or try a 10 or 15 minute break between sessions. The key is to continue working in your sessions to avoid falling into the cycle of frantic and draining bursts of work.

For some projects, 25 minutes may not be enough. Try extended work sessions with longer breaks. A DeskTime study found that a 52-minute focus and 17-minute break is the perfect balance. Others prefer 90 full minutes with a 20-30-minute break, based on Ultradian rhythms. For most people, the sweet spot will be in the 25-50 minute range for peak concentration with a 5-15 minute break. Try mixing your intervals based on your available energy and the complexity of work. Keep in mind that as you build your concentration muscle, you can evaluate and adapt your workflow accordingly.

focus break interval Pomodoro Todoist

How to implement the Pomodoro technique in Todoist

Though the 25/5 minute intervals are the heart of the Pomodoro technique, Cirillo suggests following a daily routine to plan, track, and reflect on your progress. Quickly track your tasks and your pomodoros together in Todoist by following the steps below. Or, use Todoist integrations to track your pomodoros with apps like Toggl and Pomodone.

Initial setup

Create a dedicated “Pomodoro” project under the projects area. This project will be a container for your pomodoro sessions, but won’t have any tasks itself. In fact, after the initial setup, you’ll never have to enter this project again. Within your new Pomodoro project, create 8-10 daily recurring pomodoro sessions, titled “1st Pomodoro,” “2nd Pomodoro,” “3rd Pomodoro,” etc. Bold your headings (**1st Pomodoro**) and add a 🍅 emoji to make them stand out.

To make them recur daily, type “every day” into the task field. The smart Quick Add will recognize and highlight the date and add it to the task when you click “Add Task”. Now whenever you complete a pomodoro task it will automatically reset for the next day.

Shortcut: Click to import a Pomodoro project template into your Todoist.

Pomodoro Todoist project

1. Plan

At the start of each day (or the night before), review all your active projects and one-off tasks and schedule everything you want to accomplish for “Today”. Make sure that anything that might take longer than 5 Pomodoros is broken into smaller sub-tasks. For example, a project titled “redesign website” might need a more pomodoro-sized sub-task like “find 5 example websites as inspiration.”

Be careful not to over-schedule yourself.  Push yourself to only schedule the essential tasks, keeping in mind that you may underestimate how much time each will take. If you have 10 tasks you want to do in a day, you may find it helpful to only schedule half of the list and to assign a label or priority flag to indicate the other tasks are “on deck.”

Now when you open your Today view, you’ll see your pomodoro tasks along with all of the tasks you scheduled for today. Click on the grey handle to the left of the task to drag it underneath the corresponding pomodoro session.

Pomodoro planning Todoist
You’ll start the day in your Today view with a clear plan of what you’ll work on in each pomodoro sesssion.

2. Work

You’ll start your day with a clear plan of what you’ll work on during each pomodoro. You can use the timer on your phone, a physical Pomodoro timer, or any of the many digital alternatives like Toggl which integrate with Todoist.

Once your timer starts, it must go off! Keep focused by capturing for later any ideas, events, or projects that threaten to pull your attention away from your current task. When you’re timer runs out, you can review the list, schedule urgent tasks for a later Pomodoro, and file away less urgent things for another day. As each pomodoro goes by, complete the daily recurring task in your Today view – it will automatically be rescheduled for the next day.

3. Repeat

Build your concentration muscle by making your pomodoro planning a daily routine. Add a task in Todoist for the same time each morning to remind yourself to plan out your pomodoros. Challenge yourself to hit a certain number of pomodoros each day, and take time at the end to reflect on what went well and how you could improve your focus in the future.

Do you have tips for implementing Pomodoro we didn’t cover? Share them with other readers in the comments below!

Pomodoro shows you how to do your tasks, but how do you track and decide what those tasks should be? Our workflow guide on how to GTD with Todoist may be just what you need.