A COUPLE of years ago I was told a rumour about a notable artist who would break up everything she did, from making films in the day to running her studio in the afternoon to reading books in the evening, into intervals of 25 minutes, with five-minute breaks in between — 25 minutes on, five minutes off, over and over again. That’s how I first heard of the Pomodoro technique.
Invented by Francesco Cirillo, a student at Rome’s Luiss Business School in the late 1980s, it’s a time-management method that takes its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used to regulate its core process, breaking the day into brief intervals. Before long I was trying it for myself, and now I start my first pomodoro as soon as my coffee’s ready in the morning.
Daily schedules, and our shared perception of time, grew hazier and more malleable during the spring lockdown, something that has persisted into our timid reopening. Hours, days and weeks merged into an ambient, dreamlike fugue. My bowl of cereal with milk slid from 2 to 3 to 4 in the afternoon. I’m writing this at 11.03pm on a Thursday while drinking what I consider my afternoon coffee. There are four minutes and 13 seconds left of my pomodoro.
A pomodoro, once started, must not be interrupted, otherwise it has to be abandoned. But in this stringency, there is relief: You are not allowed to extend a pomodoro, either. After a set of four 25-minute intervals are completed, you’re supposed to take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes before continuing. Those are the basic rules of Pomodoro technique. It tells us when to start, and also when to stop; and now, more than ever, we have to be told when to stop.
An unquestioned assumption in our culture holds that the more hours spent on work — whether a passion project or office drudgery — the better we’ll perform and the more successful and happier we’ll be. What if none of that’s true? What if it’s better to spend less time on things?
We waste hours keeping on going when our concentration’s long gone, caught in drowsy, drawn-out moments staring glumly at a screen, and not only when we’re supposed to be doing our jobs. Leisure time has also taken on a timeless, hypnotic quality lately. Everything our culture produces feels at once never-ending and meaningless — or perhaps meaningless because it’s never-ending. Movies explode into cinematic universes; series are designed to be binge-watched; every video, song or podcast tips over and auto-plays another; social media scrolls toward infinity and the news never stops broadcasting.
An everlasting present expands around us in all directions, and it’s easy to get lost in there — all the more reason to set some boundaries.
Now that my breaks are short and fleeting, I think more carefully about what I’d like to do with them, and I’ve found it’s quite different from the unimaginative temptations I would otherwise default to (flopping on the sofa, scrolling on my phone, becoming annoyed). Instead, I’ll make a sandwich, do a quick French lesson, reply to a few texts, have a shower, do the laundry and such humdrum activities, now that they’re restricted, have become sources of great pleasure.
During lockdown, we were encouraged not to feel pressured into being productive. My alternative approach was to descend into a pomodoro-fueled delirium of work, creativity, household chores, tasks I’ve been avoiding for years, self-betterment and random undertakings from morning to night. I’ve found that tackling a range of tasks in short bursts keeps things interesting and provides a more rounded life. Variety is the sugar that helps the medicine go down; not the mirage of variety conjured by infinite scrolling content, by nearly a hundred different flavours of Oreos, but the genuine variety of pursuing different sorts of interests every day.
Psychedelics can make your surroundings look and feel strange, allowing you to encounter them anew again. They bring life’s absurdity and wonder to the fore. Similarly, time management makes time uncanny by revealing how it speeds up and slows down throughout the day, and how many different ways 25 minutes can feel; how one pomodoro can be a clearheaded, lucid rapture that makes all activities gratifying, and another, a slow, monotonous drag crying out for a break, for a reviving stroll around the block.
The Pomodoro technique showed me how much of my experience of reality is tied up with my subjective perception of it. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that, by changing my relationship with and appreciation of time, the technique has brought me to some profound existential questions about whether I’m wasting my life — my fragile, fleeting life — on activities I neither care about nor enjoy. It has forced me to think about what I’d most like to be doing every day instead. It has made me see time afresh — as something we really don’t have enough of, as something precious precisely because it’s ephemeral.
- See: francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique
- The New York Times