The Pomodoro Technique, or how a tomato made me more productive

I've alluded to my search for personal organization a couple of times during 2009. While it's not something that I'm obsessing about, I now capture my major goals in Things, and that at least tells me what I'm supposed to be doing in terms of short and long-term goals. However, I found that sometimes I couldn't figure out how to organize a single day in my calendar, simply because I would jump around to all sorts of projects and never get even one of them accomplished.

Back in August, fellow TUAW blogger Brett Terpstra started writing a post about The Pomodoro Technique™. Being a foodie and part Italian, I knew that pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato, so I asked Brett if he was talking about cooking. What he turned me on to was a wonderful concentration and organization technique.

In 1992, a student by the name of Francesco Cirillo was looking for a way of improving his study habits. He took a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (hence the name Pomodoro) and found that if he broke tasks into 25-minute sessions, now known as Pomodoros, followed by a 5-minute break, and then took a longer 15-minute break after four Pomodoros, he was able to concentrate more fully on the tasks at hand and accomplish more work.

The technique is deceptively simple, easy to implement, and surprisingly effective. You can download Cirillo's book for free and learn more about the technique at the official website, just to see if the method works for you. If it does, then you might want to look at the assortment of Mac and iPhone applications designed to help you time your Pomodoros and get more work done. That's the focus of the rest of this post.

iPhone Apps

So, you'd like to try the technique but you're not sure that you want to buy a tomato-shaped kitchen timer? To turn a well-worn phrase, there's an app for that. On the free side, you can either use the built-in timer function in the iPhone's Clock app, or try a free timer app. iPomodoro from Surya Gaddipati [Free, iTunes Link] and Pomodoro Time Management Lite from rapidrabbit [Free, iTunes Link] both give you a tomato-shaped timer and a way to count how many Pomodoros have been accomplished so far.

Part of the Pomodoro Technique involves creating a list of tasks, both planned and unplanned (and urgent), and then checking them off when they're completed. The full Pomodoro Time Management app [US$0.99, iTunes Link] adds a simple task list, complete with a checkbox you can tap to mark the Pomodoro as complete.

The simple Pomodoro Timer from Navel Labs [US$0.99, iTunes Link] does a great job of simulating the ticking and "ding!" of a mechanical timer. Francesco Cirillo notes in his book that the act of winding a mechanical timer provides a cue to the mind that it's time to work, so this app lets you "wind" the timer with a flick gesture. Cirillo also notes that the ticking of a real timer provides a subtle reminder that can help you keep focused. This app lets you type in a reminder of the task you're performing in the current Pomodoro, but has no way of providing a list of completed tasks.

Pomodoro [US$0.99, iTunes Link], from developer Jani Bresavscek, is another simple timer with a difference. It displays the Pomodoro number, and the timer takes up the entire screen so you can easily read the remaining time with a glance. The newest app available is PomodoroPro [US$2.99, iTunes Link] from Peer Assembly. It's about the only app that doesn't use the familiar tomato timer look, instead featuring a clear and visible circular countdown timer that changes from red to yellow as you near the end of a Pomodoro. Large stars at the bottom of the display show you with a glance how many Pomodoros you've completed, but there's no way to indicate what those tasks actually were unless you're logging them somewhere else. PomodoroPro does continue to count down while you're in another app or taking a phone call, but the timer won't ring unless you're actually in the app.

Of all of these apps, Pomodoro Time Management appears to be the most "true" to the Pomodoro Technique, as the list of tasks is key to making sure that you're completing your Pomodoros and getting through your tasks.

Mac apps

For Mac users who want to get into the technique without tying up their iPhones, there are several apps that will do the trick. First, the free Focus Booster is a cross-platform Adobe Air app that is a simple Pomodoro timer. Hate Adobe Air? There's also an online version called Focus Booster Live that you can pull up at this website.

Although Concentrate [US$29.00, free 60 hour download available] isn't specifically an app that supports the Pomodoro Technique, it has some powerful tools that will help you focus on the tasks at hand. How does it do that? Concentrate can be set up to launch apps that support your activity, quit apps that will cause you to lose focus (iChat and Twitter, for example), block websites that will be distracting to you, and more. Since it does contain a task timer, you can set your tasks to standard Pomodoro length (25 minutes) and create tasks for both the 5 and 15 minute break periods.Voila! A Pomodoro timer!

Another free Mac Pomodoro app is Pomodori, which unfortunately isn't Snow Leopard compatible at this time. Why do I say unfortunately? Because it looks like it's one of the most faithful apps in terms of simplicity and sticking to the Pomodoro Technique and tools. The developer is working on a Snow Leopard-compatible version, but since he does it out of love, and not for money, it's been taking some time. He does, however, point to another developer's work...

That app has the very original name Pomodoro, and it's created by a developer named Ugo Landini. This is an open-source project that seems to be one of the most complete I've seen so far. Pomodoro sits unobtrusively in your menu bar, allows you to start, stop, interrupt, or reset a Pomodoro, and it has a very detailed set of preferences. Are you a Mac scripting fiend? Pomodoro is scriptable. Want to look at your backlog of tasks? Yep, you can do it in Pomodoro. Think you could make up some clever prompts to let you know when a Pomodoro has started or has been interrupted? Uh-huh, you can change those prompts. There's even Twitter support, so you can tweet your buds with every bit of information about the Pomodoros that are starting, in progress, or have been completed.

Yep, this is the Mac app that I've chosen to help me. It's free, but you can choose to donate to Landini if you want to. I'd be interested to hear from other Pomodoro fans, or those who are using GTD or another time-management scheme to get things done. Leave your feedback in the comments section below.