Pomodoro Technique: Are You Making These 8 Rookie Mistakes?

Tomatoes with timer on background

Who hasn’t heard of the Pomodoro Technique? Seriously, I think everyone has read something about it.

At least, everyone that has searched for productivity tips at least once.

In fact, I have personally recommended it as a tool to improve productivity and fight lack of motivation.

I strongly believe that the Pomodoro Technique is an extremely simple yet useful system for anyone that is interested in personal productivity.

However, even though it is fairly easy to use, not everyone knows how to get the most out of it.

Keep reading to find out the most common mistakes people make when using the Pomodoro Technique, especially if they are “beginners”.

What Is The Pomodoro Technique? How Does It Work?

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.

At the time, young Cirillo was a university student and, like most students, he struggled with being productive, and would often waste ridiculous amounts of time without even knowing what exactly he’d been doing the whole day.

I know we all went through this.

So Cirillo decided to challenge himself to see if he would be able to focus and study for 10 minutes straight, without getting distracted. 

At first, he failed, but he kept trying, and in the end created the Pomodoro Technique, namesake of the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he first used for his little challenge. “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for “tomato”.

Tomato with a 25-minute timer for Pomodoro Technique
This is not an actual timer, but I really wanted to show off my photo editing skills.

The technique in itself consists of 5 (+1) steps:

  1. Choose ONE task you want to complete.
  2. Set a 25-minute timer (if you struggle with 25, you can start with 10 or 15 minutes and then, when you get used to it, add more minutes until 25).
  3. Work on your task. Focus.
  4. When the timer rings, stop right away and take a 5-minute break.
  5. Write an X on a piece of paper or on a digital note, and repeat steps 1-4.
  6. Every 4 pomodoros, take a longer break of 15–30 minutes.

It’s just that easy.

… in theory.

In practice, many “Pomodoro users” make mistakes that don’t let them truly benefit from the Pomodoro Technique.

Pomodoro Technique: 8 Common Mistakes (and What to Do Instead)

Mistake #1 – Not Stopping When the Pomodoro Rings

Do not fall into the “2 more minutes” trap. 

When your 25-minute Pomodoro rings, you must stop immediately, even if you believe you can complete what you were doing.

The main reason for this is that you are highly unlikely to finish what you started in just 2 minutes. 

Most of the time, these “2 more minutes” can easily turn into 5 or 10, sometimes even 20 or 30.

So make sure to stop as soon as your 25 minutes are up, and take a break.

Mistake #2 – Breaking Pomodoros in Weird Ways

Directly related to Mistake #1.

People who have not gotten used to the Pomodoro Technique often do weird things with Pomodoros and breaks.

What do I mean by that?

Mistake #1 was about avoiding the “2 more minutes” trap, right? 

So what happens when people do make the error of working on their task for 2 or more minutes after the end of their current Pomodoro?

They tend to allow themselves to take longer breaks, because they worked for more time than they were supposed to.

For instance, one might think “I’ve worked for 42 minutes instead of 25, so I will take 8.5—let’s just make it 9—minutes of break instead of 5.” 

More often than not, that “special” break will stretch itself and be much longer than initially planned.

I am particularly guilty for having done this many times in the past. I would also do the opposite: “I’ve been able to focus for only 16 minutes, so I will take a 3-minute break instead of 5.”

Don’t make this same mistake. 

Just like messing up with your circadian rhythm leads to poorer sleep quality, breaking the 25+5 pattern of the Pomodoro Technique will disrupt your working rhythm, and this will easily make you lose focus and willpower.

All you have to do is to just follow the main mechanism, and you’ll be on your way.

Mistake #3 – Not Protecting the Pomodoro

The ideal scenario is one in which we are able to work without being interrupted by anything.

But of course, that is not always possible.

There’s always the possibility that something or someone distracts us.

There are mainly two types of interruptions: internal (we distract ourselves) and external (parents, friends, colleagues, etc.)

How to Deal With Internal Interruptions

Man getting distracted while looking at white board

Concentrating without getting distracted is not easy, especially if you have never really experienced true focus.

When first trying out the Pomodoro Technique, 25 minutes of pure focus will feel loooong, like that boring class of that boring teacher. 

Maybe you’ll be able to work or study for only 10 minutes, or even less, before you end up with your smartphone on your hand.

One easy way to deal with internal interruptions effectively—that is, without completely losing focus—consists of two easy steps:

  1. Write down the activity you feel the need to do. “I want to know who won yesterday’s match” or “I want to order a giant sandwich”.
  2. Put the piece of paper or digital note aside, and get back to work until your Pomodoro rings.

By simply putting the distraction on paper, your desire for it will immediately lessen.

This should only take you a few seconds. If it takes too long, the current Pomodoro is to be considered incomplete and therefore not valid.

How to Deal With External Interruptions

Son distracted on the phone by his dad

Interruptions that come from the outside are a little more difficult to control. 

“Protecting” your Pomodoro from external interruptions is even more important. You need to let your family, friends, colleagues know that you value your time and that it would be nice if they respected it as well.

Cirillo suggests the “inform-negotiate-call back” strategy when dealing with this kind of interruptions:

  1. Inform them that you are in the middle of something important.
  2. Negotiate and reschedule a different time.
  3. Call back that person, as promised.

Now, you’re probably thinking that you’re being rude, that you can’t treat someone this way. After all, their problem might be really urgent.

Believe me, I feel you.

I also tend to feel bad when I interrupt someone, and I feel equally bad when I try to tell them that they interrupted me, even if I let them know in a gentle way. 

But I have learned that most of the “urgent” requests can easily be delayed an hour or two without creating any problem for the other party, while for us it means getting two or more Pomodoros of focused work.

Also, you will notice that people don’t really get mad. Maybe at first they will feel just a little annoyed, but if you call them back as promised and explain why you had rescheduled the call, they will understand and even appreciate you for putting aside some of your time to listen to them.

Mistake #4 – Using Breaks The Wrong Way

There’s a reason why the Pomodoro Technique requires you to take a quick break after every 25-minute Pomodoro and a longer break every four.

We are humans. The more we work, the more we get tired physically and mentally.

The more we work, the more we get tired physically and mentally.

So, if during the first hour of work you are 100% effective, after that you will be 90%, and then 80%, and so on. 

But if you are not used to focusing for long stretches of time, your productivity will start to plunge much earlier and much faster.

This is why pauses are important no matter how much you are able to work distraction-free.

A quick break helps us relax and get back to our work feeling refreshed. 

For example, if in three hours your productivity level goes from 100% to 80% to 60%, a quick break after every Pomodoro can help you keep your effectiveness (almost) intact. Instead of 100-80-60, your productivity levels throughout three hours will be something like 100-90-85.

But make sure to remember this: a break must be a real break.

During these pauses, you should NOT:

  • engage in activities that require too much effort;
  • scroll through Facebook, Instagram, etc.;
  • check your email;
  • watch TV or YouTube videos;
  • keep thinking about the work you’ve done during the last 25 minutes and the work you still need to do.

All these activities make your brain lose focus and create new open loops in your mind that will haunt you and ask for your attention when you resume working on your task.

What to do instead?

Nothing fancy, just go take a walk, or do any activity that allows you to move your body a little and is not tiring, like watering your plants or attempting some free throws. Doing some light exercise is especially important if you lead a sedentary life.

The goal of these “Pomodoro breaks” is to detach from work completely, recharge your energy levels, and refresh your focus. Plus, it might not be much, but it does make you burn some calories!

A quick word on break duration: 

  • Do not take too long breaks, or you will lose your rhythm and end up procrastinating.
  • Do not take too short breaks, or you will not give your mind and body enough time to relax and refresh. Working too much with too little rest will not make you more productive. At all. Don’t be like those people that don’t even have time to eat an apple just because “I have a ton of work to do!”. 

Mistake #5 – Automating The Pomodoro Technique

Just type ‘pomodoro app’ anywhere and you will find a TON of apps both for smartphone and desktop.

These apps automate the Pomodoro Technique for you: timer, pauses, amount of Pomodoros completed… you don’t have to do anything.

Are they useful? Well, I can’t say they’re useless.

Are they the optimal way to use the Pomodoro technique? No, they’re not.

You see, the act of winding up the timer is a signal that tells your brain “It’s time to work!”, and it’s important that you do it yourself instead of using an app or software.

I’d recommend that you use a mechanical timer.

If you don’t want to spend money, at least use the built-in timer of your smartphone, which requires you to manually set the time. (Though, I noticed that many smartphones automate even that, and allow you to start a new timer with a single tap, in case the duration is the same as the previous one)

Mistake #6 – Wasting Time When There’s Not “Space” For A Pomodoro

One thing that people criticize of the Pomodoro Technique is its being an all-or-nothing business, and they’re not really wrong.

An interrupted Pomodoro is not a Pomodoro, and can’t be considered valid. There’s no such thing as a half or quarter of Pomodoro. 

Unfortunately, this rule makes the technique not always usable. 

In fact, many people take this as an excuse for wasting time…

They say “I only have 20 minutes, so I can’t use the Pomodoro Technique” and proceed wasting those valuable 20 minutes.

But you should not reason that way. You don’t have to follow that rule blindly.

The Pomodoro Technique is just a tool. It has been created to help you, not to control you. It’s not your master. 

YOU are the master. 

Don’t have 25 minutes? Who cares! Just work for 20 minutes instead of 25!

It’s not like you can’t focus just because you are not actually doing a Pomodoro.

The goal is to increase your productivity and the amount of time you spend doing focused and distraction-free work/study.

It’s never about “collecting” as many Pomodoros as possible.

Mistake #7 – Pomodorizing Everything

One mistake many people make is that they “pomodorize” everything.

What does that mean?

It takes 7 to 20 days of constant application to truly master the Pomodoro Technique.

After this much time, you are likely to experience a side effect: you might start thinking everything in terms of Pomodoro. 

So not only when working on something, but also during the rest of the day. 

You might even end up “pomodorizing” your free time. That’s what we absolutely don’t want to happen.

If you measure your leisure time in Pomodoros, it won’t be leisure time anymore. 

It will turn into scheduled time for goal-oriented activities.

But free time is free time, and it must remain so.

It’s time we dedicate to ourselves. It’s the reward for our hard work.

Free time is free time.

Mistake #8 – Not Upgrading the Pomodoro Technique

Finally, there’s the mistake of never “evolving” and never “upgrading”.

Like we already discussed in point #6, the Pomodoro Technique is, at the end of the day, just a tool. Its only job is to help you.

And, while it’s important to adapt to situations in which the technique is not the best fit, it’s also important to upgrade it once you’ve mastered it.

I mean, it is only natural that, with enough practice, you get better and better at focusing and working/studying without getting distracted.

If at first a 25-minute Pomodoro seemed quite difficult to achieve, after consistent practice it will start to feel too easy.

If you are able to focus for more than 25 minutes consistently (this means not just once or twice, but on a daily basis), then you can absolutely level up and use a bigger Pomodoro, or any fruit you like that’s bigger than a tomato 🙂 

“But Paolo, you said that we shouldn’t mess with the Pomodoro’s structure!”

Yes I did. But that was referred to 25-minute Pomodoros. If your Pomodoro were a 50-minute one, every work session under 50 minutes wouldn’t count. That’s why I suggested you upgrade the technique only when you can consistently focus for longer periods of time.

Personally, I have used the “classic” technique for years before upgrading it into what I now call the “2-in-1” Pomodoro: work for 50 minutes straight, and then take a 10-minute break.

If you are able to focus for even more time, good! But my suggestion is to keep every session under 60 minutes. Why?

I believe we’ve already discussed about the importance of pauses in point #4.

Benefits of the Pomodoro Technique

Ok, after talking about the mistakes to avoid, it’s time to take a look at how you will benefit from using Pomodoros.

Here are the reasons why you should use this simple yet effective productivity tool:

  • It helps you beat procrastination and laziness. 25 minutes are not too much, and not too little. You won’t have trouble with getting started. Thanks to this, you will also become more disciplined.
  • It makes you a better planner. By tracking how many Pomodoros you spend on every activity, after some time you’ll be a pro at estimating how much effort and time are needed for every task and you will thus be able to organize your day much better.
  • It improves your focus. How? First, the act of winding up a timer will tell your brain that “It’s time to work”. Once your brain gets used to it, you’ll be automatically more capable of working with no distractions every time you set a Pomodoro. Second, the frequent breaks allow you to relax and always come back to work feeling refreshed.

These are the top benefits I’ve found after years of consistent use of the Pomodoro Technique.

Are You Ready to Accomplish More Every Day?

Some people like it, some people don’t. 

But its usefulness is undeniable.

Especially if you are a procrastinator, the Pomodoro Technique is a great starting point for becoming more productive.

But beware of the most common mistakes! 

To recap, here’s what you should do:

  1. Stop what you’re doing the exact moment the Pomodoro rings.
  2. Don’t break Pomodoros and pauses in weird ways.
  3. Protect your Pomodoro from internal and external interruptions.
  4. Value the quick breaks between every Pomodoro.
  5. Try not to use dedicated apps for Pomodoro Technique.
  6. If there’s not enough time for a Pomodoro, don’t waste it. Instead, just work for the amount of time available.
  7. Don’t “Pomodorize” everything, especially not your free time.
  8. Upgrade the Pomodoro Technique when you feel confident that you can consistently focus for more time.

It will take one to three weeks to truly master this tool, but it will be worth it.

By using the Pomodoro Technique, you will become more productive, more focused, more disciplined, and you will accomplish more at work and in life.

So what are you waiting for?

Your work and your goals will not accomplish them by themselves!

Set a 25-minute timer and focus. Now.

Do you use the Pomodoro Technique? What are the biggest benefits in your opinion?

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