The Pomodoro Method
Tonight, I (Shelby) am using what’s called The Pomodoro Method—but with my own twist (which I’ll get to in a minute).
The method was developed by a university student who had a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro means tomato in Italian). With his original time-management technique, you use a kitchen timer to discipline yourself to short, focused bursts of work, with short breaks in between.
Typically, the breakdown is four rounds of 25 minutes working with 5 minute breaks in between (which equals about 2 hours of focused work). Then after the four rounds you get a longer break (around 25 minutes) before repeating the process. My shorthand for this particular application of the technique is 25-5 x4.
I used this technique a lot when I was freelancing. The work I was doing would often get very granular and repetitive. Sometimes the monotony would make me throw in the towel—especially when I thought about needing to do eight hours of the same tasks. The Pomodoro Method kept me on track, while also legitimizing the need for breaks.
How This Hack Came in Clutch Today
I mentioned at the beginning that I’m using this hack right now—with a twist. Here’s what’s happening: I ended up unexpectedly having a free night. The kids are at the grands, the husband is working late, and the house is blissfully quiet.
It’s also a royal mess. Shortly before being ushered out the door, mine were just two of the nine kiddos running around the place. The “event” wasn’t planned—we just live in a tight-knit community with a lot of cousins. I typically do not let my children leave behind a mess for others to clean up (and neither do the other parents involved), but I happily prioritized more time for a leisurely visit over our normal habits this time.
I figured I could whip the place back into shape as soon as they were out the door.
But as I was tying on my apron and rolling up my sleeves, inspiration struck. I wanted to write more than I wanted to clean my house. (I know there are other creatives out there who resonate with this dilemma.)
For a split-second, I contemplated just diving into writing and going to bed with a messy house. Then my rational side gave my creative side the look and I knew that was not going to work. (Going to bed with a messy house is not our thing—my husband would honestly think I’d just lost my mind if I even attempted it. Then he’d stay up until 2am graciously trying to reset things himself. So, quite obviously, this wasn’t really an option.)
Then I considered just putting on a podcast and buckling down for a couple of hours to knock out the house, evening chores, and get some sourdough rising—and then using whatever time and energy I had left before I needed to sleep writing a blog post.
But I knew myself: the amount of work I needed to do (plus the added voice of a podcast) would easily cause my inspiration to fizzle out. I’d be exhausted by the end of it all, and I really wanted to work on this blog during this bonus free time.
Motivational Task-Switching Without Attention-Switching
The solution was obvious: I needed to use my timer to accomplish both in one evening. The writing opportunity would be my motivation to stay disciplined and intentional, but the necessary housework would still get done.
I would maximize the bonus evening with some motivational task-switching—using my spin on the Pomodoro Method to keep me organized.
Now, before I explain my spin on the Method, I should mention that this is not true “attention-switching.” I encourage the people I coach to avoid habit stacks that include a lot of attention-switching. I teach them to timeblock so they can get whole tasks done before moving to the next ones, thereby increasing their productivity while still simplifying their life.
But the nature of the two things I wanted to bounce between (housework and writing) are actually conducive to task-switching without attention-switching.
I’ve set up my home to make cleaning and decluttering easy and automatic. I really don’t have to think much about what I’m doing. This means I can use my hands to make progress on the house, while my mind is busy writing the next portion of the post.
Also, through practice, writing has become pretty easy. The hardest part is isolating what I want to write about—which I can be thinking about while I’m working with my hands.
So this kind of task-switching is not “attention-switching” at all (thus, it’s not detrimental to focus), but instead capitalizes on the time that my mind is free while my hands are busy. And it really comes in clutch on rare bonus blocks of time like this, when there are several hours where my attention is unclaimed by either work or family time—but due to the circumstances, I still can’t just dial right into the most inspiring task.
My Spin on the Pomodoro Method (for Managing the Mundane)
My approach is a little different than the traditional technique. While I’ve successfully used the 25-5 x4 breakdown for freelancing, I created my own rhythm for managing the mundane even at the height of inspiration and flow.
And that’s by going with a 15-25 task-switching rhythm with no “breaks.”
Here’s how this looked tonight: I’m setting the time on my phone for 15 minutes (I do not like the traditional Pomodoro Method recommendation to stay motivated by the ticking of a real kitchen timer—I tried it and it’s way too stressful for me!). For those 15 minutes, I’m cleaning and decluttering intensely—with a realistic but challenging milestone I want to hit before the timer goes off in mind.
- For the first round, I cleaned and vacuumed the entire living room in nearly 15 minutes. (I went about 5 minutes over so I could empty the vacuum.)
- The second round, I decluttered the toys in the kids’ room (I have a very specific way of doing decluttering when my kids aren’t home that works well for all of us).
- Then on the third round, I decluttered and put away all of the kids’ laundry (it was scattered all over because their friends helped them pack and “clean up after”).
- And on the fourth round, I made the kids’ beds, swept, and put away all of their books (a huge stack was stashed under the loft).
So in pockets that added up to an hour, I did a much-needed full reset on the kids’ room and closet (which hasn’t been possible up until now due to all of our October traveling, and which will help it be a lot easier to keep clean until the next post-Christmas reset.)
In the pockets of 25 minutes in-between, I’ve been working on this post. I’m avoiding distractions, but I’m not moving quite as speedily while writing as I do while cleaning. I’m giving myself time to think, edit as I go (which is my preferred way to write), and leverage my writing toolbox.
How to Use My 15-25 Formula
If you want to try this hack, here’s the formula:
- Set a timer for 15 minutes and set your sights on a mundane responsibility. Visualize a realistic but challenging milestone—and then crush it. Do not listen to something while working. Keep your mind free so your creative juices can build up, and avoid distractions.
- When your 15 minute timer goes off, set a timer for 25 minutes and give yourself permission to lean all the way into whatever enjoyable passion-project you’re feeling motivated to do. Don’t worry about racing the clock here. Enjoy the process. For full benefit, make sure to avoid distractions in this phase too.
- Repeat as many times as you want!
Troubleshooting This Hack
What if a legitimate distraction interrupts an interval?
Full disclosure: the time wasn’t sliced up quite as evenly as I described before. (I just didn’t want explanations and caveats at the start and make it difficult to grasp the framework of this technique.) Tonight, my first two rounds were pretty much exactly as described, but the third and fourth round were a little less defined because I needed to flex around a long-ish phone call from my husband. I typically avoid all calls and notifications when I want to do something like this, but my husband calling is (of course) one of the exceptions to that rule. So while I was on the phone with him, I popped in my AirPods and made a ton of progress finishing the kids’ room.
Isn't racing the clock for hours exhausting?
The goal with this technique is not to go full throttle, non-stop, for hours. You race the clock only for the 15 minutes of mundane work. When I’m using the 25 minute window to make progress on a passion project, my natural motivation is setting the pace—not a milestone. So I can relax while I’m doing the fun work. But the “interrupting pockets” managing the mundane? I’m going to race the clock to make as much progress as possible so that I can actually make it to the finish line with those goals, despite the intentional task-switching. This keeps me from burning out on this hack due to racing the clock for too long (I learned that misstep the hard way).
This hack seems a little contrived or silly.
Hey, if it doesn’t resonate, no worries! Not all time-management techniques work for all people. It’s never a good idea to force an approach that doesn’t work with your personality or circumstances. However, if you ever randomly find yourself super tempted to go AWOL on an important responsibility because inspiration has hit like a thunderbolt, you could always try out a couple of rounds and see what happens.
This hack might be useful on occasion, but it would be annoying to do this all the time.
I completely agree. That’s why I only use it on occasion. But it’s a really handy one to have in your back pocket for nights like the one I’m having now!
[It’s continuing to be productive on both fronts: I unloaded and loaded the dishwasher before starting the “troubleshooting” section of the post.]
What if I forget to set my timer, but I start task-switching organically?
That’s great! That means you probably got into a good flow for leveraging this particular productivity rhythm. In fact, I’m in that same flow now. My husband got home and confiscated my phone (I have more interesting apps than he does, heheh!), so I “lost access” to my timer. But I didn’t ask for my phone back or switch on the timer app I have installed on my laptop because I’d already gotten into a good flow.
[Be right back: I’m going to clean the countertops and sweep real quick… Aaand, I’m back. Finished that, and also decided to knock out cleaning the bathroom and processing a box of books that someone just gave us.]
What if I start to feel a little scattered?
Look at the length of your intervals: you don’t want this technique to devolve into multi-tasking. I’ve tested this hack for years, and the 15-25 minute formula has been the best cadence for buckling down on the mundane while still having time to enjoy the burst of inspiration. If this becomes something where you’re trying to wash dishes for 5 minutes before you jump back to your passion-project and get lost in it until something in the home demands your attention and you bounce back to that for a minute—well, you’re not really practicing this technique. You’re multi-tasking in a way that favors your passion-project, and that’s usually not nearly as productive or gratifying as a more disciplined cadence would be. And hey, if you don’t have to do something mundane and you legitimately can just take a break to really just spend a long pocket of time on the passion-project, just do that! Otherwise, it’ll take discipline and resolve to keep the mundane going in between.
What if I really, really struggle with disciplining myself to switch back into the mundane responsibility?
I recommend starting your first 15 minute interval with a task you can realistically finish in that timeframe (one that’s also satisfying!) I started with the living room for that reason: I knew I could knock it out in 15 minutes if I hustled, and I wanted to sit by the fire in a clean space for the intervals I was writing this post.
Make sure at every “mundane” interval, you know exactly what task you’re working to accomplish, and go ahead and finish it (if you’re close enough to the finish line) even if it means “going over” your timer. The goal is to make true progress on the mundane work, while staying motivated to discipline yourself with the reward of the inspiring work!
While doing the mundane work, visualize the end goal, and how nice it will be. Whether it’s a clean space, fully stocked closets, or a fridge full of prepped food, let the goodness of that accomplishment motivate you along with the reward of making space for your passion project.
This really works most comfortably if you’re starting from a place of strength. I have a very minimalist and organized home (and it’s pretty small, too), so it’s very easy to clean. I’ve tried this technique before while chipping away at the very overwhelming task of decluttering my home the very first go-around, and it definitely helped alleviated the monotony at times, but I also couldn’t use my desire to make progress on passion-projects as an excuse to not stay diligent at decluttering. I really made progress on the big, hairy-scary task of decluttering entire my home when I made that my passion-project for a long season, and obsessively went all-out on it until it was done (the willingness to do that for MONTHS on end completely changed our lives—now, I only have to hardcore declutter for one week annually, and otherwise I just declutter as I go!) So if you think this technique might be a distraction from really just leaning into the project of making the management of your mundane a whole lot easier through decluttering, organizing, and creating systems—just hold off on this technique until you’re done with that!
Are there other ways to do this?
Sure! You can also flip it to help you get through creative work that you’re not super excited about, but that needs to be done. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little burned out in content creation for my business, I’ll flip it so that I’m doing 15 minutes of a repetitive task I enjoy (such as working on my mega timeline project for my homeschool, painting, scrapbooking, or knitting), and then I’ll lean into 25 minutes of creativity-heavy writing for my business. When I do that, I work hard to get as much done in the 25 minute blocks as possible (race the clock, so to speak), and then let myself relax in the 15 minutes of fun, where I get to make progress on a hobby I otherwise wouldn’t have time for.
Can I experiment with it?
Absolutely. Maybe try it my way first to get the hang of it, and then start playing around with it. The key is to switch back-and-forth between a low-cognition task and a high-cognition task, and to allot enough time for each task that you can make significant, motivating progress. One of the tasks needs to be highly enjoyable, and the other should be something you really just need to get done. And neither of them needs to include scrolling social media, because that’s a recipe for setting a bomb off and shattering your focus and progress for good.
Why I Think This Technique Works
[Just finished vacuuming, cleaning the stove, and mixing up the sourdough pancakes to ferment overnight—and the house is finally back to zero!]
When inspiration strikes and you’re seriously tempted to go AWOL on a legitimate responsibility, this technique helps you to get emotionally attached to the “mundane” things you’d rather avoid, and stay attached all the way through completion without just having to just let the inspiration fizzle to nothing.
Also, by not defaulting to popping in a podcast episode while you knock up the mundane, you’re giving yourself permission to let the inspiration flow so you can make really strong progress on your passion-project, too.
The 15-25 breakdown allows you to lean into the thing you want to do, while still making good on the things you have to do. And if you steward those 15 minutes crushing the mundane tasks well, then the momentum will help you to keep caring about your ordinary rhythms even while you stoke the fires of creativity.
It’s basically a win-win scenario, if you stay honest and diligent.