Adapting the Pomodoro Method to Suit Your Needs

A few years ago, I wrote about the Pomodoro Method and the concept of Shut Up And Write (SUAW). However, this format doesn’t necessarily work for everyone.

Since 2020 we’ve run a SUAW group every Monday morning on Zoom, and other groups operate around the university on different days and times. [Editor’s note: you can try out Scott’s SUAW group on Monday 4 September as part of AUT Research Week 2023. Register here.] This article is based on experiences of people in the group and some articles online which are linked below.

To recap, the basic idea of the Pomodoro Method is to use a series of no-interruption time blocks with regular scheduled breaks. A Pomodoro Session usually involves:

  • Setting a goal or a list of work you need to complete
  • Turning off notifications etc. so that you can work uninterrupted
  • Work for 25 minutes on one thing at a time
  • Rest for 5 minutes
  • Repeat the two blocks (making 30 minutes) for 4-5 sessions (2-2.5 hours) and then take a longer break (and maybe have something to eat)

But 25 minutes is a relatively short period of time. I like these shorter breaks because if I get distracted and end up doing something that is a time waste, I only lose a short amount of time, because when the timer goes off, you kind of have a reset. If it was a longer period, I’d lose more time. However, others find that it takes them a long time to get into the rhythm – particularly when working on data analysis or coding – and the 25-minute blocks take them out of it too quickly.

Some people, however, find the technique too rigid for them and may interrupt the focus that they have. Melissa from Diverge Coaching notes that neurodivergent folks particularly find this invasive and distracts them from being able to focus, and that the break times encourages them to engage in other distracting tasks that prohibit returning to the work when the time goes off again. They suggest the following adaptations to the Pomodoro Method:

  • Change the length of the sessions. Try different periods and find what works for you. You might find the 25 minutes is too short or too long. Experiment! Shorter writing periods are better adapted for times of low focus, but longer ones suit hyper-focus.
  • Don’t skip the breaks, but do set boundaries. On the topic of hyper-focus, tearing yourself away from your work when you’re hyper-focussed may be frustrating, but taking the time to rest your eyes, stretch your body, and drink some water are essential for maintaining the session. You might be able to go for several hours without doing any of these things, but then you’re done for the day. A more sustainable approach will allow you to continue working for longer without running yourself into the ground. Additionally, a quick walk to the bathroom or kitchen could give you the breakthrough you’ve been needing!
  • Avoid or limit social media time. Both during the breaks and when you’re writing it can be tempting to get that dopamine hit from checking social media and watching Twitter catch fire for the third time today, but it might do more damage than it’s worth. Particularly when you’re hyper-focussed, hitting social media can switch your focus and you end up spending a lot longer than you think scrolling your platform of choice, and even mean when you return to writing you’re still thinking about what you last saw online.
  • If you really need to, you can skip the break. This is generally not recommended (see point above), but if you’re really close to finishing something and you’re nearly done, then you can skip the break if you need to. Just be sure to listen to your body and give it what it needs and take care once the task is complete.
  • Give yourself time to adapt. The Pomodoro Method may be vastly different to different techniques you’ve used in the past, particularly if you’re used to leaving everything to the last minute and pulling an all-nighter. Changing to a strict schedule can feel restrictive, but trying out a few sessions a day and adapting the method to suit your needs can help make it fit your work style more effectively.
  • Avoid your phone at all. Melissa finds that putting a timer on her phone or checking her phone during the breaks takes her out of the zone and makes it easy to not return to work when the timer goes off. Instead use a desktop timer (there are apps you can download, there is a timer built into the clock app on most computers, or there are Pomodoro YouTube videos – for our SUAW sessions we use this video as a timer) and during the breaks get up and move around instead of just changing screens.

Timers in the Windows 10 clock app

Some YouTube Pomodoro timers

These adaptations are also recommended by other websites including PsychCentral, Focus Commit, and Laura Reber at Progress Parade. Focus Commit also add that the Pomodoro Method can also be combined with other methods and strategies you might be using.

The Pomodoro Method was also identified as a common coping method for university-aged women with ADHD (Phillips 2022), also noting that many of the participants eschewed phone use during their sessions, using being able to play games or browse social media on their phone as a reward for completing the session and finishing their work.

Conversely to the above, Professor Jacquie Kidd from AUT’s School of Clinical Sciences finds that the below structure works better for her. She comments that she finds any decent focus can be thrown off by worrying about work piling up but throwing in some time for short tasks and emails makes it more manageable.

  • 30 minutes of deep work
  • 10 minutes break (sometimes longer, it depends)
  • After every second session, 10-15 minutes to complete emails and a bunch of short tasks

She listed an example day where she combined 30 minutes of writing with 30 minutes of resting or doing housework but limiting email checking time to no more than 15 minutes at a time. She adds that a 5-minute break is too short for her, and she spends the whole time checking the clock and worrying that she’ll miss the timer. You should enjoy the breaks as guilt-free time because you know they are part of maintaining your wellbeing and have a set time limit, and it is also good to get a few minutes of movement and exercise in at regular intervals throughout the day.

However, much of this assumes that you have been able to break your work down into perfectly sized tasks to begin with. Dr Josta Heyligers from AUT’s Library Learning & research Services suggests the following:

  • Knowing tasks to do for the week.
  • Transfer some into tasks for the day and give them a likely priority from A (most important) to C (less important or less urgent).
  • Break large tasks down into specific, doable tasks.
  • List them and have some variation (intensive tasks needing more than an hour with 5-10min easy ones interspersed).
  • Tick them off when done (motivational aspect).
  • Review to see changes are needed (longer time for particular tasks? etc.).

These will help to break down the things needed to be done into manageable bites to work through during a Pomodoro session.

What works best for you? Experiment! If you have another strategy not listed here, drop them down in comments below to share with others!



Other resources:

Phillips, Keri, “Coping Strategies in College-Aged Women across the Attention Spectrum” (2022). Honors Theses. 888.

About Scott Pilkington

Scott is a Postgraduate Coordinator and Health, Safety & Wellbeing rep at the Graduate Research School. His hobbies include museums, campanology, history, anthropology, cats, dance, fibre crafts, science communication, and gin. He’s a graduate of University of Auckland, University of Otago, Open Polytechnic of New Zealand, and of course AUT. His current research projects include how we use museums to communicate science, and the form and function of doctoral academic dress at New Zealand universities. Past research includes the Albert Park tunnels, taphonomy of burnt human skeletal remains, and the sex-politics-law dynamics of 13th C England. He is weirdly passionate about palaeoecology and urban spaces. He uses the pronouns he/him. You can often see him at GRS events being our resident photographer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available