It was around eight or nine years ago that I first came across the Pomodora Technique and it changed the way that I write.
Francesco Cirillo developed the technique to help businesses and individuals improve and increase their productivity in a simple, fast and gentle way.
You can use it to help structure your writing day.
Before you listen to the podcast, take some time to think about how you currently structure your day.
In this episode we talk about:
- The difference between the Pomodoro core process and the Pomodoro technique
- Seeing time as a predator and using it to your advantage
- The importance of taking regular breaks
- Mistakes to watch out for when you start to use the technique
Francesco : Actually, procrastination is one of the affect of the real problem we have with time. And the real problem we have with time is that time is limited, and we actually don't know how to deal with this kind of limit.
Introduction: Welcome to the Become a Writer Today podcast with Bryan Collins. Here, you'll find practical advice and interviews for all kinds of writers.
Bryan: How do you structure your day for writing? Hi, there, my name is Bryan Collins and welcome to the Become A Writer Today podcast. At about eight or nine years ago, I came across a famous productivity technique called the Pomodoro Technique, and I came across it on a site I followed at the time, Lifehacker. I used the Pomodoro Technique to change how I write.
Bryan: Basically, the technique or process, which is something I'll explain in a moment, involves setting a timer for 25 minutes, putting on a pair of noise canceling headphones, and just working on one particular writing project until the buzzer sounded. I've used the Pomodoro process or technique on and off over the past few years, particularly when I feel blocked or uninspired.
Bryan: The man who came up with the technique, his name is Francesco Cirillo, and I recently had the chance to catch up with him, and he explained to me how what I was doing was actually just one part of the technique. In other words, setting a timer for 25 minutes is a process that forms part of the Pomodoro Technique. If that sounds a little bit complicated, he explains it all in this week's interview.
Bryan: Well, before we start the interview, I want to encourage you to think about how you structure your day. Because whether you apply the Pomodoro Technique or some other productivity method, it's always a good idea to track your time and to track your output. So if you're a writer, tracking your time could involve keeping track in a spreadsheet of your word count each day, so you can figure out what days you're more or less productive on.
Bryan: Or if you're editing, you could track your time by recording how long you spend editing the chapter for your book, or for your series of articles. That way, you can adjust your day accordingly.
Bryan: When I started doing all of this, I figured out that I write more in the morning and I prefer to edit in the afternoon. I started planning my days accordingly. I've actually wrote a couple of articles about how to write early in the morning, but then I discovered that many writers prefer writing in the evening, because that's when they feel most creative.
Bryan: So there's no wrong or right answer. It's really all about how and when you feel most inspired and when you're more likely to write. Then you can allocate the rest of the day for things that you might not want to do. It could be dealing with some painful edits from your editor, or it could be doing something else to do with your creative business. For example, going through your books or even your tax returns, God forbid, for the week.
Bryan: The other way of course you can track yourself is to use a timer, which forms part of the Pomodoro core process, and then you can tot up, or total up the hours at the end of the week. And you can figure out how much of your week was spent on creative projects. How much of it was spent finding new clients, if you're a freelance writer and how much of it was spent on other parts of your business.
Bryan: Now, if all of this sounds a bit like micromanagement. It's actually quite useful, because it can help you figure out when you need to switch off as well and you can use your free time. And that's actually something we talk about in this week's interview, because if you're involved in anything creative, you also need time to step back to refill the creative well, so to speak.
Bryan: And actually I have a sign in my office, which is a translation of a French saying, and basically it translates as step back, in order to leap forwards. Because when you're working on a book, you might want to push through and hit a deadline or produce a certain amount of chapters in any given week, which is something I've been trying to do recently. But then if you're feeling burnt out, you might want to take a couple of days off.
Bryan: So when you do sit back down in front of the black page, you can feel a little bit more inspired. And it's actually something I've had to re-learn over the past few weeks, because at the time of recording this interview, we're back in lockdown in the county I live in, in Ireland, because of the coronavirus. Something I hope is lifted soon.
Bryan: And what I found is writing during lockdown means that I lose sense of what day it is. I don't think I'm the only person who does this, because I read a news story recently that said that people have to be reminded what day it is, because they don't have anything really to punctuate the week with. In other words, Mondays can start to feel a little bit like Sundays when you're spending a lot of time at home or, in your home town, because you can't go anywhere on holidays or you can't go anywhere for a long break. That said, it's still useful to figure out how you're going to structure the week or at least use the time that you have.
Bryan: Now, before we get over to this week's interview with Francesco, if you enjoy the show, if you could leave a review on iTunes or wherever you're listening to the show, because more reviews would help more people find the Become A Writer Today podcast. And that's something I'd like to do more of, over the next few months and into next year.
Bryan: Now with that, let's go over to this week's interview with Francesco. I started by asking him to explain what the difference is between the Pomodoro core process and the Pomodoro Technique, and what I've been doing wrong.
Francesco : I think it's just the fact that it has become really popular. And so if you go on the internet, you find always the same description. So basically you use this timer. Since the Pomodoro Technique is the art of setting a timer for 25 minutes and work in a focused way, and then you take a break, which is actually a part of what we call the Pomodoro core process. So it's just a little part.
Francesco : But apparently this has become really popular. So the Pomodoro Technique actually is a complete training to play a particular game. So if you take a look at something like a table, where we put processes and practices and values and principles. So you can actually understand that there are at least four processes, there are a number of values and principles, and there are six objectives you want to reach. There's a lot of stuff.
Francesco : And so the question is why do we have all these things? And basically, the idea is because we want to play a game. And what is this game? Well, this game starts when you have a deadline, for instance, you realize that you really have to work through this level, because the level of anxiety is really high.
Francesco : And this is the moment where, what I say is the predator shows up. So time as a predator shows up, and now you have to decide what to do. And more often than not, you do nothing. So you just run. So this is the most common reaction. So there's this deep anxiety, deep fear, and our mind to protect us applies a mechanism that is a really primitive mechanism.
Francesco : So when we look behind, there's a predator. What do you do? You run. So, unfortunately this is not the best way to deal with time. And the technique actually is a training program. That's the reason why there are six incremental objectives to learn how to deal with time.
Francesco : I'd like to tell you something about another point, so that we focus on the real problem. Most of the people I talk to, they say when I ask, what is your problem with time? And they say, oh, my problem is procrastination. Or some other of these things.
Francesco : Actually, procrastination is one of the effect of the real problem we have with time. And the real problem that we have with time is that time is limited. We actually don't know how to deal with this kind of limit. So this is the reason why, when our mind has to deal with this limit, we tend to dysfunction. So the real reason why we have this technique is because we want to train ourselves to deal with this human limit. This is the real problem. I want to give you another example, just to clarify, I think Bryan that you tried other productivity methods, techniques, whatever it is, right?
Bryan: I did.
Francesco : Okay. There's a common experience and it works like this. So basically, you read something about a technique. You like it, and you say, I want to try this. And then you try this technique, whatever it is, and initially this technique is really, really effective. Then over time, this technique becomes less effective and maybe becomes an enemy. Has this happened to you?
Bryan: I'm certainly guilty of finding a technique and then getting bored with it and moving on to the next one.
Francesco : Yeah. But you know what happens? You know why this happens? So initially, we are all excited because we finally see, oh, we finally solved a problem we have with time or with our productivity, whatever it is. But then if we are not able to deal with the real problem we have with time, so basically to deal with time, with this human limit, what happens is that any technique requires time, correct? To be applied. Because there's a process.
Francesco : And now initially, you don't feel this as something like a heavy thing or something you have to make an effort for it. But over time, this is another of your time stealers, time thieves. And so this process that you loved initially becomes another of your... increases the chances for your predator to show up. I don't know if this is clear. Makes sense?
Bryan: Yeah, it does.
Francesco : So the real problem we want to deal with is this one. So to train ourselves to deal with this human limit. We don't have as much time as we want. We cannot slow it down. So there's nothing we can do, in order to control time, to exert control over time. And this is the reason why I actually developed the technique. I have lots of problems with time. So this was a reaction actually, to solve my problem.
Francesco : But the technique then is this complete training made up of processes and practices and principles and objectives, incremental objectives. It's really a training, to learn to deal with our predator. And of course, once we manage to learn how to deal with our predator, time becomes an ally, because this is only in our mind, time really doesn't exist. It's something we imagine in our mind.
Francesco : This is the reason why we can turn time from the most vicious predator into the most important ally for our productivity.
Bryan: If I understand you correctly, Francesco, the core process is what I had described before, where you set a timer for 25 minutes. The technique is how you manage time and how you set objectives to manage time.
Francesco : Well, no, the technique is made up of different processes, okay? The method is processes and tools put together. This is in methodology, we define a method like this. So the technique is actually this. So there are different processes and we have different tools.
Francesco : So the different processes are the core process, daily individual process, the weekly individual process. And of course, you can actually also have the weekly team process, the daily team process, et cetera. But the most important one is the fact that the technique is open. So you can change your process. If you have particular conditions in your context, you can actually change this process.
Francesco : How can you change the process? By following the principles and the values of the technique. And the value, number one, in the technique is we want to take care of ourselves. Another one is, we want to use simple tools. That's a really important thing.
Francesco : More often than not, we tend to work for our tools. You understand what I mean Bryan, when I say this?
Bryan: We can overcomplicate projects, or work we have to do.
Francesco : Yeah. Sometimes we like a tool and we say, I want to use this tool. This tool is really good. But then maybe the complexity grows and that tool is not really good for that level of complexity, but we love that tool. So we keep using that tool.
Francesco : And there is a moment when we have to make a lot of effort just to make the tool work. And this is something that you don't want to happen. Never. So you always want the tools to work for you. This is the reason why one of the values in the Pomodoro Technique is we want to use simple tools.
Francesco : The core process in particular is really effective, because it has been designed with really simple tools. And there's a reason for that, because the core process must work when you have no energy, when you are weak. Otherwise, if I give you a really complex process and I say, okay, listen, when you have a really tight deadline and you're really super tired and you're really frustrated and everything, follow this really complex process. Does it make sense? No?
Bryan: It's not going to happen.
Francesco : It's not going to happen. So if you want something that works in those conditions, it has to be super simple and the tools must be super simple and it must be easy, as I say, no entry barriers, no exit barriers. So it must be really easy to start applying that and stop applying that. But this is the idea.
Francesco : I want to show you just one thing about the core process, to show you the connection with, the analogy with the predator. This is one of the many cases in the Pomodoro Technique. If you take a look at the other processes, you'll find lots of other connections and concepts similar to this one. But just to show you one thing, in the core process, we say, okay, you work for 25 minutes and then you stop and take a break, right? For a couple of minutes, up to five minutes.
Francesco : This point, Pomodoro brings, okay? This is the perfect moment when your predator shows up and say, what do you want to do now? You want to stop working? You have so many things to do. You see that?
Francesco : And this is the moment where you use time to take care of your mind. Because those two to five minutes are so important for our mind to re-organize the information it has acquired over the last 25 minutes. So this is, we want to become a good engineer of our mind. This is the kind of mechanisms, it's really interesting philosophically speaking, because we ask time, which is exactly the predator, how can help us?
Bryan: It sounds like you're recommending taking a two to three minute break rather than keeping going for 50 or 60 minutes.
Francesco : Exactly. And this is one of my goals, I want the first Pomodoro of my day to be as effective as the last Pomodoro of my day. And to do that, the structural element to get to this point, to get to this sustainability of the process, are the breaks.
Francesco : I can also say another thing, when I was younger, I worked for lots of hours with no breaks. No? Of course, I felt exhausted. But the point is, this is the point, I know there are lots of people they like this flow state. And they say, I want to keep working, because I desire to work.
Francesco : But when I ask these people, this is also me, but why you cannot stop after 25 minutes, for instance? And they say, because I'm worried, the fear is I'm going to lose this beautiful idea I have, et cetera. I don't want my decisions to be driven by fears, because every time my decisions are driven by fears, this means that the predator is in control. Does it make sense?
Bryan: It does. I'm certainly guilty of not stopping because I don't want to break that state of flow that you described.
Francesco : You can do that. This is the difference, when we talk about the core process, these are the terms I like to talk about, because this is the idea. We want to develop a dialogue with our predator and we want to literally let time help us be productive.
Francesco : Now, questions.
Bryan: Questions. Well, so I'm thinking of writing a book. What kind of mistakes should I watch out for, if I'm going to apply the core process?
Francesco : Oh, only for the core process? So the most common mistake is to cheat during the breaks.
Francesco : I'm going to tell you what it means. So basically, this was one of my students. One of the people who attended my courses. She's a Russian manager and when we talked about these breaks, she said, oh, but tell me what I can do during these breaks. Because of course, I don't want to feel guilty and I want to do something, something like I don't know, load the dishwasher or something like this. And of course she said, I'm a perfectionist. So she was aware of this.
Francesco : And I said, okay, but you understand this analogy with the engineer of the mind and the predator, et cetera? She said yes. So if you want to be the perfect engineer, what would you do? I would do nothing, because this way, this process in our mind, this [inaudible 00:18:33] process happened, do nothing. So this is the most common, I don't know what to say, problem or cheating during breaks.
Francesco : I remember another manager and he was really cool. We worked together with his team and this is what he used to do. So basically, the Pomodoro rung and then we stopped and then sit in his chair, in more comfortable way and started talking with a more informal approach. But he kept on talking about the same problem.
Bryan: Still working.
Francesco : These are the things that if you understand this mechanism, you want to take care of your mind and take care of your mind means every 25 minutes, your mind needs to reorganize information, right? So this is exactly the same aspect you have when you have a problem, you go to sleep and you wake up and magically, you find the solution of the problem.
Bryan: Your subconscious is working on it. So how many Pomodoros are ideal in a typical day or possible?
Francesco : Okay, this is the second problem. I'm really not interested in how many Pomodoros you complete. I'm interested in how many times you were able to recognize your predator and to turn your predator into your friend. This is a common issue, Bryan. I'm really happy you asked this, because this is 90% of the time that I receive this question from the people that attend my courses, from other people. So it's common, but really this is not the point.
Francesco : If you understand what's behind the technique, basically we want to learn to play a game. And the game is when the predator appears, well, we want to be able to turn this enemy an ally. So the stories I'm interested in, like, for instance, yesterday, I really didn't want to break, because I really don't have time and I have to deliver this report. But instead I managed to stop and I took a longer break. Super. These are the things I want to hear.
Bryan: It sounds like you're describing mindfulness.
Francesco : Well, it's a different perspective. And we are talking about only the core process, but there are other things, like how to organize a time table, et cetera, but it's always the same. So basically, we always want our mind to work in the best way. Why? Because if our mind works in the best way, then of course, by construction, you will be more productive. We are not machines.
Bryan: We're certainly not. What's the common mistake that people make with the technique rather than the core process?
Francesco : So for instance, in the garden, this is another analogy. So objective number five of the technique is, you should be able to organize your weekly timetable. And the analogy there is, now you're a gardener, okay? You have this vegetable garden. This is your week, something like a rectangle, right? And you have to choose where to put your plants.
Francesco : First of all, you have to choose your plants, which basically are your goals and the things you want to do and where to put these plants in your timetable. And the third thing that a good gardener has to know is, you have to take care of these plants, which means you want to start working on one of these plants at that time, and you want to stop working at a certain time.
Francesco : So in some way, a timetable means to master the art of stopping, to go faster. This is probably the second problem. One of the problems we have. Because people, they like to see themselves really organized, to have this weekly timetable, but this is objective number five. To get to this point, you must learn and reach objective number first before.
Francesco : So this is the second problem. This is a main mistake that someone can do when they start the technique. So they want to get the results, but to get these results, you need training. I don't know if it is clear.
Bryan: Yeah. So in my office, I actually have a sign that I came across a while ago and it says step back in order to leap forwards, because sometimes it's good to take a break or to pause. So you can re-gather your energy and then you can push forward.
Francesco : Yeah. In this case, it's really simple because, for instance, objective number one of the technique is, you want to be able to track your effort. You want to be able to find out how much effort it takes to do your tasks. This is really objective number one.
Francesco : And this is really interesting, because you probably Bryan know how you spend your money. But nobody knows how they spend their time. All the time I ask, okay, how do you spend your time? Nobody knows that. And this is the very first thing that you want to learn how to do. So you want to know how you spend your time in your day, or in your week, so that you can take a look at that and say, I don't want to spend all this time in meetings. I don't want to spend all this time in, I didn't know what.
Francesco : And then you can improve your process. You can change that. So the core process, actually, and then the daily process, the first function they have is to collect data, to track your effort. So this was the problem I was mentioning before. So if you want to get to the point where you can organize your week in a really nice, effective way, well, you cannot start from that thing. You cannot reach these objectives. You cannot start working on this one. First, you have to be able to reach objective number one, which is track your time.
Francesco : And this, by the way, it's again the game, because it's always the predator saying, oh, why should you start from objective number one, when you want to reach objective number five? This is the game, time seen as a predator, time as an enemy. Instead, you can take your time, work on objective number one, master this objective. And then you go to objective number two. And then you go to objective number three. You have time. Time is your friend, it can really help you.
Bryan: Is the technique something that you would use for free time as well, or is it more for work or creative situations?
Francesco : This is another important question, interesting question. So it can be used for both, but how and why? I have a book here, and I really have to read this book. Now, if I have to read this book, or because I have a goal related to this activity, then I will use the technique. I will use the timer. I will track my day. I will use the journal, et cetera. If I instead want to read this book, maybe the same book, exactly the same book, but this is for fun. It's just because it's an inspiration. Then I will not use the time, I will not use the technique.
Francesco : Let me say one thing about the main goal of the technique. The main goal of the technique is to work less. So we want to learn to improve our process, so that we can dedicate less Pomodoros, let's put it this way to do our things, to reach our goals. And so we have more time to do what? To get fuel. And what is fuel? Fuel is time dedicated to explore. So not to reach some planned goals. So time dedicated to do something with no goal in mind.
Francesco : This is our fuel, this is our fuel for what? This is the fuel for our discipline. Discipline is an internal force. And this internal force is the thing that allow us to apply a process. Because the Pomodoro Technique is a process, actually there are several processes. And we need force, we need to make an effort to follow these processes.
Francesco : So we want to learn how to work in a more effective way, so that we have more time to get fuel and to become stronger internally, so that we can actually apply one of these processes.
Bryan: It's important to recharge, especially when you're doing something creative, otherwise you'll feel uninspired.
Francesco : Yes.
Bryan: Do you have an ideal early morning routine at the moment, Francesco?
Francesco : If I have a morning routine?
Francesco : Yeah. My morning routine starts like this, one Pomodoro for cleaning. I literally load the dishwasher, the Russian manager suggested. But I do this in one Pomodoro. So this is a time box Pomodoro. So it means I decided that for one Pomodoro, I will do these kind of things. I will clean the kitchen, these kind of things. And I am going to do the same things more or less in the evening.
Francesco : Then after that, I walk, I do some kind of meditation or something. And then I start with my tasks. I work until 4:45. And then I stop.
Bryan: Very good. So if a writer wants to get started with the Pomodoro Technique, where would you recommend they go?
Francesco : Well, they can actually start with the core process, and if they want to apply, for instance, something more structured, then real core process because the process that you read on Google, for instance, on some blog posts, et cetera, it's not the real core process. In the core process, there is a way to deal with distractions. There is a way to for instance, there is an unplanned card, it's more structured than those few points you usually read on blog posts.
Francesco : But in any case, the core process is really effective. And then maybe go to the daily process to structure your day, to learn how to structure your day. And then once you manage to do that, you go to the weekly process. And these are things that, especially for writers, these things are really, really effective.
Francesco : I do know that, because I had to write, I mentor writers. I know the problems with writing. The main problem when you write something is that there is no real feedback. So at least this is my problem. So you don't have a real feedback from your publisher or your editor. You have to work with a lot of trust.
Bryan: It can take a long time.
Francesco : Yeah. And so you have to support this motivation. And you don't want to have any kind of delusions, because otherwise, it's really hard. So this is perfect if you start tracking, if you start structuring your day.
Francesco : So for instance, in the morning, you say, this is up to you, but you have to know yourself. For instance, this is my case in the morning, I'm really good at writing new stuff. After lunch, this is the perfect time to read what I wrote again, do some kind of editing, but light editing. And then in the afternoon, you rewrite. This works for me.
Francesco : I managed to understand that this works for me, because I collected that data about my process. I changed my process. I found something about myself in this process. And so this is the kind of work you might want to do.
Bryan: Your routine sounds quite similar to mine. I like to write in the morning and edit in the afternoon.
Francesco : A writer I worked with as a coach and she, for instance, she only writes in the evening, in the night. And to me, this is totally impossible to do, but we work in a different way.
Francesco : So the most important thing is that we follow our... And this is the other point, Bryan, it's really important the concept I mentioned before. So we really want that our first Pomodoro is as effective as the last one. So this is the reason why we don't want to cheat with breaks.
Francesco : Do you know what the main problem is? This is really interesting with all my students. The problem is, I struggle to do nothing for five minutes or to do nothing for 15 minutes. This is really interesting.
Francesco : So if you manage to learn how to do nothing for five minutes, so the short breaks and especially the long breaks, this is a real boost for your productivity.
Bryan: It's harder than it sounds. I've been cheating for years I'll have to change how I use the technique.
Francesco : That's good.
Bryan: It was very nice to talk to you today. What's the best place for people to find you online?
Francesco : You can go to my website, it's francescocirillo.com, and by the way, we have been working on changing these things. I'm going to start publishing a series of blog posts about how to improve your productivity with the technique. So this maybe could be, someone could be interested in reading.
Bryan: I look forward to reading them. Thank you.
Francesco : Thank you.
Bryan: I hope you enjoyed this podcast episode. If you did, please leave a rating on the iTunes store. And if you want to accomplish more with your writing, please visit becomeawritertoday.com/join. I'll send you a free email course. Thanks for listening.
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