I wrote last week about the Pomodoro Technique and its potential for fostering productive work. In the eight years I’ve applied the method, its focus-break-focus-break-etc prescription has worked wonders. Despite my best efforts, however, at times I still catch my mind wandering. The question becomes: How can I get the most out of my pomos? I’ll discuss several strategies I’ve incorporated which help me keep distractions to a minimum.
Cell phones are prime suspects. The nudge of a text or email ping, however subtle, can be incredibly disruptive. To keep the monkey mind at bay, I put my iPhone on Do Not Disturb mode, which blocks all notifications and calls from most contacts (I have family and close friends added to my favorites so emergent calls still come through).
I also pull browser tabs related to my focused activity into their own window, so my itch to open Habitica or my time tracking Google sheet—both of which I always keep open—is stymied. I’ve read others use extensions like Freedom or StayFocusd to restrict access to certain websites, in particular social media feeds. My approach has simply been to cull social media checks to once per week and email checks to once per day. After reading Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism, I also deleted all social media apps from my phone and tablet. To further discourage the urge to stare at or switch tabs, I pull work into full screen mode (F11 on Chrome). I do the same when completing Anki reviews. The addon “Toggle Full Screen” enables you to go full screen with F11.
Crafting an environment which facilitates focus can be tricky. The literature is inconclusive as to which types of music or background noise are ideal. For the moment, therefore, personal preference seems the way to go. I prefer instrumental music—usually electronic, jazz, or classical—played from speakers positioned across the room. If music has vocals, I keep the volume low so I can’t make out the words. My favorites include the Spotify playlists Brain Food and Soul Coffee. This Medium article discusses additional considerations for choosing the right music. Occasionally, to add some color to the room, I’ll turn a background television show or movie on low volume.
The goal is to maintain a pleasant background noise which habituates your mind, augmenting novel stimuli—ideally, your work. Cathy wrote about habituation previously in her article “Silence Is Golden? White Noise, Coffee Shops, And The Learning Boost Of Habituation.” I’ve heard many knowledge workers advocating approaches in this vein. Many computer programmers like to play the same song over and over. Tim Ferriss plays an old movie on repeat during writing. Michael Lewis curates a new playlist for each book he writes.
The pomo rests on the power of breaks, so it’s critical to have revitalizing activities lined up between deep work sessions. At minimum, I try to get my body moving and my eyes off my screen. The pomo, in its 25-5 form at least, is a great way to adhere to the 20-20-20 rule for minimizing eye strain. The rule stipulates you look at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. My favorite break options include walking (see our article about the surprising memory boosts of walking here), shooting basketball in our driveway, meditating, and catching up on cleaning.
I also track my time, which can be an additional motivator. See this link for an example Google sheet. Time tracking keeps me honest and enables me to compare productivity from one day to the next, empowering me to push the total higher. I track mobile device distractions with the iPhone’s Screen Time app (I previously used Moment), which provides a weekly report of time spent on various apps.
Other tweaks: When feeling especially distactable, I decrease my pomos from 50 to 25 minutes for more frequent breaks. To minimize hunger distractions, I always keep a Thermos of water at my desk to sip on.
If you find yourself distracted, don’t despair. À la mindfulness practice, simply note the distraction and calmly redirect your attention. I’m hardly a focus master—ask Cathy—but I hope these tips I’ve experimented with through the years prove helpful. All the best with your deep work!