It’s later than you think.
– Latin sundial motto
We live in an age of fractured focus.
Our attention spans are commodities that millions of voices, products, games, and services are in an arms race to capture each day.
With such a dizzying array of options always just a click away, defying the urge to take the path of least resistance can feel like a Herculean task. But making dedicated progress toward meaningful goals is the only way to carve out victories in life, and reclaiming control of our focus is critical if we want to taste success.
Time is too precious a resource to waste, so let’s turn the tides in our favor in the war against distractions.
Our weapon of choice?
The Juicy Trick
In the 1980s, a college student named Francisco Cirillo was looking for a way to up his productivity.
Eyeing his surroundings, Francisco’s kitchen timer stood out.
Shaped like a pomodoro (the Italian word for tomato), the timer sparked an idea that would ultimately ripple throughout the business world for decades to come.
Francisco named his new concept The Pomodoro Technique. Here’s how it works:
- Choose a task.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work diligently until the timer rings.
- Take a short break (about five minutes).
- Repeat until you’ve completed four sessions. Then take a longer break (20-30 minutes) before starting the cycle again.
Though the method sounds simple, this tactic is a powerful way to channel your focus into sustainable increments.
Human biology isn’t built for staying laser-focused on the same task for long stretches of time. This is why we experience cognitive fatigue after concentrating on something for too long (more on that later).
Taking a break between stretches of focused work serves two purposes. Most noticeably, it gives the brain a chance to recharge so it’s adequately prepared to continue working on the task at hand.
It also centers the mind while you’re working. Since we intrinsically know we’re capable of focusing our attention for short intervals, it’s easier for us to stave off distractions—especially when we know a break is on the horizon.
But don’t just take my word for it! Let’s see what the experts have to say.
Bob Pozen is a senior lecturer at MIT Sloan and a bestselling author on how to be more productive.
Based on studies Pozen conducted with professional musicians, he estimates the breaking point when people begin succumbing to cognitive fatigue is after 75-90 minutes of focus. This is just one of many productivity studies trying to crack the code of vigilance decrement.
Vigilance decrement is defined as “decreased probability of detecting rare critical events in streams of stimuli with increased time-on-task.” If you fell asleep while reading that, it basically means we’re more prone to mistakes the longer we work without breaks. The amount of time it takes to reach vigilance decrement can vary significantly, from as little as 20 minutes all the way up to several hours.
Backing this up are ultrasound scans, which have also shown that blood flow to the brain decreases in conjunction with how long we spend on a task. Vigilance decrement isn’t just a mental issue—it’s also a physical one.
So we know we need breaks, but does science have anything to tell us about how those breaks should be used?
Yes! And in fact, the most common types of break activities (snacking, drinking caffeine, venting to a coworker) actually make us more mentally tired because they’re traditionally used as mechanisms to cope with a larger underlying issue.
The secret to an effective break is actually psychological detachment. When you completely separate your mind from the fatiguing task or scenario, your brain recovers more rapidly.
And if you can combine mental detachment with positive emotions, the break becomes even more effective—partially because those emotions increase blood flow to the brain, thus counteracting the blood flow decrease caused by vigilance decrement.
Meditation, exercise (even just a walk), playing a game, or helping someone else (like a coworker) are all great ways to spend your break time if you want to detach and reinvigorate your mind.
But as with most things in life, The Pomodoro Technique doesn’t need to be taken as a one-size-fits-all solution. So before you go, let’s head to the kitchen and find the flavor profile your brain will respond to best.
Just as there’s no definitive way to prepare a tomato salad, the specific times laid out within The Pomodoro Technique are not hard rules.
This means there’s plenty of room for flexibility. If you don’t like the flow of 25 minutes of work followed by five minutes of rest, try out different intervals until you find what works best. For example, data gathered through the productivity app DeskTime found their most productive users spent 52 minutes working followed by 17 minutes resting.
Think of it like exercise. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends 75-150 minutes per week of physical activity, but within that framework, it’s important to find the exercises that work best for your preferences and body type.
Likewise, The Pomodoro Technique lays out a framework—stretches of focus punctuated by pockets of rest—but the intervals can be tailored to your specific work style.
Don’t Be a Vegetable
It’s easy to lose focus throughout the daily grind. But if we succumb to perpetual distractions, we’ll eventually become like a vegetable—the cousin of the very thing we’re using for help!
But if you’re still not sold on the idea, why not try it for yourself? Head over to tomato-timer.com, which automates the entire pomodoro process (and even allows for custom intervals).
Whatever you do, just remember to keep pushing toward your goals. After all, it’s later than you think.
Cirillo, Francesco. “The Pomodoro Technique.” Cirillo Consulting GmbH.
Henry, Alan. “Productivity 101: A Primer to The Pomodoro Technique.” Lifehacker, 2 July 2014.
Gifford, Julia. “The Rule of 52 and 17: It’s Random, But It Ups Your Productivity.” The Muse.
Laskowski, Edward R. “How Much Should the Average Adult Exercise Every Day?” Mayo Clinic, 20 August 2016.
“Want to Be More Productive in 2018? Take More Breaks.” MIT Sloan Executive Education, 3 December 2017.
Haubert, Ashley, et al. “Relationship of Event-Related Potentials to the Vigilance Decrement.” US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 6 March 2018.
Grippo, Angela. “Why and How You Should Take Breaks at Work.” Psychology Today, 3 April 2017.