How A Tomato Can Keep You Focused On Your Engineering Work

The Pomodoro Technique is a highly effective way to keep you focused on your engineering work. It can also help you destroy procrastination, all you need is 25 minutes.

Improving focus has been a challenge for me throughout my career.  Besides the outside distractions of the phone, people wanting to see me, or email, I think a lot.  Unfortunately, all of that thinking takes me from one issue to another in relatively short order as I make connections between them.  The connections in turn launch me into more thought.  

It’s easy for me to spend an hour doing this and while I like having a creative mind and the ability to generate ideas, I don’t like the fact that this destroys my ability to get necessary tasks accomplished.

While there are a number of tactics that one can employ to build a discipline of focus, I’ve been working with one the past six months.

It’s called the Pomodoro Technique and it can keep you focused on your engineering work.

Tomato’s Are Good for You

What’s funny is that I stumbled into doing it about six months ago on my own having never heard of it.  I started applying the concept of “high-intensity interval training” to my workflow as a test.  I figured that if interval training in my physical workouts were highly effective for me, why not when I’m working on project, especially when I need to be focused.

A couple months later I read about a focus tactic called the “Pomodoro Technique” and realized my new-found means to focus like a laser had already been discovered.  No matter, it works!

The Pomodoro Technique gets its name from Francesco Cirmino, who back in the late 1980’s was working on his doctorate and not getting anywhere on his dissertation.  So he started using a timer that looked like a pomodoro tomato to break his work periods into 25 minute intervals – called pomodori – followed by short three to five minute breaks.

I put Cirmino’s invention to the test recently on a project in which I needed to generate three papers, 10,000 words each, in a span of a month.  This was the mother-of-all-tests and it worked!  I found that I could “sprint” for 25 to 40 minutes with a five minute break in between.

The Pomodoro Technique

Here’s how it works:

1.  Decide on the task to be done.

2.  Set a time interval for work.  The prescribed length of time is 25 minutes, but I’ve used 50 minute intervals before without loss of focus.  

3.  Work until the timer rings.  On a piece of paper record an “x”.  This will help you keep track of how long you’ve been at your work.

4.  Take a 3-5 minute break.

5.  Reset the timer and get back to work.

6.  After four pomodori, take a longer 15-30 minute break.

I’ve found that the Pomodoro Technique has helped me in two major ways:

  • I remain focused on a task because I know that I can be fully committed for 25 minutes at a time
  • It’s helped me destroy procrastination because I know that I can do just about anything for 25 minutes.  Especially on larger projects, disassembling it into small increments makes it manageable.

I also discovered that tracking your pomodori’s helps you in estimating work time on projects, which is a major benefit if you do the same type of task routinely.  For example, it typically takes me two pomodori to put one of these articles together and up to eight to put a presentation together from material I previously wrote.

This ability to make better time estimates for your workflow allows you to make realistic daily schedules and reduce stress by not taking on more work in a single day than you can actually accomplish.

Take a bite at the tomato and let me know if this technique is helpful to you.  If you have a different technique, please share with other readers by leaving a comment!

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is an international infrastructure development program manager, engineer, and author. He has extensive experience in leadership, management, and engineering earned from a career as a civil engineering officer in the U.S. Air Force.  He now coaches engineers enabling them to create an engineering career and life of fulfillment at The Engineering Career Coach.