Yes, you read that correctly and no, we’re not talking about tomato sauce… we’re talking about how to focus when you have ADHD. The pomodoro technique is a popular time management method that promotes frequent breaks in between periods of complete focus. Although it can help anyone improve productivity, the pomodoro technique can be particularly useful for individuals with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. While these are the primary symptoms ADHD, they are correlates of a larger problem with executive functioning. Executive functions are mental processes that allow us to prioritize important things in our environment, and inhibit or filter out things that might be distracting or harmful. They are responsible for keeping track of our current surroundings and they help us organize and orient our behaviors towards a specific goal. In the ADHD brain, however, executive functions are not as innately robust as they are in the neurotypical brain. The consequence is that individuals with ADHD often struggle to maintain focus and manage their time appropriately. The good news is executive functioning is a muscle just like any other, and it can be strengthened with practice. An ADHD-friendly method like the pomodoro technique is one proven way to practice time management and improve your executive functioning.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
College student Francesco Cirillo first developed the pomodoro technique in the late 1980s. Like many us, Cirillo was finding it difficult to focus on his studies with the distractions of university surrounding him. In an effort to overcome procrastination, he decided to try studying within specific time intervals. He found a tomato-shaped timer (hence pomodoro), set it to a specific time and then committed to studying until the timer rang. Once the timer finished, he allowed himself a short, timed break. After the break, the timer was reset and Cirillo went back to studying. Through trial and error, Cirillo determined that 25 minutes was the optimal interval for maintaining concentration and a subsequent five-minute break was sufficiently restorative. The pomodoro technique was born.
How to Use the Pomodoro Technique?
Below are the steps involved in the successful use of the pomodoro technique:
- Write out a to-do list of tasks that you need to complete and note the date you need them to be completed by.
- Choose the most time-sensitive task from the list. This will be the only task you focus on for the remainder of the steps.
- Set your timer to 25 minutes and focus solely on completing your single task until the timer rings.
- Once the timer rings, you have completed your first pomodoro. If you’re a visual learner, you can tally off your pomodoro on sheet of paper.
- Now enjoy a five-minute break.
- After completing four pomodoros, take a longer, 15-30 minute break.
- Repeat steps 3-6 of the pomodoro technique until you have completed your task.
The beauty of the pomodoro technique is that it’s simple and adaptable. Don’t be afraid to adjust the length of your work and break periods to fit your personal work habits and goals. For instance, 25 minutes might feel too short for work that requires a “creative flow” such as writing or composing. In these cases, a pomodoro length of 40-50 minutes with 15-minute break periods might be more appropriate. The important thing is that your breaks remain proportional to the amount of time you commit to working. This will prevent work-related burnout at the end of your day.
What ADHD Symptoms Can the Pomodoro Technique Help?
Working Memory and Executive Functioning Deficits
For many individuals with ADHD, the idea of starting major tasks often feels overwhelming. Despite having the skills and knowledge to complete the tasks, people with ADHD struggle to prioritize and actually execute their tasks due to deficits in working memory. On top of this, time management problems in ADHD can make it challenging to find the motivation to put down the distractions and begin working. However, the pomodoro technique forces you to organize and externalize your tasks with the creation of a time-sensitive to-do list. Writing a to-do list takes the strain off of your working memory by forcing the information out of your brain and onto a sheet of paper.
Additionally, the pomodoro technique can be extremely effective at combatting procrastination and time blindness. When you have ADHD, time blindness creates a tug of war between maximizing the present and prioritizing the future. It often keeps you more preoccupied by the present moment (e.g. the TV show you are watching) than attuned to upcoming events (e.g. a work deadline). Confining you to the “now,” time blindness also makes it challenging to imagine how long tasks in the future will take. As such, it can be very difficult to pull away from immediate distractions in order to tackle a larger, looming task.
The time-bound nature of the pomodoro technique turns the abstract concept of the future into a concrete event – a pomodoro. The 25-minute intervals measure your focus on a singular task and instill a sense of urgency within that time frame. Instead of feeling like there is endless time in the day to get things done, you know that you only have 25 minutes to make as much progress as possible on a given task. Time then becomes a positive measure of your accomplishments rather than something that is constantly being wasted or lost.
According to Cirillo, this is how the pomodoro technique “inverts time.” It flips time on its head, changing it from an abstract source of anxiety to a tangible measure of productivity. For people with ADHD, perceiving time as a tangible unit can be immensely helpful in accurately assessing how long it will take to complete a future task.
Although ADHD can make it challenging to get started on work, it can also create hyperfocus on a task, especially if that task is more interesting than others. In states of hyperfocus, individuals may find themselves completely engrossed in the current activity and unaware of how much time is passing. While hyperfocus can sometimes be effective in helping you quickly finish a long assignment, it can inhibit your ability to complete multiple important tasks within a day. It also often leads to total exhaustion when the day ends. Using the pomodoro technique can prevent hyperfocus because it sets a time limit for work and requires a subsequent break. Periodic breaks force you to step away from your task and reassess your priorities for the day. They are an opportunity to recharge and refresh and can help prevent work-related burnout or fatigue.
Tips for Using the Pomodoro Technique
1. Try to remove all distractions from your environment before beginning work. Make sure your workspace is clean and free of clutter. If you find yourself frequently distracted by your phone, set your 25-minute timer and then put your phone in another room. If you’re working on a computer, close all of your email and social networking tabs so you won’t be sidetracked by incoming notifications. In the case of an unavoidable distraction during a pomodoro, take your 5-minute break and then reset your timer.
2. Take breaks away from your workspace (and your screens). The break periods in the pomodoro technique are intended to be relaxing and restorative. However, if you spend your breaks scrolling social media you are not truly giving your brain a rest from mind-numbing stimuli. In order to make the most out of your breaks, try getting up and moving away from your workspace. Stand up, stretch, go on a walk, or even practice a short meditation. Anything you can do to prioritize your body during this time will greatly improve the quality of your breaks. You will feel noticeably better at the end of the day as a result.
3. Download a pomodoro app. If the steps of the pomodoro technique feel too overwhelming or annoying to perform manually, you can download an app that structures the process for you. Try using the free mobile app Focus Keeper. It allows you to create a to-do list of tasks and then times your pomodoro and break periods for you. The app also tracks your progress, so at the end of the day you can check how many hours you spent focused on work.
The pomodoro technique is an ADHD-friendly method for improving productivity and focus. By enforcing structured work and break periods, the pomodoro technique provides a clear measurement of time and rewards you for your progress. As such, it is a very useful method for quelling common ADHD symptoms like time blindness, hyperfocus, and executive functioning deficits.
We understand that different aspects of your life may be affected by ADHD. Our team at the ATTN Center in NYC is happy to offer a variety of services to support you in coping with ADHD symptoms. This includes therapy for ADHD-related anxiety and depression, group therapy, ADHD-focused therapy, testing, and neurofeedback options. At ATTN Center of NYC, we do everything in our power to treat ADHD without the use of medication, but we understand in some severe cases additional measures may be needed. As a result, we also maintain close relationships with many of NYC’s best psychiatrists as well. Feel free to learn more by visiting our blog or FAQ page today.