You may have heard of a productivity method called the Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique allows a user to choose a task and focus on it for 25-minute intervals. A pre-set kitchen timer will ring once the minutes are up, allowing the user to take a short break before picking the task up again. After completing four cycles of 25 minutes each the user is encouraged to take a longer break.
Since the inception of the Pomodoro Technique, several apps have emerged to help people use it. This eventually led to the creation of a digital version of the traditional technique (which I am calling the first revision).
Given that we’re in a digital age, it was only a matter of time before the technique went online, too. Brought about by the ubiquitous use of the Internet, digital devices, and the myriad of products and services launched by Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, and others, the technique is helping us have “better and more efficient lives”. Or, at least—so we’re told.
Granted, we’ve now experienced enough of the digital age for its side effects to set in: overwork, overwhelm, hijacked attention, countless digital interruptions, scattered thoughts and ineffective multitasking. But the most worrisome of all is the fact that we’re less in touch with our own emotions, and more disconnected from other human beings.
A more radical shift is needed. And this radical shift from a technological overload back to human connection is already taking place—it is the shift towards mindfulness.
Mindfulness means a lot of things in the workplace. For example, paying attention to what is happening now around us and within us, being more intentional instead of being driven by impulses, taking the time to disconnect from technology and reconnect with ourselves and others, and incorporation mindfulness practices to help deepen self-awareness and attention management.
With this radical shift, a second revision of the Pomodoro Technique is in order, and this time, for the mindfulness age. This necessitates a new generation of productivity apps that help us practice mindfulness at work. So what would this look like?
This means choosing your tasks with intention and putting them down in writing or cataloging them in an app. This is a crucial step because our minds, challenged by the digital overload, are often incapable of retaining focus on the intended task for longer than a few minutes or seconds.
On a typical day, you start to work on a task. You receive an email, so you leave your task and open the email, but then another email arrives, and before you know it you’ve clicked on a link and spent half an hour mindlessly perusing Instagram or Facebook. Enough said about awareness and choice.
This can be achieved by having a timer running and working in small time increments. Fifteen minutes is an ideal time interval (based on experience and attention span research). It is short enough to be digestible and long enough to help you accomplish small incremental progress towards your task.
But don’t think this is a deadline for finishing your task! Rather, it is a time to check-in and decide if you’re on the right track or if you need to adjust. It is a mindful moment. You can continue as long as you choose to. The key here is that you make an intentional choice.
Typically, when we finish a task we’ll just go on to start a new one. Our lives in the office and our lives at home just meld into one overwhelming blob of work. Not to mention that we still feel anxious about everything left undone before going to bed.
This needs to stop. And it’s precisely at the 15-minute time checkpoint that you can do just that. Pause briefly and acknowledge what you have accomplished. Take a deep breath and let the feeling of that accomplishment sink in. These moments of acknowledgment are likely to have a cumulative effect and change how you feel about your work for the better.
The 15-minute checkpoint is also an opportunity to check-in what is going on in your mind, how you’re feeling emotionally, and how your body is feeling. Spotting thoughts, feelings, and sensations often and early, and giving them space or processing them in time, will help you stay in tune with yourself and prevent negative thoughts from becoming monsters that consume us and the people around us.
Below are some of my favorite personal breaks. Just a couple minutes of stretching, meditation, or simply being can help refresh my mind and prepare me for the next task at hand.
All in all, as science and neuroscience continue to demonstrate, mindfulness is our best bet for overcoming the overload and reclaiming a more peaceful and satisfying life. So isn’t time we bring this to our work?
This is not about meditation, even though meditation can tremendously strengthen our ability to be mindful. This is more about developing the practices of working mindfully throughout our day, not just to increase our productivity but also to reduce our stress, anxiety, and sense of distraction. We can achieve this through analog or digital, by using the above guidelines as a starting point.
In the end, we have a lot to gain by incorporating mindfulness into our workday, and a lot more to lose by not doing so.
*If you’re interested in practicing this method of mindfulness at work, check out the hellomindful.me app initiative and help us create the second revision of the Pomodoro Technique. (Both images are screenshots from the beta app!)
*This article is a sequel to our first article about an analog journal practice of this method, A Revision of the Pomodoro Technique for the Internet Age, published in the Huffington Post.