Elizabeth Olsson | 27 August 2020
Before COVID19 irrevocably altered academic work as we once knew it, many staff at the School of Global Studies met weekly to sit together and write. Employing the Pomodoro Technique and good, old fashioned peer pressure, we met in a room, closed the door, and wrote in parallel. Regular participants lauded Pomodoro sessions as invaluable to their writing productivity, and discussions of its benefits yielded a growing cadre of Pomodoro enthusiasts. It seemed we had figured this whole writing thing out, and then the COVID pandemic swept the globe. Working from home became the new normal. From March 2020 until today, we have not been able to hold our weekly Pomodoro sessions, leaving many of us scrambling to find new ways to not just manage our time but find the structure and motivation to sit down and write. In this post, I detail how several at the School of Global Studies have taken our Pomodoro sessions online. I describe how this works, the costs and benefits of “e-Pomodoros,” and several ways that the Pomodoro technique can be updated for the COVID era.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
If you are unfamiliar with the Pomodoro Technique, you’re in for a treat. Productivity guru Francesco Cirillo developed this astonishingly effective time management system in the late 1980s. The Pomodoro Technique derives its name from the Italian word for tomato and refers to a kitchen timer. The timer, kitchen or otherwise, is crucial to the technique as a writer must set a timer and write continuously for the allotted time before taking a short break and starting again. (A short aside is necessary here: You can use Pomodoro to complete any task, including reading or computer programming. This post, however, is all about writing.) When Cirillo created the technique, he focused on manageability. He wanted to find a time interval that was short enough for him to work without fatigue, but long enough to actually get something done.
Today, most Pomodoro participants hold several 30-minute sessions consisting of a 25-minute writing interval and a 5-minute break. After 3-5 consecutive Pomodoro sessions, many take a longer break ranging from 15 to 25 minutes. It is important to note that the exact timing of each session is inconsequential. What matters is that you find a time interval, be it 25 to 45 minutes, which works for you. This time interval must be short enough that you can do several Pomodoro sessions back-to-back without hitting a wall. After all, if you want to manage your time effectively, you need to implement a sustainable system that meets your needs.
The Pomodoro Technique is not just about sticking to a schedule; it is also about setting manageable goals, working towards those goals, and documenting your progress. In other words, the kitchen timer will not write your article for you; it will only provide the boundaries for when you write and when you rest. Luckily, there are several online tools available to help you create and track your goals (e.g., here, here, and here). The point of all this is that you think through what you need to write, spend time writing, and chart your progress.
Finally, the Pomodoro Technique entails a commitment to sit down and write— if writing is the task you have planned for the session. You cannot check your email, browse Reddit, or daydream. Do those things some other time. Pomodoro sessions are working sessions. If you cannot fend off distraction, turn off your phone, close down your web browser, and remember that your text will not write itself, you have to write it.
Transitioning to e-Pomodoros
While Pomodoro sessions are great, holding them with fellow writers is even better. Something magical happens when a bunch of colleagues sit together in a room and just write. This in-person experience creates a sense that we are here to write, and that’s what we’re going to do. Of course, since my colleagues and I must work from home, we’ve moved our Pomodoro sessions online.
We hold our sessions on Zoom, but if your university does not subscribe to this platform, any online meeting space will do. A designated timer initiates each session by opening the room, keeping track of time, and reminding us to get back to work when break time is over. Since many of us attend fewer meetings while working from home, we have held e-Pomodoros more frequently, meeting for 3-hour sessions up to five times each week. Many of these sessions are spontaneous and happen when someone has time to write, sets up a meeting room, and circulates the link. Thus, the greatest advantage of e-Pomodoros is that we can hold sessions whenever and wherever we are.
Many colleagues who have participated in e-Pomodoro have applauded the sessions for helping them maintain productivity during the pandemic, and creating a sense of routine and normality. It is how we meet, chat, exchange information, and support each other when times are tough— and, these days, times are always tough. And, yes, we also do a fair amount of writing. That said, the Pomodoro technique does not translate seamlessly into an online format. Having experimented with e-Pomodoros for nearly six months, I would like to close this post by pointing out several problems we have encountered with e-Pomodoro and several ways these problems can be addressed.
The first problem we’ve encountered is remaining seated during breaks. When we met in person, we always got up and stretched during the breaks. Now, we sit at our desks, stare into a camera, and chat. This is a great way to interact, but many of us have found that since we’re not moving during breaks, we’re getting more stiff and sore during writing sessions. One way to address this is to encourage participants to get up and stretch during the breaks. In my experience, when one person does this, everyone follows.
The second problem is related to the first and concerns timing. We’ve found that when we sit and chat during the breaks, we often have to move during our allocated writing time. Needless to say, this decreases productivity. There are two ways to address this. The first is to extend the break time and allocate 5 minutes to chat and 5 minutes to get up, walk around, and stretch. The second is to incorporate longer, walking breaks into the sessions. As a colleague recently pointed out, we can access the session on our phones and take them with us as we go for a walk. We’ve yet to try it, but the idea is promising.
The third problem that many of us have experienced during e-Pomodoros is that we don’t write continuously in the same way we did when we met in person. We get up, grab a cup of coffee, check our email, read a book, and generally get distracted when we should be writing. Arguably, this problem occurs because we turn off both our audio and video during writing intervals. We could address this by keeping our video on and creating a sense that our peers our watching us, so TikTok is off-limits.
Finally, many of us have experienced “Zoom fatigue” as a result of days spent teaching and meeting online. In order to lessen online exhaustion, e-Pomodoros can be held with audio alone. (Yes, I know, this contradicts point 3, but hear me out.) If staring at screens decreases productivity, we have to find ways to do it less. You can do this during e-Pomodoros by turning off the screen and listening to your colleagues during breaks. And, when the workday is over, ditch Facebook and go for a walk. Your brain will thank you.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. student at SGS. Her research interests include academic writing, emotion, and constructive conflict. She has written several blogs on academic writing, including Short, Daily Writing Sessions with a Twist, and We Need to Talk about Academic Language.