Staying focused: The anti-Pomodoro technique

Kitchen timers are the latest time-management trend. Fans of the Pomodoro Technique say to set the timer for 25 minutes, work with total focus, then take a five-minute break.

I like the idea, and I’ve tried variations on the timer technique. But when I’m on deadline, a timer adds to the stress, plus I chafe at having to sit still for long chunks. And the timer doesn’t change the coping habit that I’ve been refining over decades: encounter obstacle, get out of chair, walk to kitchen and look for food. Distract! Numb the anxiety! The timer has no power over this drive.

I’ve tried setting the timer so that it counts up instead of down. This method creates less stress and helps me educate myself about how long things actually take, which is a pleasant surprise when something goes faster than expected, but just as often an unpleasant surprise when it takes so very much longer. Unpleasant but useful to know. The counting-up method has potential but isn’t there yet.

Here’s what does work, I discovered.

Five-minute increments

Yep. Five minutes. Because that appears to be my upper limit for sitting with uncertainty, anxiety and frustration.

I tried this last week, on deadline. I was so tired I was having trouble focusing, but the project still needed major edits and was due within the next 24 hours.

I sat down to face the edits. Felt the familiar reaction: “Gahhh! Don’t know how to fix this!” Observed myself starting to get up, in search of food and escape. OK, I said, I need to be kind to myself—I’m sleep-deprived and I’ve got to get this done. Let me spend five minutes focused on the edits. Then I can forage if I need to.

About three minutes later, the foraging urge hit hard. I can focus for two more minutes, I said to myself, and believed it. I stayed with the project. A bit further in, the urge to jump up from the desk hit again. I checked my watch; seven minutes had passed since I started. OK, I’d stuck with the deal. I stood, stretched out my neck and arms, ate a piece of fruit. Was I ready to go back to work? Nope, too exhausted from lack of sleep the night before. OK, I thought, I’ll lie down and take a nap. If I have to complete this project in five-minute work sessions with half-hour breaks in between, so be it.

After resting for just 15 minutes, I felt refreshed enough to go back to my desk and work for another five minutes. Then I took a 20-minute break. After about three of these cycles, I’d built up some decent momentum and was able to work steadily for six hours. I finished the project and met my deadline.

Inefficient, you may say? It’s actually pretty efficient, compared to the usual stalling and struggling and worrying and munching.

The six-hour session that followed the ramp-up would be considered by some (like Robert Boice) to be a binge—not ideal. Later, I’ll look at how to take breaks during extended sessions without losing momentum. But first: Let’s make the five-minute increments a habit and see how that goes.


  1. Mike says:

    When i’m really resisting a task or project, I use a technique I got from Mark Forster’s book GET EVERYTHING DONE AND STILL HAVE TIME TO PLAY. It’s a timer-based trick, kinda. Work 5 minutes, rest 5, work 10, rest 5, work 15, rest 5, &tc till you’re unblocked or until you reach a predefined limit. It’s pretty neat how the minutes and hours pile up, without too much pain.

    He has other neat timing ideas, like working 5-10-15-20-15-10-5. Or, if you have 8 things to work on, put them on a list, work 5 minutes on each thing, then 10 minutes on each thing, then 15 minutes, etc. You find eventually that some things get done, so you’re working 20 minutes on only 2 things, or whatever.

    It’s all about finding the tricks that get you through your various bad times.

  2. Jessica says:

    Freaking brilliant. Thank you for showing me that I’m not alone. I do this a lot. Sometimes I simply cannot concentrate for more than 5 minutes at a time before I have to either eat, get on Facebook, make a phone call or eat some more. I do dishes in 5 minute increments, too which used to drive my ex crazy (probably one of the reasons he’s an ex lol) but is a great way to whittle down a sink full of dishes without getting overwhelmed. I realized that the 5 minute trick works on a lot of things besides dishes. I’ll be looking forward to your follow up posts!

  3. I love this post!! This is the first year EVER that I’ve continued to do my New Years Resolution: meditate for 5 minutes every day. THAT I can do. Whenever I tell myself that I don’t have time to meditate, I think, “Heck! It’s only five minutes. Of course I have THAT!” And I’m pleased to announce that, with the exception of three days, I’ve followed through every day since Jan 1.

    Also, as an academic coach for teenagers I love it when adults tell the truth about how hard it is for them to focus. Too often kids think they’re freaks because they procrastinate, or because they don’t want to sit down and do their school work. I try to tell them: you’re not a freak. You’re HUMAN.

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Mike – I’d forgotten about Mark Forster’s creative timer techniques. Intriguing, and might be easier to implement than, ahem, Autofocus, which I like in theory but keep getting bogged down by.

    @Jessica – Welcome to the 5-minute club 😉

    @Gretchen – Funny you should mention meditation—this is exactly how I got consistent about my meditation practice, starting with 5 minutes a day. Yay for you following through on your New Year’s resolution!

  5. This is really great. I think it is really important to keep things in order by setting a given time in doing something. In this way, it will be able you to create a very organized and focused working environment. This technique I think is a great technique that would not only be applied in one thing that you are doing but in different things that needs a bit of organization and focus.

    Great article! Thank you!


  6. Janet Bailey says:

    @Alex – Oh yes, it has multiple applications 😉

    @Peter – Thanks for the mention!

  7. […] are an insane number of timeboxing techniques out there: Pomodoro, the anti-Pomodoro, Dash, (10+2)*5 and so […]

  8. I also think it is very important to keep things in order by setting a specific time to do something. This technique, which I think is a great technique that does not only cover one thing you are doing, but different things you need a little organization and focus.

    Great article!


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