How I work – Tomato!

Dividing up my day can be the hardest part about being a work-from-home freelancer. It’s easy to get distracted, by all the things.

The Pomodoro Technique

I forgot where I first heard of this, but it’s really been a huge help is how I manage my day. Its creator, Francesco Cirillo, has a site that explains it in detail. He also sells the little tomato shaped kitchen timers that gave him the idea. (Pomodoro is Italian for tomato.)

The basics

The goal is to divide your time into 30 minute blocks. Each one being 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break. Then every 4 blocks (2 hours) take a longer break.

The actual Pomodoro Technique goes into more detail about planning your tasks, and breaking larger tasks into tomato-sized blocks. I’m not a strict adherent, and prefer to just use a timer to keep me from sitting too long.

One tomato, two

Whenever I sit down at my desk or open my laptop I start a timer. Just knowing I’m “on the clock” puts me in focus mode. Most things I do (like this post) will take longer than one tomato. So keeping things in neat blocks isn’t why I use the system. It’s to prevent the time-suck of sitting down in front of a screen, and looking up 1-2 hours later wondering what the hell I had been staring at.

Sometimes the timer will interrupt me, but I’ve learned to roll with it. Having a half-finished sentence on the page gives me an idea to continue with.

Break times

When my 25 minutes are done, and I have 5 minutes to kill, what do I do?

Anything! I’ll tend to a quick household task (I just put laundry in the dryer), or check mail using my phone (I can do that walking around). The one thing that I force myself to do every time is get up and move. Just walking around the house, or out to the mailbox is enough to keep me from falling into what I call screen stupor. I’d rather have a task take a bit longer, than feel ill from too much sitting.


I prefer a software timer over a physical one. It’s always with my computer, and one less thing to carry. My current favorite is Focus Timer ($2.99 in the Mac App Store). It is a simple menu bar timer, with settings to change the length of work and break blocks, and blocks between long breaks. One nice touch is the screen blocking pop-over that leaves no doubt that it’s time to step away. My only complaint is that it doesn’t keep track of how many work blocks I’ve completed.

I also tried the free app Pomodoro One, but it didn’t drop in a long break after 4 work blocks. The work block and break tracker it has is well done.

On my phone, I just use the built-in timer, set for 25 minutes. I try to not do involved work on a small screen, so a simple countdown works.

A day, shattered

At first it was odd to have my time broken up into tiny slices. Now I look forward to my 25 minutes of focus; it’s in the goldilocks zone, of not too long and not too short. One odd side effect is that I seem to get more little tasks done around the house in my 5 minutes of break.

That’s how I work. You?