How Big Is Your Tomato? How I Adapt the Pomodoro Technique for My ADHD Brain
A few minutes ago, I was sitting in front of my computer, writing, when my dogs came to the bottom of the stairs and started whining. They can’t climb the stairs to my second-floor office themselves, so I went down to carry them up. For most people, no big deal, a momentary disruption. But for someone with ADHD? Well, you know how it goes. It’s a miracle that I’m actually back at my desk. So often, disruption of a task means I end up somewhere else in my house, doing something entirely different, or just staring into space, wondering how I got here.
This incredible sensitivity to disruption is why I struggled with the popular Pomodoro technique. You probably know how it works: set a timer for 25 minutes (the founder’s was shaped like a tomato, thus the name.); start working; when the timer goes off, take a five minute break, and begin again.
This simple format is actually incredibly powerful — 25 minutes is a manageable amount of time for deeply focused work. Enough time to get started but not enough to get burned out or bored. It can help you bust through procrastination by working in short sprints, rather than wasting long hours due to divided attention. Twenty-five minutes, like the tomato timer itself, is unintimidating. You can do anything for that long. By observing this straightforward method, you can complete long tasks, one pomodoro at a time.
Only, I can’t. The problem is the final step: begin again. Like many people with ADHD, I struggle to get focused, but once I get there, I can stay for relatively long chunks of time. While I don’t usually get into full hyperfocus states, I can maintain a quiet mind for a while once I settle in. But any disruption, like my dogs crying, or the Pomodoro technique’s five minute break, mean I have to start all over again.
I am “slow in, slow out,” and so the 30 minute scheme simply does not work for me. It takes me almost the whole block to get into a groove where I’m working effectively, then when the timer goes off, I’m gone again. When the break begins, I still want to work, but by the time it’s over, I’ve moved on to something else, abandoning the task that was just getting going.
But! That doesn’t mean ADHD folks can’t reap the benefits of the magic pomodoro. The 25-minute block need not be hard and fast. Even for those without ADHD, it’s not appropriate for every task. In fact, productivity research by the Draugiem Group found that the work-break ratio that the most productive workers in an office used was an average of 53 minutes on and 17 minutes off. A much friendlier ratio for my brain! But I still wanted to tweak it a little to figure out the optimal “tomato size” for me.
What I’ve found works best for me, in most situations, is a 1.5 hour work block, followed by a 30-minute (or even hour) long break. As a freelance writer, I’m fortunate to have the freedom to play with my schedule. This scheme allows me time to work my way in to a focused state, and the break is long enough to do something restorative, like walk the dogs, meditate, do a short yoga practice, or prep something for dinner. Where the five minute break felt too short to be useful (while still long enough to be disruptive), the longer break lets me relax and return to work with my energy replenished. It’s also long enough to promote getting the heck away from the computer — necessary for a break to truly be restorative. As I worked to implement this scheduling habit, I found myself asking a few questions:
If I’m Focused, Why Can’t I Take a Longer Break?
In my experience, the inability to consistently focus means that I live in fear. When I’m focused, I try to get everything I can done because I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get back to that state. In addition, the trademark ADHD lack of inhibitory control means it’s hard to stop something that feels good — and focus can feel very good.
So, what’s wrong with keeping on, if the work is going well? First off, you will burn out if you keep working until you stop on your own. But second of all, learning to exercise inhibitory control and develop consistent work habits is essential to the management of ADHD, and building something that you can manage all or most of the time will cut down the fear and anxiety that is often comorbid with ADHD.
But an Hour and a Half is SO LONG …
Yes. The thing about my personal magic ratio is that it eliminates one of the major benefits of the pomodoro: the approachability of the short burst. It may be just as true that you can do anything for 90 minutes as 25, but to me it really sounds like a lot more suffering. So I do something I call the “Trick Pomodoro.” It goes like this: for tasks that I really don’t want to start, from work to housework, I tell myself that I’ll start with a regular pomodoro, but that I don’t have to honor the break. In most situations, once 25 minutes has elapsed, the task feels more manageable and I can continue.
So, that’s what works for me. But the real takeaway here is that the pomodoro is flexible and that following someone else’s system is pointless if it doesn’t work for you. In fact, these longer breaks may be harder for some ADHD types, or for tasks that are particularly odious. For these folks or activities, a seven minute work session with a three minute break might work best. So if the pomodoro appeals to you but the specifics don’t suit your work style, play with it until you find a ratio that works.
Rothnie, C. (2019). How Big Is Your Tomato? How I Adapt the Pomodoro Technique for My ADHD Brain. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 27, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-big-is-your-tomato-how-i-adapt-the-pomodoro-technique-for-my-adhd-brain/