How To Use the Pomodoro Technique To Combat Perfectionism and Procrastination

Photo: Stocksy/ Guille Faingold
The fear of failure is something perfectionists, or anyone who holds themselves to high—or unrealistic—standards knows all too well, and often, this fear might lead them to sabotage their own best efforts by way of procrastination. When people fall into the perfectionism-procrastination loop, they might slog through a task, or delay until the last minute so that when the outcome fails to meet their self-imposed expectations, they can blame on not having enough time to perfect it.

While the reasons for perfectionism are often deep-seated, those looking to prevent perfectionistic propensities from slowing them down may benefit by adopting a few new strategies. Enter: the Pomodoro Technique, a time-management method that has been lauded by individuals struggling with perfectionism, procrastination, or a combination of both.

Experts In This Article

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by consultant Francesco Cirillo when he was a student at the Luiss Business School in Rome. The method employs a timer (Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, which inspired the name of the time-management system) to break up tasks into discrete chunks of focused work, interspersed with brief breaks.

The basic method involves setting a timer of 25 minutes and working steadfastly on a single task, or a cluster of similar tasks, for the length of the interval (called a “pomodoro”). When the timer is up, you earn a five-minute break—and if you work through four pomodoros, you reward yourself with a 15-to-30-minute break to stretch, make a snack, or walk outside—whatever allows you a moment away from the task at hand.

5 tips for using the Pomodoro Technique

1. Customize the method to suit your needs

The Pomodoro Method 25-minute-5-minute structure isn’t realistic for most individuals, says time-management and productivity coach Alexis Haselberger, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, RCC, and people who try to enact it in its ideal form is when she sees most fail. Which is why she invites people to customize it to suit them and their lifestyle. With this in mind, she usually recommends people match the pomodoro to their attention span, whether it means adjusting it to 10-minute intervals or 60.

2. Attempt it at your most productive time of day

The best time of day to do the Pomodoro Method is when your energy levels and environment are in alignment, says time-management coach Anna Dearmon Kornick, host of the podcast It’s About Time and author of the book Time Management Essentials. To determine this, it’s first worth learning what your unique chronotype is, which is the scientific terms for a person’s circadian rhythm that make them a morning lark or a night owl. You might want to consider doing focused work during this time, she says. Working in an environment that is conducive to productivity is just as important, and while tricky to control your surroundings, it can help to shut out distractions, such as working someplace quiet or wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

3. Keep a ‘shiny things list’

“To safeguard yourself from the potential distractions that can pop up while you’re in your pomodoro work time, try creating what I like to call a ‘shiny things list,’ says Dearmon Kornick. “This list gives you a parking lot to put these random ideas that have popped into your head, so one, you don’t forget them, and two, you’re not tempted to chase the shiny thing and completely derail your pomodoro.”

4. If possible, avoid using your phone timer

If there’s one timer Dearmon Kornick recommends avoiding for the Pomodoro Method, it’s a phone timer. “If you use the timer on your phone, you will inevitably pop over to Instagram, Twitter, or whatever is your social media time-waster of choice because it’s so ingrained in our daily routine,” she says. “Before you know it, 15 minutes have passed.” Which is precious time that could have been better spent elsewhere.

5. Take your breaks seriously

The Pomodoro Method won’t work quite as well if you aren’t taking your breaks. “The break is meant to be a true cognitive break, and it’s definitely not just taking a break from work to do more work,” says Dearmon Kornick. “If you can avoid spending your five-minute break in your email or working on another project, you will enter your next pomodoro so much more energized.” In addition, Wolfe suggests doing something opposite to the task at hand during your breaks to help reset your brain. If, for instance, you’re working on a computer, opt to walk outside or read a physical book.

What experts say about the Pomodoro Technique

There are numerous reasons the Pomodoro Technique is beloved by many—and Dearmon Kornick is one of them. What she appreciates about the method is that it allows for deep-focus work while preventing the mental fatigue that often occurs when working on a cognitively demanding task. Moreover, it keeps distractions at bay, which she says are a menace to productivity.

Typically, external interruptions—device notifications, social media, small talk—are to blame, but distractions may also come from inside our brains. For a perfectionist, these distractions might include unhelpful mental messages from a loud inner critic or rumination over past errors, which according to psychologist Peggy Loo, PhD, founding director of Manhattan Therapy Collective, makes completing the task all the more difficult.

With this in mind, Dr. Loo says the Pomodoro Method may be helpful for people that come from a “perfectionistic place,” a definition she applies to people with unrealistic self-imposed standards or a tendency towards a desire to be perfect, not individuals with medically diagnosed perfectionism. “I imagine the method might be helpful because it interrupts the thought processes that are generally very unhelpful for people,” she says, adding that “it can create more emotional dysregulation over time.”

As such, the method is ideal for “anyone who would benefit from extended periods of focused productivity,” Dearmon Kornick says, including those with perfectionist-driven procrastination who might dawdle or overly fixate on a minutiae of a task because they fear the outcome will be an outright failure.

The Pomodoro Technique can work to fight this fear by breaking tasks into actionable steps, from which small wins are more likely to result. While many might write off small wins as inconsequential, they can be just as positive an influence on one’s sense of self-work, happiness, and productivity as large accomplishments. For individuals with a perfectionist streak, “small wins help build momentum toward next steps in completing the task,” psychologist Yesel Yoon, PhD, told Well+Good. Burnout coach Daniela Wolfe, LMSW, author of the blog The Best D Life, echoes this sentiment, adding that viewing a task as a sequence of actionable steps, instead of as a whole (“which can be very overwhelming and lead to an inability to start,” she says) is one of its main draws.

Another thing Wolfe loves about the method are the breaks that are baked into the structure of the method, which she believes lessens the risk of burnout. “I think a lot of the times we can get so caught up in doing things for hours and not realizing we’ve gone beyond our most effective work time,” she says, leading to burnout—which, according to psychologist and executive coach Morgan Levy, PhD, is common among perfectionists.

“Sometimes, perfectionists, or people who struggle with perfectionism, keep working until it’s ‘just right,’ and many keep working until they eventually burn out, and when they burn out, they won’t work or perform as well,” says Dr. Levy. She adds that as a result, it might lead to a vicious cycle in which a person works more to achieve the outcome they desire. “The [Pomodoro Method] works well because it forces you to take intentional breaks,” she says. “Research shows that when you take intentional breaks with the purpose of recharging or rejuvenating, you end up performing better.” What’s more, a 2023 study found that taking systematic breaks (which are part and parcel of the Pomodoro Method) have a greater impact on one’s concentration, motivation, and overall mood and well-being compared to unregulated work breaks—which further supports her claim.

Haslberger even goes as far as to say that the method won’t allow the opportunity for people to be perfect. For one thing, it imposes an artificial time pressure to get things done, and for another, “perfection doesn’t exist,” she says, though she underscores that perfectionism is often “more deep seated than using a timer.”

Instead of focusing on perfect, Haselberger wants to instill that the concept of “good enough” can be great. “It usually takes the same amount of time and effort to get something from zero to 90 percent as it takes to get it from 90 to a hundred percent, and the only person who notices the difference is you,” she says. “The [Pomodoro Method] helps you decide in advance how much effort you’re willing to put into something instead of saying, ‘Well, I’ll keep on going until it’s perfect.’ It’s never going to be.”

In other words, striving for “good enough” will leave you more satisfied than if you had to put off something in the pursuit of perfection. Plus, you’ll actually make progress on what you set out to do.

The potential downsides of the Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique isn’t for everyone, and it may not always work for people with a tendency towards perfectionism. “I think one of the things that could be potentially challenging about this technique is that folks with perfectionistic expectations struggle with all-or-nothing thinking and unrealistic standard setting,” says Dr. Loo.

For instance, a perfectionist might expect to write an article in an hour, when in reality it might take six hours. “If you are someone who tends to have perfectionistic expectations, you have a little bit of a blind spot about what is realistic to begin with, so you might even be perfectionistic about how you set your time constraints,” she says.

One way to potentially overcome this is to seek feedback from multiple sources who might challenge one’s presumptions about the standards they set for themselves. “I would encourage them to ask friends or co-workers who are similar and different from them in strengths and weaknesses,” says Dr. Loo.

In the instance of the above example (writing an article in an hour), one might ask: How much time do you think it would take for you to write an article? In doing this, “it might help you be able to reconsider whether your original impression of how long it takes to write an article is actually fair to yourself,” Dr. Loo says, which in turn, might help you lower your expectations.

Another recommendation from Dr. Loo is to take whatever your expectation is of a task and start with a quarter of it, which she says is usually offensive to most people who are perfectionistic, as “perfectionists usually set the expectation to their ideal self, not their present self with all of its strengths and weaknesses.” She adds, if it seems so obviously easy for a perfectionist, it’s probably a reasonable goal to reach for.

It’s important to keep in mind that medically diagnosed perfectionists usually determine their self-worth or value on whether they meet the unrealistic expectations they set for them or if they achieve and succeed—and “if one isn’t treating the underlying cause [of perfectionism], the Pomodoro Method would not work,” says psychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in New York. “It would just be a Band-Aid Solution.”

For different reasons, productivity coach Janifer Wheeler, founder of the JOYFully BadApp isn’t a proponent of the Pomodoro Method. She personally finds it restrictive. The short time blocks and frequent breaks prevent Wheeler from entering the flow state she requires for focused work. Instead, she prefers working for two to three hours at a time, and to manage her productivity, doing what she refers to as “batch work,” in which she groups similar tasks or assigns specific days to work on certain projects.

That isn’t to say, however, that the Pomodoro Technique isn’t worth trying; what might work for one person may not work for the next person because it’s all about what works for you, says Wheeler. The same might be true for individuals with perfectionistic tendencies looking for strategies to prevent procrastination from slowing down their productivity. As Dearmon Kornick says, the Pomodoro Technique—or any time-management system, for that matter, isn’t a “one-size-fits-fits” solution.

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