Pomodoro versus Big Rocks: A Productivity Smackdown

By Yvonne Milosevic

Some people are always highly motivated. They never put off for tomorrow what they can do today. And they tackle all chores, projects, and tasks with efficiency and glee.  This article is not for those weirdos people. We’re looking at how to get—and stay—motivated when procrastination sits like the devil on your shoulder, tempting you with distractions when you should be doing something productive.  Could adopting one of these techniques help you start ticking off more items from your daily To-Do List?

The Pomodoro Technique

pomodoro technique
il pomodoro famoso, grazie a Marco Verch

Francesco Cirillo developed this time management strategy in the 1990s as a way to eliminate distractions by working in short, focused bursts. It takes its name from the ubiquitous tomato-shaped timer found in homes across Italy and confronts the hardest part of productivity: getting started. While you can use it for almost any task, it’s particularly helpful for things that are super boring or really hard.  Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Choose a task to accomplish.

Step 2: Set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes (Pomodoro is the timer).

Step 3: Work uninterrupted on the task until the Pomodoro rings.

Step 4: Take a five-minute break.

Step 5: After every 4 Pomodoros, take a longer break of 20-30 minutes.

Why it Works

Many swear it lives up to the hype of making people more centered and productive. It’s also great for deadline-induced anxiety. Those 20-minute chunks motivate you to work faster to beat the clock, rather than losing steam when there’s no end in sight. Here’s a protip: Write down what you’ve accomplished at the end of each Pomodoro. Suddenly, you’ll have an impressive productivity report that will wow your boss.

This technique also helps you feel better physically. When the Pomodoro rings, it’s time to get up, stretch your legs, hit the office foosball for a few. Converts say those frequent breaks keep you refreshed and lead to renewed mental clarity when you’re back on task.

Spoiler Alert: It Doesn’t Always Work

The Pomodoro technique isn’t ideal if your job includes a lot of phone calls, meetings, or appointments throughout the day.   Also, people who seek to work in flow—totally immersed in their task, hyper-productive, time seems to stand still—will find Pomodoro ineffective because, by nature, a flow state takes a while to enter but feels effortless once you’re in it. Stopping after 25 minutes could feel jarring and, ultimately, counterproductive.

If you want to give Pomodoro a try, check out this list of the ten best timer apps designed for the Pomodoro Technique. Sure, you could just use a regular ol’ timer. But these apps are specifically geared toward people looking to use the Pomodoro Technique at work.

The Big Rocks Theory

Big Rocks Theory

You’ve probably seen a demonstration of this theory, which was popularized by Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Take a jar, fill it with pebbles and sand, and then try to fit some big rocks inside. Ruh-roh! Can’t do it. If you approach each week by first sorting out the Big Rocks, aka the essential items on your To-Do List, you’re prioritizing your goals. Otherwise, our days can quickly fill up with small tasks or distractions that leave those big rocks by the side of the road.

Zen Habits has a great post with step-by-step instructions on how to put the Big Rocks Theory into action every week. To summarize, you need to make a list on Sunday night or Monday morning with the most important things you want to accomplish in the coming week. Shoot for one Big Rock per day to begin. Then, put those tasks in your calendar on days when you know you’ll have time to get them done.  Aim to complete the job in the morning, if possible, before all the pebbles and sand pour in and shove the Big Rock aside for the day.

Modify as Needed

Critics of the Big Rocks Theory mainly gripe that, with this approach, you’re continually delaying lower priority tasks. At some point, all of those accumulated things will eventually overwhelm you. How can you take care of those tedious responsibilities when your bandwidth is fully occupied with important matters? Avoid the stress of a never-ending list of mundane tasks by tinkering with your placement of Big Rocks and pebbles. On some days, you might clear several humdrum items off your plate in the morning. Then you can focus on something critical in the afternoon. It’s all about flexibility and addressing needs as they arise IRL.

So, which technique wins our productivity smackdown? We’ll call it a draw. Some daily tasks at work or home are tailor-made for Pomodoro.  For other people, sorting out your Big Rocks for the week may help you get your goals accomplished on the regular. Whichever method you choose, get ready to say arrivederci to that procrastination devil on your shoulder for good.