sunday life: I try this cool self-discipline technique

Posted on July 11th, 2010

This week I give the Pomodoro Technique a crack. 48518_1_468

On this bumpy road to a “better life” that I ride week to week, this much has become abundantly clear: it’s very hard to make self-discipline sexy. As I read on some blog or other recently, you don’t get excited about a party because you’ve been told all the self-disciplined people will be there. Now, do you.

Although over the past 12 months writing this column I’ve given it a good crack. At making self-discipline sexy, that is. At parties I hold court by the buffet and impart fascinating productivity stories to captivated friends, while sipping on my one glass of pinot gris for the evening and urging myself not to grab another handful of Burger Rings.

My favourite is the one about Ray Bradbury. Ray was a broke freelance writer. Unable to afford an office, he’d go to the public library to write, where he’d queue to hire a typewriter in the basement for 30 minutes at a time.  It cost a dime a pop; he had to get value for money (and time). So he’d write in efficient bursts. He’d wait his turn again, then another 30-minute burst, and so on. The result was the classic novel Fahrenheit 451, written in some ludicrously efficient, self-disciplined record time.

I generally have my audience at Ray. I like to take advantage of this and tell them this kind of discipline enabled the writer to access “flow”. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (which I generally blurt-mumble out like a rooky SBS news reader) pioneered this concept back in the early 90s and showed that some of life’s greatest contributions occurred when their creators were in flow (or “the zone”), that is they were so completely focused on the task at hand that time stopped, distractions ceased and much got done.  It’s a sweet, sweet sensation, which I experience surfing and putting together IKEA furniture.

Csikszentmihalyi’s schtick was this: when we engage in something fully we activate so many neurological functions at once that our brains get bamboozled and shut down the part that makes us aware of what we’re doing and how much time has passed.  Ergo, flow.

By now I have the crowd totally turned on to self-discipline, eating out of my paper plate of quiche wedges. So I’ll throw in, “Oh, yes, the 30-minute spurt thing is interesting”. How so, my audience will chorus. Well, many efficiency experts have arrived at the same conclusion. Which then leads me to the Pomodoro Technique.

Developed in the 90s by an Italian efficiency enthusiast, it’s recently experienced a surge of popularity. It’s stupidly simple. You pick a task and take one of those kitschly 90s red tomato kitchen timers and set it to 25 minutes. Next, churn through your task, ignoring distractions, not stopping to make tea or stare at the ceiling. Rest for 5 minutes and repeat the cycle three more times, after which you rest for a good half hour and grab lunch or read emails. The aim is to work to these 30-minute cycles daily, building up the self-discipline muscle. pomodoro

If I’d written this column before my hypothetical party, I’d tell my symposium I’ve tried the technique myself, while writing this very column, actually. Hey, it works. I couldn’t bring myself to use an actual ticking tomato (too twee), so I used focusboosterapp, a customised online timer replete with ticking.

The ticking, which Pomodoro proponents say is key, certainly instilled a sense of urgency. I churned, and refrained from editing, to keep the flow and do as I’m told. And I did get in a flow. The time flew and I staid completely into the writing, no toggling, no lack of clarity and perspective. In my five-minute breaks, I walked around the block, which cleared my head. Then back to it, as instructed.

In the longer break at the end I contemplated why my brain got so sucked in by a virtual ticking clock as to behave itself so extraordinarily, not darting off to play silly buggers on Facebook or to lead my appetite astray to the fridge. I concluded it’s because our brains are simple little things that like boundaries. And external motivators, however kitsch they might be. They’re also easily bamboozled and fooled into flow.

The good news, however, is we can control this and dupe our brains to our advantage.

As a postscript: I’ve used this technique now for well over a week. It does work. It really does. Give it a crack and tell me what you think….

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  • Posy

    Brilliant suggestion Sarah! As a confirmed procrastinator I also use a 10 minute timer method when tidying/cleaning the house to keep me motivated. (As seen on Oprah). I love your ideas keep them coming! x


    Sunny Reply:

    Yes this does work! it’s fabulous but… throw a preschooler and a baby into the equation! they tend to interrupt these little bursts of productivity! (sigh) i know they’re only small for a little while….


  • I was reflecting on how short my concentration and ability to focus for extended periods of time has become since I have had children. My endurance for long days and keeping moving has grown considerably. But to sit and work at the computer for long stretches – takes much more effort or to facilitate in front of a room for a whole day (roll me out) or driving 5 hours at stretch. I can do it but the muscles that are involved are very fatigued. The tasks associated with parenting are many and to keep on top of things multitasking, being fast, working in noise (happening now) and breaking your day into 15 minute segments is the key. I need to shift my approach on the days or the hours when I am not parenting to working away at a screen or in the front of a room, the techniques that you have shared have come in useful when I have been making the transition and self – discipline is the key to a successful work period.


  • David

    A great website is It’s more focussed on housework (though not exclusively…. FLY = Finally Loving Yourself). But certainly it looks at instilling (some similar) techniques and routines to manage one’s life.


    Cyndy (@Mysticyn) Reply:

    I followed FlyLady when my daughter was a baby and I was a SAHM – that was 14 years ago. I love the timer technique but haven’t used it for many, many years.

    Thanks for the reminder Sarah!
    My life and work is overflowing right now and these 25 minute bursts with a 5 minute walk will be a full power tilt!



  • I’m just jealous that you go to parties that feature a buffet….


  • Essie

    I use this method in fifteen minute spurts when I really need to get my apartment clean. I feel like a rockstar when I finish before the timer, take a break, and reset it for another fifteen minute sesh. I’ve gotten my entire apartment cleaned in about 30 minutes before, and I am not generally, naturally tidy.


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  • I love this an i actually WANT the Pomadoro timer – i think having the actual hot-red tomato ticking away there would be extra motivating. Love your work x


  • Really like this idea, Sarah – am definitely going to give it a go


  • Louise

    I do my work by ‘pretending’. Sometimes I rush through tidying up or throwing out or all those other domestic things at the speed of light (this seems to be related slightly to the passage of the moon – hormonal in other words) and otherwordly influences….But the main thrust, is that, by turning on the radio, or even the television, while i am working away on articles I may be writing or any other sort of non-domestic work that I am busy upon, I am not ‘working’ so dont need any timers as it is actually leisure. There are of course times, where I have to get very, very serious and turn all these aids off, but on the whole this holistic approach works for me. Life, work, children, leisure all are part and parcel of the same thing, not a western approach which is by definition compartmentalised but actually works terribly well if you are fortunate enough to work for yourself, and the older i get, the guilt gets less about always keeping everyone happy all the time. Time is relative 🙂


  • Kat

    In a speech given by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly he said his name was pronounced

    Me-hi Chick-cent-me-hi
    (my attempt at phonetics)

    Translation is roughly Mihlay son of Mihaly from what I was told.

    Not sure if that’s at all useful.


  • I love this idea, and I will definately be trying it out! I really like the idea of the ticking sound as motivation, hopefully I can utilize this.


  • kk

    thanks s. always love reading your column it’s my first go to when i open the paper.
    came here to get your link to the ticking timer.
    going to see how it works for me 🙂


  • Posy

    Just read another great tip in “The Happiness Project” it suggests that if something can be done in one minute do it straight away! Really great especially when you have kiddies who leave random stuff everywhere or are naturally untidy like me! The house is looking much better!


  • fb

    Hi! A friend introduced me to this technique a couple of months back and it is working for me brilliantly.


  • It’s simply another version of what I refer to as “Pavlov Dogging Yourself.”

    I managed to complete a very long first draft of a novel by listening to the same (wordless) CD over and over and over…it became white noise and it triggered my work.


  • I’m a new reader, and I have to say, your writing style is so interesting and fresh! I’m sitting here anxious to get home and try this technique, as I am yearning for a way to e more disciplined! Thank you for the post and information!


  • zannie

    Question: what if the tomato rings after 25 minutes and the flow does not end? What if you’re in a middle of a sentence? I can’t imagine stopping after a ring if the writing is going well, but i think my brain would feel cheated (if a brain can feel cheated) and maybe it would spoil the whole thing…


    Nicole Reply:

    I read the whole book presenting this technique and at first I thought it’d be absurd to stop in the middle of a sentence if the time is over. But I decided to trust the technique and try it. Many times I did have to stop in the middle of a sentence but it didn’t spoil the whole thing. I put some music on and when I was back to the task I had the same motivation to continue, more relaxed. I love this technique. It helps me to stay 4 to 5 hours working on something without getting exhausted and accomplishing a lot of things. =)


  • I like the tomato timer!

    Will have to give this a go.


  • This sounds like a really good advice. I will definately try this!!! Thank you so much!


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  • Sarah! This is SO appropriate as I am HERE reading this blog post INSTEAD OF DOING MY TAX!! hmmm…onto that app 🙂 Thanks SO much for a great post! oox


  • Jules

    Love your post! What a lovely blog! I’m glad to have stumbled upon it. I’ll quickly mention that you’ve misspelled “magazine” in your “About Me” section. I’m a writer (who knows all about the “flow,” or the “zone,” or whatever one prefers to call it . . . ! ) and I’m about to graduate with a degree in English, with creative writing and American literature concentrations. Please let me know if you need a copy editor/writer, for your site or for Cosmopolitan magazine (of which I’m quite a fan!). I’d love to work in such positive and disciplined company as yours. Best of luck in all you do, Sarah Wilson!



    Sarah Reply:

    Hey Jules…where did I get the spelling wrong…couldn’t find it. Thanks for the pick-up! Will keep you in mind.. x


  • Andrew

    Magaine line 5 word 4

    Got pomodoro now must use it.


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  • Kat

    This has been so great 🙂 I finally found this article after accidently throwing away the newspaper a few weeks ago – using the timer has been excellent for getting school work done, especially since I have exams coming up 🙂 thanks, Kat


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  • Sarah,

    I tried this and it REALLY WORKS!!!!!! OMG! And I have now decided that you are my new favorite person.

    Also, I’m going to Australia with The Oprah Winfrey Show in December (did you hear about that? she is taking her whole audience from the premiere episode with her to Australia!!!). Maybe we can meet up Down Under!



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  • Elena

    You left out the most important point of Mihaly Csikszentmihaly work “‘Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience’. He says that to achieve a flow state, a balance must be struck between the challenge of the task and the skill of the performer. If the task is too easy or too difficult, flow cannot occur. Both skill level and challenge level must be matched and high; if skill and challenge are low and matched, then apathy results.

    That’s why most of the time we experience boredom, apathy, worry or anxiety when we perform our tasks. Being “in the flow” happens very rarely – it is a blessing and it very hard to achieve, we need to be realistic.


  • This is for parents out there who is wanting to know more about implementing Discipline techniques to your young ones…

    It is common for child to behave inappropriately as they begin to grow and gain independence. So I would like to share this really good article that I read in one of the site and I believe it will help other parents out there to learn more about the various “Discipline Techniques” that you can use that best fits your child’s behaviour (or) misbehaviour. Its simple, practical and easy to understand….

    So check it out..I would highly recommend it. the link is:



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  • I love using this technique. I use it during my art-therapy sessions, and also when I use relaxation with people. It really helps ! :-))


  • “The good news, however, is we can control this and dupe our brains to our advantage.”

    Yeah, I believe in this, though there are also times that our brain could also fool us, not us fooling our brain. Remember, how it fools us during perception, there are even times that our perception is so wrong, that of course primarily caused by our brain, eh. But I totally agree with you, and I wanna try this technique, eh. 🙂


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  • Lisa

    Definitely going to give this a try – world’s worst procrastinator, I keep leaving my writing job until just before my deadline, and end up pulling all-nighters to get things finished. Will report back!


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  • nelly

    LOVE this technique:) amazing how much i can get done in half an hour when i actually focus!


  • Sue

    Ooh, I very much need to read this today! I have an app on my computer that is like yours and oh my, it really does make such a difference. Something about pressing that little button for a 15 minute spurt (but maybe now I will see if I can, ooh, crank it up to 25!) helps get my inner respecter up and running. She’s the one that seems to be in direct contradiction to the inner procrastinator. She sits and observes my ADHD habits, my flicking over to Facebook every five minutes on a bad day. She sees it, and though she doesn’t understand exactly why I do it she is very focussed on good outcomes for me. She knows that I will feel better about myself if I can resist those distractions. She knows I need a little bit of help doing that sometimes. I am amazed at how much better and safer I feel when I resist those distractions.

    I’ve been avoiding using it lately. Coincides with a backflip on the health road where I am struggling to get through the day. Ain’t that crazy! I feel worse, and I drop my bundle and end up doing things that make me feel worse not better, at the very time that I need to be doing the opposite. Sometimes we really do need saving from ourselves.


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  • Excellent write-up. I definitely appreciate
    this site. Stick with it!


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