The importance of taking breaks in the pomodoro technique
I’ve been a longtime user of the pomodoro technique, where one focuses on a task for 25 minutes, and then takes a break for 5 minutes.
I’ve been tempted to cut these break times short, or remove them entirely, but the result was a huge dent in my productivity.
In this post I’ll walk through several experiments I’ve done to optimize my focus time to break time ratio, by changing their lengths and frequency, and how they impacted my overall productivity.
3 hours focus, 10 minutes break (very low frequency)
Once I’ve entered the zone (flow), and am very focused on a task such as coding or writing a blog post, it’s actually difficult for me to take a break. This is due to inertia - without a timer to remind me to take a break, I continue on focusing on the task at hand until it’s complete, or until I get so tired that I am forced to take a break out of discomfort.
Without a timer, the focus length can often get out of hand, eventually causing brain fog. This is something I’d prefer to avoid, as a preventative measure - when this happens, it accumulates stress and fatigue that could lead me to burnout if left unchecked.
3 hours of high focus without a break is verging on the border of being outright unproductive for me, but it may be different for others.
Another downside of focusing for too long and taking breaks at a low frequency is that the longer the focus time, the more likely I am to go into a rabbit hole. This is because as my mind becomes more fatigued, my ability or energy to prioritize on the fly diminishes.
Going into rabbit holes ends up wasting me more time in the long run, since I could have identified the rabbit hole and changed direction, if I had only taken a break earlier to refresh.
3 hours of high focus work is too long without a break - leads to mental fatigue, which lowers the true output/time ratio. Mental fatigue also diminishes the ability to prioritize and leads to time-wasting rabbit holes.
25 minutes focus, 5 minutes break (very high frequency)
This is the “default” pomodoro technique’s focus time to break time ratio.
I’d used this ratio with much success - in 2017 it helped me pass the CFA level 1 exam in 6 weeks of study (which is commonly known to take ~300 hours of study to achieve).
However, since I’ve been training my ability to focus for years, 25 minutes of focus time started to feel short.
Since deep work on certain types of difficult problems often require some time for the brain to get into the zone, like a “warm up period”, I found that context switching after only 25 minutes left some focus time on the table when it came to brainpower intensive deep work.
Caveat: for tasks that have a lot of context switching built in, and don’t require as “deep” of a focus, such as responding to messages and emails, this ratio works fine for me.
One short break every 25 minutes is great for sustaining energy, and avoiding mental fatigue. However, due to deep work needing a longer “warm up period”, 25 minutes of focus can be too short for certain types of tasks (e.g. coding something complex)
50 minutes focus, 10 minutes break (mid-high frequency)
After experimenting with other ratios, I found that having breaks before hitting the 1.5 hour mark yields the best result for me, to avoid mental fatigue and rejuvenate my mind.
50 minutes focus time also allows sufficient “warm up time” for diving into a difficult problem.
In terms of break time, I found that 10 minutes was better than 5 minutes break (for every 50 minutes focus), due to the longer time it took to completely recharge from a proportionally longer focus block.
50 minutes focus time allows sufficient time to warm up and “enter the zone” for difficult problems, and isn’t too long to cause noticeable mental fatigue. The break time is 10 minutes which is better than 5 minutes for fully relaxing and recharging.
Conclusion - The impact of taking breaks
Even when I’m very “in the zone” and highly focused, there are several criteria I’d like to maximize for, and on the other hand, some I’d like to avoid if possible.
- Maximize energy and focus → increases real output/time ratio. It’s not about the raw duration of “time” put in, but the efficiency and effectiveness of the time used.
- Avoid time-wasting rabbit holes → wastes effort, even if more “time” was spent on the task. This is like paying more (time) for the same thing, even if it was avoidable.
- Avoid mental fatigue → brain fog, lowers real output/time ratio. Caused by longer focus times.
I find that the pomodoro timer’s built in breaks help me achieve all of the above, and without the break, I end up putting in “more time”, but it’s truly inefficient and ineffective time. Time is our most unrenewable resource, so if possible, I would like to avoid “busywork” on low brainpower and low energy, which leads to low quality work and low quality results anyway.
Oftentimes, if feeling brainfog, it’s the best to start the break earlier, or simply go to bed. It’s truly been what’s helped me make the most of my time.
I hope that this post helped you - the ratios will differ for each person, since the tasks we most commonly work on may be different. So I encourage you to try out different ratios, and experiment with methods that work for you!