It all started with a tomato, an Italian tomato or a pomodoro. To be more specific a timer clock shaped like a tomato. What am I talking about?
You see, productivity hacks are a dime a dozen and it gets overwhelming. So how do you decide which technique works for you? In my case, anything to do with food tends to grab my attention – in this case it is The Pomodoro Technique.
It was developed in the late 1980s by an university student Francesco Cirillo. He found it difficult to focus on studies and complete assignments. Feeling overwhelmed, he asked himself to commit to just 10 minutes of focused study time. Encouraged by the challenge, he found a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, and The Pomodoro Technique was born. This has now evolved into working in sprints or short bursts.
Research suggests that if you work in ‘sprints’ or short bursts, which is a fixed period of time and then take a planned break, your brain has time to recover. According to a study published in the American journal Cognition, short breaks help keep your attention span on track. The study explained that the mind tunes out after working consistently on one project. As the lead researcher and professor Alejandro Lleras from University of Illinois had written in the paper, “When faced with long tasks, such as studying before a final exam or doing your taxes, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task.”
These short bursts of productivity allow a person to recharge, track steady progress. It is particularly beneficial for people with anxiety and depression. The sprints are much less overwhelming, as they can break their tasks into manageable blocks
The idea is to work smarter, and not harder. So, how do we manage this? Psychologists and wellness experts break it down for you. "These short bursts of productivity allow a person to recharge, track steady progress. It is particularly beneficial for people with anxiety and depression," explains Priyanka Sainani, Dubai-based holistic physician. "The sprints are much less overwhelming, as they can break their tasks into manageable blocks," she adds.
Sprints versus marathons
If you try tackling everything all at once, you face the risk of exhaustion and reduced productivity. Moreover, when you work for long hours on a task, it can lead to a sense of cognitive boredom as research from the American Psychological Association had once explained. The research paper in 2013 showed that this weariness encouraged an unengaged mind. On the other hand, the work-break-work pattern can increase the stimulation of the mind, and energise the brain.
Ramona da Gama, a business growth strategy coach, mentor and motivational speaker, explains the idea of marathons through an example. "When you're going on a road trip, you cannot do the whole trip in one go. You need to stop for breaks and to refuel. So similarly, with sprints, we are trying to do something and not do everything. The secret behind sprints is getting more done, by doing less." The benefits behind the technique is that it helps you move forward, she says, and you are in control of your destiny. There is a feeling of achievment, and self-satisfaction. "People who don't sprint, tend to procastinate," she adds.
Rahaf Kobeissi, a Dubai-based wellness expert and the founder of the wellness clinic, Rays Your Mental Health, explains the power of the sprints approach. “The modern workforce is finally realising that attempting to tackle everything at once will lead to burnout and reduced effectiveness,” she says. “Instead, this new trend champions the concept of task segmentation, where work is broken down into shorter, more focused 'sprints'. This approach acknowledges the limitations of our attention spans and the importance of strategic breaks to maintain productivity.”
The modern workforce is finally realising that attempting to tackle everything at once will lead to burnout and reduced effectiveness. The sprints approach acknowledges the limitations of our attention spans and the importance of strategic breaks to maintain productivity...
The productivity sprints are powerful and impactful, as it aids people to increase their self-awareness, explains Sangeeta Manglani, a Dubai-based psychologist and life-coach. “You connect more deeply with yourself, as well as others. It also helps them feel more fruitful, dynamic, and energetic with respect to the job on hand,” she says.
There is an emphasis on doing things in a conscious and deliberate manner, as compared to working in a marathon session, says Manglani. “Working in marathons increases the likelihood of doing a task in a mundane and mindless fashion with unclear intentions, undetermined goals, an overall lack of clarity of direction and excessive depletion of energy.”
You connect more deeply with yourself, as well as others. It also helps them feel more fruitful, dynamic, and energetic with respect to the job on hand
The flexible Pomodoro Technique
The sprints technique is similar to the traditional Pomodoro Technique, which is a time management method that emphasises short bursts of focused work followed by short breaks. However, it is a lot more fluid than the Pomodoro Technique, explains Eliza Damian, a mental health expert from the Dubai-based platform, Go Total Wellness. “It is the same idea, but it lets you play with the work’s flow. It’s a better option for those who have attention deficiency disorders,” says Damian.
In the case of the Pomodoro method, you work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. After four such ‘Pomodoros’ you take a bigger break. In the case of sprints, you determine beforehand how long you need to focus, and set your timer based on that.
Here’s how you can go about it:
Setting small but clear goals
The idea of progress is intimidating. So, create small, but clear goals for yourself, explains Neetha Jhaveri, a medical practitioner at the Dubai-based clinic Wellth. She elaborates on the mindset behind this idea: Once you achieve the task, you feel a sense of victory. “There is a dopamine rush in the brain, when you do fulfill one sprint. So, you move to the next, feeling more confident,” she adds. Jhaveri explains that you can even use the reward system for yourself during these sprints, which motivates you further. You can start with smaller time limits, and then slowly increase your work block.
Ask yourself about your objectives and goals and what you want to achieve, says Gama. "Ask when am I going to start, and put a deadline to it," she says. She also advises people to pre-empt possible challenges that they may face in terms of distractions. Plan, prioritise your objectives and goals, and allocate the time you need for tasks, and make sure there are no interruptions, she says.
“Before starting your work sprints, prioritise your tasks. Begin with the most important or challenging tasks during your freshest and most focused hours,” says Kobeissi.
There is a dopamine rush in the brain, when you do fulfill one sprint. So, you move to the next, feeling more confident
Choose a sprint duration
Decide on the duration of your sprint. The traditional Pomodoro Technique suggests 25 minutes of focused work, followed by a 5-minute break. However, Kobeissi advises that people should choose the duration of their sprints, according to their own preferences and attention span. Some people work better in 35 minutes, while others might require 45.
Ask yourself about your objectives and goals and what you want to achieve. Ask when am I going to start, and put a deadline to it. Pre-empt the challenges and distractions, and stay focused for the allotted time...
During our sprint, concentrate solely on the task at hand. Minimise distractions, turn off notifications, and immerse in the work. “Don’t answer the phone at that point, or if your colleague needs to talk to you about something that can wait, let them know you’ll get back to them later,” says Damian.
Take short breaks
After completing a sprint, take a short break to rest and recharge. A 5- to 10-minute break is typically recommended. “We can use this time to stretch, grab a snack, listen to hyped up music or take a quick walk to refresh our mind, says Kobeissi. These breaks increase the ability to concentrate.”
However, take your breaks wisely, as Damien advises. “During these breaks, I don’t advise social media or television. Focus on stretching, mindfulness practices or meditation; don’t let your brain get activated in a different area,” she says. Moreover, control your breaks, too. So, if you work for around 40 minutes, your breaks should be at least between 10-20 minutes, not more than that. Don’t completely lose focus of what you need to do, during those breaks, as it might upset the work rhythm. However she also says that if you are in the work flow and the timer rings, it’s okay to continue working, rather than breaking concentration. These work intervals need to be structured clearly, says Sainani.
During these breaks, don't check social media or television. Focus on stretching, mindfulness practices or meditation; don’t let your brain get activated in a different area
Repeat and review
Continue the cycle of work sprints and short breaks throughout your day. After completing a few sprints, consider taking a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes to give yourself a more extended rest.
Adjust as needed
It's very crucial to pay attention to our productivity and energy levels, explains Kobeissi. “If you find that a shorter or longer sprint duration works better for you, feel free to adjust it accordingly. The goal is to find a balance that maximises your productivity while preventing burnout,” she says.
Track your progress
Keeping a record of our tasks and the number of sprints it takes to complete them can help us estimate how long similar tasks will take in the future and plan our work accordingly.
You need to be consistent, and not expect the results overnight, as Kobeissi explains. “You need to stick to a regular schedule of sprints and breaks to build a productive momentum.”
Reflect and adjust
Periodically assess the effectiveness of the technique for your specific work style. It could be weekly or monthly, and make adjustments as needed to optimise your productivity.
Remember that everyone's productivity varies, and what works best for one person may not work for another. A lot depends on the work style, explains Sainani. Some people do prefer to work in the marathon style as that fits them best, whereas sprints might actually be counter-productive for them, she says.
“Experiment with different sprint durations and break times to find the rhythm that suits you best. Ultimately, the goal is to maintain focus and prevent burnout while accomplishing tasks efficiently,” she says.
Why sprints are important for students:
Charlotte Ramsey, Head of Student Life, Heriot-Watt University explains that the sprint technique is deeply beneficial for students, as it helps to prevent burnout. "For students, sprint type goals are important. The run up to exams or assessment deadlines can be stressful and we come across students who are feeling overwhelmed. They are irritable or anxious, and are worrying constantly, imagining the worst, and going over things repeatedly," she says. "When students have sprint type goals, work becomes manageable, easier to accomplish and prevents academic burnout," she adds.