How to Boost Freelance Productivity With the Pomodoro Technique

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The path of self-employment isn’t always smooth. Hourly workers (freelancers included) account for 60 percent of the U.S. workforce, and according to a brief from the Aspen Institute’s Expanding Prosperity Impact Collaborative (EPIC), nearly one-third experience income volatility. Translation: Americans need financial stability, and making the most of your time is a vital part of the equation. If you struggle to stay on task, the Pomodoro Technique could be the answer to your workflow problems.

What Is It?

The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the 1980s by Francisco Cirillo, a college student looking to make better use of his time. Named for the tomato timer Cirillo used (pomodoro is the Italian translation), the technique gained popularity in businesses in the 1990s and is now widely used by professionals to help them stay focused. Here’s how it works:

  1. Identify a goal to complete, e.g., writing an article, submitting an invoice, designing a graphic, etc.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes and begin working. Avoid any other tasks or distractions during the allotted time.
  3. When the timer beeps, take a short break (usually five minutes) to stretch, surf the web, and generally clear your mind.
  4. Repeat the process for a total of four rounds, or until your goal is complete.
  5. At the end of the fourth round, take an extended 30-minute break to relax and refocus before returning to work.

Why It Works

As a freelancer, you’ve probably experienced mental burnout or found yourself surfing the web when you should be working.

Good news: Science says distractedness is your brain’s natural response to prolonged focus (i.e., it’s not your fault). Working in intervals can improve efficiency according to a study conducted by Alejandro Lleras, a professor of psychology at The University of Illinois. Lleras’s research found that spending too much time on a single task reduces your “attention resources,” or your ability to maintain the same level of work performance over an extended period.

Small breaks allow your brain to reactivate its attention and focus without sacrificing quality.

Harnessing Your Freelance Focus

Living the freelance lifestyle can be polarizing: Either you’re too focused on work to step away and enjoy life, or you’re too distracted to buckle down and get the job done. In any case, the Pomodoro Technique can help you establish boundaries with incremental accomplishments—a positive force that can lead to greater achievements. Here’s how to make the technique work for you:

  • Find Your Intervals: The standard Pomodoro intervals might suit your needs, but there’s nothing wrong with adjusting the timing to fit your personality. If you’re easily distracted, for instance, you might begin with a 15-minute work interval before taking a five-minute break. It’s also prudent to note when you’re most productive during the day. If mornings are when your brain power peaks, save the administrative tasks for the afternoons and tackle the bigger jobs when you can give one hundred percent.
  • Eliminate Temptation: If your freelance work involves sitting in front of computer, it’s easy to stray from your goals by clicking around on Facebook or checking out the latest news. Remove willpower from the equation by using a web browser extension like Strict Workflow. The app serves as a standard timer while allowing you to block your most-visited sites during active intervals. If accountability is an issue, use technology to help you break bad habits.
  • Track Your Progress: We learned that listing your goals is step one in the Pomodoro Technique, and analyzing each accomplishment will help you stay on track. Psychologists have long praised to-do lists as a way to boost productivity, and logging your progress can help you take the strategy a step further. Let’s say you work as a freelance copywriter in addition to your full-time job. You charge a flat rate of $75 per 500 words, which once required about three hours of focused attention at an hourly rate of $25. Using the Pomodoro Technique, you’re able to accomplish the same work in two hours, effectively raising your rate to $37.50. Make note of these improvements to illustrate how the technique benefits your lifestyle, and use the motivation to push yourself further.

    Beyond earnings and morale, tracking your progress is likely to help you secure the tangible work/life balance that freelancers crave, which means you can use your interval breaks to do the things you enjoy: read a book, go for a walk, wash a load of laundry, or even better, do nothing. The options are there if you can afford it, and setting goals is the first step to financial security.

    Americans are undoubtedly hardworking, but that doesn’t mean our methods couldn’t use the occasional tune-up. Consider your time-management shortfalls and use the Pomodoro Technique to close the gap between ambition and action. When it comes to freelancing, time really is money.