Focusing was never a problem for me. I was the annoying kid who could study for eight to ten hours straight without complaining. That continued well into adulthood until I experienced my own series of unfortunate events. Over the past four years, my parents and our 17-year-old dog all died in quick succession from incurable neurodegenerative diseases. It didn’t help that it happened alongside a one-off global pandemic. And being a genius, I decided to make digital media my bread and butter, an industry held together by frayed duct tape and brain worms.
Needless to say, I started 2022 like a hot mess. All that time spent doom scrolling and grieving left my focus in shambles. Things spiraled in such a way that I walked into a room, forgot why I was there, returned to the room I came from, remembered what I had to do, walked back to the first room, and forgot again. But the reality of adulthood is that you only have a month before you’re expected to look like a functioning human being again. My problem was that I didn’t know how. Surprisingly, my answer was a tomato timer.
Pomodoro timers are a tool used with the Pomodoro Technique. Developed in the 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, the idea is to spend 25 uninterrupted minutes on a task. When you’re done, you can take a five to ten minute break. Each 25 minute interval is called a Pomodoro and after four Pomodoros you can take a longer break of 15-30 minutes. If you finish early, use the remaining time to review your work or plan upcoming Pomodoros. You can also adjust the length of intervals and breaks to whatever works best for you.
I’ve used Pomodoro timers off and on for the past decade (maybe longer), but they never really stuck. I used them mostly in my school days to study for exams. And even then I played fast and loose with actually using the timer.
In addition to work deadlines, I also had to plan funerals at home and in South Korea. I had to consult probate attorneys, learn how to be an executor of my parents’ estates, deal with real estate sharks, and even spend 45 minutes explaining to a Citibank representative that my mother was dead and couldn’t get on the phone. I never knew where to start because everything was urgent, and my to-do lists resembled CVS receipts. Worst of all, I couldn’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. What I needed was a Pomodoro timer with a built-in to-do list.
After browsing the internet for a bit, I found it Focus To Do. I wasn’t expecting much – it had never stuck before, so why should it now? I messed up a lot, but at the end of the first week I noticed a small improvement: I was much better at getting small things done. You know, the little tedious tasks that need to get done but are constantly put on the back burner. Those tasks always make me anxious, but that week I felt a huge relief.
The Focus To-Do app gives you an estimate of how many hours your list will take. That, in turn, helped me better visualize what I could reasonably do today and what should be moved to the next day. It also taught me how long I spent on recurring tasks. For example, I now know that I need six to eight Pomodoros to write 2000 words.
My little breaks were a chance to steal back some time for myself
Meanwhile, my little breaks were a chance to steal back some time for myself. Instead of browsing Twitter to collect more brainworms, I forced myself to leave my desk. My rule was that I could do anything I wanted as long as I wasn’t chained to my keyboard. I picked up packages, watered my plants or cleaned up my counter. For longer breaks I would go outside for a walk or playing with my round cat. During my grief, it always felt like I couldn’t do anything I liked. It extended to every aspect of my life, leaving me unable to do much more than show up for work. But what this silly little timer did was create space for me to relax—knowing that the work would get done. For the first time in a long time I’m starting to feel like myself again.
None of this happened overnight. This has happened gradually over the course of this year. I didn’t even notice how much had changed until a few weeks ago. Everyone deals with grief and the mental fog of the past three years in their own way. But if, like me, you’re looking for a way to organize your time, this is a free, widely available tool to try. You don’t have to use the one I do or follow the Pomodoro technique to the letter. (I certainly don’t.) You could use a real kitchen timer or an app on your phone. But sometimes you just need a little push. Tomato timers are great for that.