A silly tomato timer came in clutch after grief and a global pandemic destroyed my attention span.
Focusing never used to be a problem for me. I was the annoying kid who could study for eight to 10 hours at a time without complaint. That continued well into adulthood until I experienced my own series of unfortunate events. In the last four years, my parents and our 17-year-old dog all died in rapid succession from incurable neurodegenerative diseases. It didn’t help that it happened alongside a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. And because I’m a genius, I decided to make digital media my bread and butter, an industry held together by fraying duct tape and brain worms.
Needless to say, I started off 2022 as a hot mess. All that time spent doomscrolling and grieving left my focus in shambles. Things spiraled to the point where I’d walk into a room, forget why I was there, return to the room I came from, remember what I was supposed to do, walk back into the first room, and forget again. But the reality of adulthood is you only have a month before you’re expected to resemble a functioning human again. My problem was 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 devote 25 uninterrupted minutes to a task. When you’re done, you can take a five- to 10-minute break. Each 25-minute interval is called a Pomodoro, and after four Pomodoros, you can take a longer 15–30 minute break. If you finish early, you use the remaining time to either review your work or plan upcoming Pomodoros. You can also tweak the length of intervals and breaks to what works best for you.
I’ve used Pomodoro timers off and on for the past decade (perhaps longer), but they never really stuck. I mostly used them in my school days to study for exams. And even then, I played fast and loose with actually using the timer.
This time was different.
On top of work deadlines, I also had to plan funerals at home and in South Korea. I had to consult with probate lawyers, learn how to be an executor of my parents’ estates, deal with real estate sharks, and even spend 45 minutes explaining to a Citibank rep that my mom was dead and couldn’t come to the phone. I never knew where to start because everything was urgent, and my to-do lists resembled CVS receipts. Worst of all, I could barely focus 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 poking around the internet, I landed on Focus To-Do. I didn’t expect much — it’d never stuck before, so why would it now? I messed up a bunch, but at the end of the first week, I noticed one small improvement: I was a lot better at getting little things done. You know, the tiny annoying tasks that need to get done but constantly get put on the back burner. Those tasks always leave me anxious, but that week I felt immense relief.
The Focus To-Do app gives you an estimate of how many hours your list will take. That, in turn, helped me to better visualize what I could reasonably get done today and what had to be moved to the next day. It also taught me how long I spent on recurring tasks. For instance, I now know it takes me six to eight Pomodoros to write 2,000 words.
Meanwhile, my little breaks were a chance to steal back some time for myself. Instead of browsing Twitter to acquire more brain worms, I forced myself to leave my desk. My rule was I could do anything I wanted so long as I wasn’t chained to my keyboard. I’d pick up packages, water my plants, or declutter my kitchen counter. For longer breaks, I’d go for a walk outside or play with my rotund cat. During my grief, it always felt like I couldn’t do anything I enjoyed. It expanded into every aspect of my life, leaving me unable to do much more than show up to work. But what this silly little timer did was create space for me to relax — knowing 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. It happened gradually over the course of this year. I didn’t even notice how much had changed until a few weeks ago. Everyone has their own way of dealing with grief and the mental fog of the past three years. But if, like me, you’ve been scrambling 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 definitely don’t.) You could use an actual kitchen timer or an app on your phone. But sometimes, you just need a little push. Tomato timers are great for that.