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🍅🍏 pomodoros as a form of freedom, rather than forcing
like timers but don't want to feel forced? focus on freedom
There’s an official “Pomodoro Technique” which most people have never properly tried even if they’re familiar with the idea of 25/5 work/break blocks. It’s a whole system with a lot of good stuff—not just timers but a bunch of other intentionality elements. Pomodoros aren’t inherently forcy, but a lot of people experience them that way: “for 25 minutes, I have to do X, and 'I’m not allowed to do anything else”.
I’ve found it’s a lot more fun to flip that:
🍅 For 25 minutes, I get to do X, and I don’t have to do anything else.
I can also do nothing, but the point is that my chosen intention is free to veto any other intention/inclination/urge. Then, when I take a break, anarchy reigns:
🍏 For 5 minutes, I don’t have to do anything.
In other words, any intention is free to veto any other.
I’ll explain that more later. First, let’s talk about being free to focus.
🍅 Free to focus
Unless your environment is distracting you, you are the source of whatever focus challenges you’re having. Specifically, you probably have other intentions that are conflicting with the thing you think you’re trying to do. Competing action potentials. And unless these can be properly released, they’re going to produce friction when you try to do something else.
Some people think that the thing you need is more motivation. And it can indeed help to get in touch with why you’re doing it, and how good it’ll feel to have done it, or the ways in which the world will be more awesome once you have. That can increase the salience and clarity. But if something’s a good idea, then you already have motivation. If you’re not doing it, that’s probably because you also have other motivations, and your sense of drive is standing around like a group of friends who definitely want to go to dinner but can’t pick a restaurant, even though all of the options are fine.
If you have big conflict—ie some of the options are not fine—that’s a separate issue that this pomodoro adaptation mostly won’t help with. If you find yourself resisting this approach, there’s a good bet that’s what’s going on.
But if you’re in a situation where you have something you’re pretty confident will happen eventually, or where you’ve done that sort of thing many times before and you know you like doing it once you get into it and it gets good results once you’ve done it… or you have lots of good potential ways to spend your morning… but you’re still somehow feeling stuck, then that’s a sign that what you need is to give one of these intentions veto powers over all of the others.
Temporarily, of course—autocrats are dangerous when they don’t have maximum term lengths!
Choosing what to focus on
Maybe you already have a clear thing. If not, you’ll need to pick a thing. It doesn't need to be The Most Important Thing—it can just be something that seems probably worth doing.
it's better to do 365 plausibly-most-important things in a year than to spend each day stressing about which thing is THE most important and only actually DO a handful of such things
Then, having chosen something, hold the intention to begin working on that intention in a moment when the timer starts, and ask for all other intentions to step aside until the end of the timer.
I made a little 4min guided meditation to walk you through this, which you can try if you want!
Then when the timer starts, feel the empowerment flow to this one intention. This intention gets to direct the flow right now—all else can wait! It still matters, but you don’t have to pay it any heed, right now. You are free to focus.
What do you do with other urges/intentions/inclinations that arise? Remember: you are free to focus. You don’t have to focus, but these other arisings don’t get to distract you if you don’t want them to.
So when something pops up, check if you can just… let it go. Not to invalidate it. It does matter, it’s just not what you’ve chosen to focus on right now. Some arisings may want to be written down, but actually check if they do. Some might not need to be written, because they know they’ll pop up again in due course later if the time is right. For instance, you don’t need to write down your urge to eat something—your belly will remember that one! And more urges are like this than you might realize at first. Anyway, if it really wants to be written down, it can, but that's all any non-main intention gets to ask for til the bell rings.
The sensation to focus on here is the ecstatic freedom of singular focus and flow—the way it feels amazing to be sitting at an empty bus stop with your phone dead and a book you’ve been meaning to read, with nothing to do but read (or nothing). Nobody can disturb you.
That, but with whatever work is in front of you.
You are free to focus.
🍏 Free to rest & play
Then... BREAK! 🍅→🍏
Now I don’t have to do anything!
All intentions are free to veto any others.
What does that even mean? It means not doing anything if there’s any sense of friction about it.
By default this can often mean doing "nothing". Maybe almost-nothing: sitting on the porch, maybe getting a drink of water. Maybe gently cleaning or stretching. And maybe you bounce around a bit between a few things, before recognizing this and inviting them all to release each other.
During the break, instead of a focused freedom, you're aiming for a spacious freedom. A kind of profound, utter rest. A sense that there is nothing that gets to say "I must be done". It's not that you must do nothing, just that you are utterly free to.
Now, you might actually not be free to do nothing because you really need to pee before you can truly rest 😅
…so be it!
But don't let memes or obligations disrupt your peace. So even when you're in a break, you probably don't want to check notifications or browse a feed (at least not if you intend to get back into focused flow in a few mins), as those will tend to spin up a bunch of new intention-potentials. See this article re Centering Distractions for more on that.
Doing nothing vs not-doing
Me of 5-10 years ago might have had an objection to this, which would have gone something like “but what if part of me wants to do nothing and another part of me doesn’t want to do nothing! how can the part that doesn’t want to do nothing veto the doing of nothing?”.
To address this, we need to be a bit more precise. It’s not about doing nothing, but about not doing at all. And these are different! They’re not symmetrical. You’re not willing nothing, you’re letting go of willing. And it might be that when you let go of willing, this results in just sitting still. But if you do it while walking, you may find you continue walking. The walking can be a form of will-less resting. If you do it while laughing, you will likely continue laughing.
But it’s also not about being “on autopilot”. It’s about being present without intention, and noticing what arises, and perhaps letting it move you if that feels right. A bunch of this stuff is hard to point at—it is, as far as I can tell, what a lot of meditation texts are trying to say, or at least closely related.
So don’t worry if this sounds really confusing! I’m still learning it myself, even though I’ve got somewhat of a handle on it conceptually.
Another more pragmatic lens is that “doesn’t want to do nothing” isn’t an actual want, it’s an un-want. Does the part want to dance? What would satisfy it? Allow those to come into awareness, then see if the rest of you will allow it!
An hour ago, when my break timer went off, I went to sit on the couch to do nothing-in-particular, and then I noticed that the electric bass I’d rented yesterday was on the couch, and I had immediate excitement to plug it in and play it for the duration of the break. That felt frictionlessly like exactly what I wanted to do, so I did it. There was no lingering sense that I was supposed to sit there doing nothing, or a sense that I didn’t want to switch into bass mode. But if I’d seen my phone and had thought about checking my email, probably another part would have said “uhhh that doesn’t feel right”.
The cycle continues
At the end of my playing bass, I heard my pomo bell go off again, and in that moment the intention to write/edit this post arose, and I gave it the freedom to do so.
And then there was a break, during which I stared at the sky a bit and did a tiny time-sensitive thing: invited the latest-signed-up participants to the gcal events for our Goal-Crafting Intensive workshop sessions tonight and tomorrow.
And now I’m near the end of the second work block, and the post is basically finished. So then after that break, I’ll need to choose a new focus. Or stop pomo’ing.
Writing this out is giving me a pretty strong sense that it could be quite powerful to have a new timer mode on intend.do that separates out the break/rest phase and the choose-what’s-next phase, which is feeling exciting, although that’s a bigger project than I can tackle today!
Let me know in the comments how this works for you, or whether you’ve got other suggestions for how to think of pomodoros, or ideas for other timer-based workflows.