Pomodoro technique for ADHD writers? How to master your attention span

When writers with ADHD find me, their biggest problem is usually that they wish they were more productive. No matter what specific challenges they might experience, they feel that they should be writing better, faster, and harder. And actually, there’s not much variance in the problems they experience either. They have ADHD after all, which means that they struggle with their attention span, time management, focus and task switching. In their search for solutions, almost every one of these writers has already found the Pomodoro Technique. And that is why I am often asked: Does the Pomodoro Technique work for ADHD writers? 

Have you been wondering the same? Keep reading this blog post, in which I take you step-by-step through my answer.

What is the Pomodoro Technique?

The Pomodoro technique is a very popular and rather simple system. It consists of blocks of 25 minutes of focused work, interspersed with breaks. Here’s how it works. 

Before you start your writing sprint, decide what you can accomplish in the next 25 minutes. Then, set a timer and start working towards that goal. When your timer goes off, it’s time for a 5-minute break. After that, start the whole process over again. If you have done 4 writing sprints already, you can take a longer break (15-20 minutes) to recharge. Then: go again! 

People who religiously use the Pomodoro technique actually find this so helpful that they start breaking projects and days down into “pomodoros,” or 25-minute sprints. Writing a chapter, for example, can take 10 pomodoros, and yesterday they might have gotten 4 pomodoros done. Yes, it’s pretty easy to spot a Pomodoro fan! 

However, I’m not really one of them. And that is because of ADHD. 

The problems with the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD Writers

A lot of people recommend the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers. I, however, am not one of them. Or maybe I am, but with some caveats. 

You see, I think there’s a lot to like about the Pomodoro system, but there are a few things that make it hard for some ADHD writers to stick with it.  

Inner rebel

Most ADHDers have, what I call, a very strongly developed inner rebel. This inner rebel comes out whenever they feel like someone is telling them what to do. This can be another person – like an employer, a teacher or a partner – but the inner rebel can just as easily come out when you impose too much structure on yourself. 

What does this “coming out” look like? Well, the inner rebel has a lot of tools on their belt! It can be a strong feeling of resistance to doing the thing you’re supposed to be doing. It can cause negative thoughts, self-sabotage, procrastination, anger, a reduced attention span… That’s the beauty of ADHD, isn’t it? Every time you think you have resolved a problem, your brain comes up with something entirely new. 

Now, if you want to use a rather rigid system like the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD, that is quite a rigid structure. Which means there’s a good chance your inner rebel will come out and prevent you from achieving all that you could. 

Difficulty with time estimation 

Do you remember how I told you that the Pomodoro Technique aficionados use Pomodoros as a measure of time to express how long a project should take? Well, that becomes a lot harder when, as an ADHD writer, you struggle with time estimation. 

How can you determine how many Pomodoros you need to complete your project if you can’t even figure out how long it takes you to get to the grocery store? Really, breaking a project up into Pomodoros can be extremely challenging for us ADHDers. 

What’s more, the inner rebel we discussed above can take up time itself. It might take you 10 minutes to even open the document and get yourself to focus on it, which is almost half your “Pomodoro” timer already gone! 

Different attention spans

Another issue I have with the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers, is that I don’t believe 25 minutes is the right focus length for everyone, all the time. For some people, setting a timer for 25 minutes is to short, for others it’s too long. And some tasks might be a lot harder to focus on for longer than others. 

We’ll get more into this later, but suffice to say, for now, that I know 25 minutes is not a great measure for a universal attention span or focus time. Especially if you’re someone who relies heavily on hyperfocus. 

The Pomodoro Technique and Hyperfocus

Hyperfocus is that amazing ADHD quality that allows you to focus deeply for hours at a time on one thing. (You can read more about Hyperfocus on the ADDitude website.) Though it costs a lot of energy, hyperfocus is often considered an addictive frame of mind in which everything falls away, except for the one thing you’re hyperfixating on. And if that one thing just so happens to be your writing project, that means you can get a LOT of things done for a long period of time. Many ADHD writers hold hyperfocus-writing as the gold standard and hope to experience it during every writing session. 

And that is an issue when we talk about the  Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers! If you want to sink into the blissful writing flow (do make sure you hyperfocus on the right thing, though!), and you have a long attention span that lasts for hours on end, a timer going off every 25 minutes is going to drag you right back out of your hyperfocus and into the real world, where you’re supposed to be taking a break.

The resulting frustration, however, might help you crack this “Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers” thing once and for all. 

Mastering your attention span with a modified Pomodoro

At this point your first question might be: why use the Pomodoro Technique at all? You see, I’m actually a big fan of some of the aspects of Pomodoro. I think that having shorter writing sprints with goals attached for each makes it less likely that you get distracted. I also think that most of us give ourselves fewer breaks than our attention span would benefit from. And a reliance on an external timer can actually be very helpful for those of us who struggle with time sense and estimation. And that means that the Pomodoro technique can be helpful for some of the most common struggles of ADHD writers (read more about that in this blog post). 

So what can you do then, if you want to get the Pomodoro benefits but modify it to a “Pomodoro Technique for ADHD”? Well, I have a few tested-and-true solutions for you.  It’s certainly possible to make it work: you can use the Pomodoro Technique with ADHD. You’ll just have to make some adjustments based on your attention span. 

The #1 trick to managing ADHD as  a writer

The best way to manage your ADHD is to experiment. As I said: whenever you feel too confined, your inner rebel will come out. If you do the same thing every day, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get bored and, you’ve guessed it, your inner rebel will come out. 

So what you do is: change constantly. Every time you change a habit, it will feel new to you again. And when something feels new, it’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to do it! 

So by all means, use the Pomodoro Technique. But if you want to keep getting the benefits over time, you should keep changing the length of your “pomodoros,” and set your timer for different times. However, don’t randomly change the timer, let’s create some method in this madness. 

How to determine your attention span

The best way to decide how long to set your timer for is to actually check in with yourself and your attention span. Start with a 25-minute Pomodoro. Then, when the timer goes off, you can have 1 of 3 feelings. 

  1. Exhaustion — If you spent the last 10 minutes of your Pomodoro staring at the timer or being incredibly unproductive, 25 minutes is probably too long for you at this moment, for this task. Take a 5 minute break and set a timer for 15 minutes next. If the problem persists, do 10 minutes instead. Or maybe you even have to resort to 5. That’s fine. Just give your brain what it needs to be productive. 
  2. Satisfaction — If you feel good after your 25 minutes, that’s perfect! Take your 5-minute break and set another timer for 25 minutes. Keep doing this until you experience either 1 or 3. 
  3. Frustration — If you feel frustrated when your timer goes off because you have JUST gotten into it and now you have to stop already.. That’s a sign your sprints need to be longer. Try 35, 45 or even 60 minutes to see whether that feels better. Do, however, also make your breaks a little bit longer (10-15 minutes should do). 

Goal setting in my Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers

So what about those goals then? Well, I still think it’s a good idea to set a goal for each of your writing sprints. When you’re clear on what it is you want to accomplish during that time, it becomes a lot easier to stay focused until the timer goes off. Not only can the challenge aspect be motivating, but if you have a clear goal you also have a more solid reason not to start doing something else. What’s more, it gives you an opportunity to celebrate to boost your self esteem and motivation!

However, breaking a whole project up into Pomodoros, I feel, is asking for trouble when you have ADHD. The Pomodoro Technique for ADHD works great, but only on short time horizons. You see, our productivity can be SO irregular that whilst one day you might be able to write 2000 words, some other days you should be happy when you get to 20. If you plan your pomodoros too far ahead, then, it’s pretty likely you’ll “miss” a lot of your goals and start to feel bad about yourself again. 

Concluding thoughts on the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers

So that is my take on the Pomodoro Technique for ADHD writers: it has some great aspects to it but – like everything else – if you want it to work, you have to make it work FOR you. Experiment. Check in with yourself and your attention span. Adapt. And always, always, always introduce changes if you want to keep something up for any length of time. don’t let your inner rebel stand in the way of achieving your writing goals! 

If you’ve tried modifying the pomodoro technique but still don’t know how to improve your productivity: know I’m here to help. 

Just schedule a free 1-hour video call by clicking on the button below!