You say tomato. I say pomodoro.
May 31, 2021
I am a Morrow Park Girl. Which is to say I attended high school—all five years of it back then in Ontario—at St. Joseph’s Morrow Park, an all-girls Catholic high school at the northern edge of Toronto.
Occasionally, I meet other grads who tell me they hated their time at the school. Couldn’t wait to get out.
I am not one of them. I loved my time at Morrow Park—or “SJMP” as it is often called.
Maybe I lucked out with an amazing friend group. The deep friendships I made at Morrow Park—or rather the friendships I carried over from elementary school – are still going strong. Although we are now scattered across the country, Caroline, Anne, Connie, Kathy, Mary and I still keep in touch, and we make a point of meeting up at least once a year. These are strong, smart, interesting women, and when we are together for an evening or a weekend, the time flies by. There are never enough hours for all our talk, not just about what we’ve done in the previous few months, but about ideas, books, movies and life’s big questions.
Maybe it was the fact that Morrow Park was an all-girls school. As a budding feminist, I loved that we “girls” were in charge. Of everything. Student Council. Sports teams. Chess club. Band. Social committee. (Now that was a plum job for a hip girl who wasn’t afraid to venture “downtown” in search of the next Max Webster or Edward Bear for our school dances.)
As Caroline said so eloquently over Zoom the other night, “Being at an all-girls school allowed you to fly your flag little freer. It gave us confidence at a formative time when we needed it most.”
Maybe it was actually the education—“top drawer” as Harry Lavery, our drama teacher would say. Especially in English literature. To this day, I credit Sister Anna, my Grade 12 English teacher with instilling in me a love of poetry.
On the surface, Sister Anna was extremely old-fashioned. Unlike many of the other nuns who taught at the school, Sister Anna continued to wear an all-black habit, complete with headdress and veil. She was skinny and severe-looking. She organized our desks in strict rows. And her own desk was perched on a platform at the front of the classroom—all the better to see you, my dears.
But looks can often be deceiving. As Caroline said, “Her presence was forbidding, but she had a warmth that belied that exterior. She took English seriously, and she took us girls seriously.”
As I reflect back on Sister Anna, I think she was anything but old-fashioned. She was an independent woman who chose not to marry (well, I guess they say a nun is married to God, but who knows…). Instead she chose to teach, and she treated teaching as a true vocation. She revelled in sharing her love of literature and poetry with us, and she was intent on inspiring us and pushing us to be our best selves.
Recently, it dawned on me that Sister Anna was ahead of her time in another way. She used a version of the timer method, known today as the Pomodoro Technique®.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. It uses a timer to break work into 25-minute intervals. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, from the Italian word for tomato. If you scan Cirillo’s website or read his book The Pomodoro Technique, you’ll learn that Cirillo got the idea for the name from those little tomato-shaped kitchen timers. Apparently, he used one as a university student.
In Sister Anna’s version of the Pomodoro Technique, every class was divided into segments. We began with three minutes of prayer or hymns (or so Anne reminded me - I didn’t remember that part, but Anne insists it was so, and I trust others’ memories over my own). Then we had 10 minutes of grammar. One student was assigned to keep track of where we’d left off the previous class, and two or three students were responsible for distributing and collecting the books. Once we’d finished parsing sentences, we moved on to 15 minutes of poetry, and finally, there was 30 minutes for the major novel or Shakespearean play we were studying at the time. And of course, one student was always in charge of timing each segment—a human pomodoro.
I’ve been using Cirillo’s Pomodoro Technique in my own work for about a year now, and I’ve found it to be transformative. As I see it, there are three key benefits to using the technique.
1. It helps overcome procrastination.
If you’ve been putting off a piece of writing, the Pomodoro Technique can be a real lifesaver. That’s because working in intervals helps you shift your mindset from negative to positive, from what Neil Fiore, author of The Now Habit, identifies as a counterproductive self-statement like “I must finish this” to the more energizing “When can I start?”
And even if you perceive the task to be hard or unpleasant, the idea that you need only spend 25 minutes on it—at least to start—is incredibly freeing. 25 minutes may not seem like a long time, but I am regularly amazed at how much I can accomplish in just one pomodoro.
2. It helps you manage projects.
Any project manager worth their salt will tell you that even the biggest project is simply a collection of many small tasks. The Pomodoro Technique helps you break a project into manageable chunks.
As a former marathon runner, this is something I can relate to. In essence, a marathon is just one kilometer over and over and over (and over and over…) again until you reach 42. I always found that if I fixed on the enormity of the distance, I was doomed. Instead, my most successful races were those where I focused on one kilometer at a time, silently repeating to myself as I ran, “working on kilometer 1, chipping away at kilometer 1....”
Like running a marathon 1 kilometer at a time, the Pomodoro Technique gets you to think small. In Neil Fiore’s lingo, it allows you to replace the sabotaging self-statement “This project is so big and important" with “I can take one small step."
3. It increases your focus.
On his website, Francesco Cirillo says that practicing the Pomodoro Technique will teach you how to handle interruptions—from outside or of your own making (ping….oh, I wonder who just emailed me…).
When you commit to concentrating for 25 minutes at a time, you set the stage for focused work. You begin to foster joy, creativity, total involvement—the conditions for a positive, productive experience described by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his 1990 best-selling book Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience.
Flow, as Csikszentmihalyi writes, is that state where “concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.”
Like so many of life’s lessons, it is only now—with many, many years of hindsight—that I can truly appreciate Sister Anna and all she gave us. Sister Anna died in September 2005. I only wish I’d had the chance to tell her how influential she was, how ahead of her time she was, how much she meant to me and my Morrow Park experience. RIP Sister Anna.
The Pomodoro Technique—working in 25-minute intervals—can help you overcome procrastination, manage projects effectively and increase your focus. All good!