Working from home is an exercise in control. All those things that you told yourself at work that you'd be doing right now if only you were at home are suddenly within arm's reach. Your mind is a ping-pong ball bouncing between tasks that would "just take a second" to complete. What's not getting done? This month's report.
Or maybe you're the opposite and once you tuck into your laptop at the dining room table it's hours before you look up. Your legs are stiff, your vision is blurry, and you're starting to think the "19" in COVID-19 might be a reference to how much weight you're going to gain before this is all over. That's when you realize all those "little interruptions" that happen naturally in an office environment actually helped you.
Scheduling regular breaks is easier said than done. And your Apple watch/fitness band can't be relied upon to consistently tell you when to get up and move around. That's why I like the Pomodoro method. With it, you set a task, work on it for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. After four task sessions, you take a long break, then start the cycle again.
You can do this with a kitchen timer (the method is named after the creator's tomato timer) but I find an app is even better. Not only is it more convenient than using a minute timer, the best apps will penalize you for navigating away and using your phone for something else while it's running.
With that in mind, I downloaded the five top pomodoro timer apps in the Apple App Store and gave them a hands-on test.
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The number one app on the list, Focus Keeper, is also the most true to the original concept of the pomodoro timer. Once you open the app, the cheery red background and horizontal timer striations makes its purpose clear.
You can manually drag the timer bar back and forth to set a longer or shorter session. Click the start button and it will start counting down, keeping track of what round you're on as well as your goal for the session. If you leave the app, you can still see what minute you're on by checking the count on the badge notification.
Once your current session is up, it will prompt you to start your break, automatically setting a 5-minute timer, changing the background color and adding a ticking sound (which actually stresses me out, luckily you can disable it). It does this again for your long break (this time adding a nice soothing beach sound).
If you want to change the background color, set different goals, or customize the sounds you can "Go Pro" for $1.99. Paying for the app will also unlock a full 30 days worth of efficiency charts (you only get 3 days in the basic app).
I like Focus Keeper a lot, but the one thing it doesn't do is automatically stop the timer when you leave the app. If messing with your phone is what's destroying your efficiency, you'll need to look elsewhere.
Tomato Timer is less skeuomorphic and a bit more whimsical, displaying a red circle that looks like a hastily drawn tomato slice. Using it is simple. You set a task and click the circle. It fills up and starts counting down. That's it. When the timer reaches zero, it has you start a 5 minute timer. Repeat for three more sessions and you're rewarded with a longer break.
If you want to change your goals, the background color, the notification sound, or auto-start your next session, you can make all those changes for free in the Options. There's no premium or pro option to pay for here.
I like Tomato Timer for its simplicity and free customization, but if keeping track of your efficiency over time is important, you'll need to look elsewhere, there's no chart function like with the other apps.
OK, this one is a bit of a cheat. The third tomato timer app in the App Store is Flora, which looks great, but requires that you sign in with Facebook to use it. That's a no for me, dog.
So instead I downloaded the similar-looking Plantie. A fun take on the standard timer app where your efficiency progress is represented by fruit growing on a little tree. Break the chain and your fruit goes away. Maintain a streak and you'll get coins for your effort that can be used to buy additional types of trees. There are also badges to collect.
There's no naming of your current tasks, like there is with Tomato Timer, but Plantie does have an important feature that the first two on this list don't. Shift away from the app, and it will pause your task and send you a notification. You'll have to restart your session by going into the app (you can customize this so that there's a 30 second leeway or your task is never interrupted). For someone like me who's checking the news every couple of minutes, it's a big plus.
There's a very nice efficiency chart as well, so it's easy to see how you've done while using the app (there's no 3 or 30 day limit to your historical data).
If the idea of gamifying your task timer appeals to you, then Plantie is the one you need to download. The graphics are unlike the other timers on the list, and the idea that all those completed tasks will let you further customize the timer is much more incentivizing than a basic "pay for Pro" system.
If you're a planner, then the Focus To-Do app should be on your list. It operates a bit like a traditional task planner, letting you set up a list of tasks to complete for the day. You can also pre-plan for tomorrow and set up future tasks.
To get your day going, click a task and the timer will start. You can customize the theme and sounds for free, but there are additional white noise and alarm sounds available by going premium. The additional premium features will also appeal to your A-type personality, synchronizing data, adding cloud backup, letting you add repeating tasks, reminders, detailed statistics, and more.
Right now they have a sale for $8.99 for a lifetime subscription. It's a good deal—I appreciate it when an app offers premium features that are actually features rather than paywalled basic features.
The fifth app on the list, Focus Time Management, has an extremely clean design, but saddles it with a subscription system and requires you to sign up to access the free trial. While it has some nice features, including Siri and Apple Watch integration, I don't think that's enough extra incentive to pay $4.99 a month or $39.99 a year.
So we're heading to the next app on the list. And, what better way to end a list about pomodoro timer apps than with an app called Pomodoro? Pomodoro functions a little bit differently, in that it offers a wide variety of white noise sounds. There are also a variety of backgrounds and line colors to choose from. But, you guessed it, all that customization is locked behind a $2.99 paywall.
Still, even if you don't unlock the customization, the free version of the app works with Siri and gives you access to daily, weekly, and all-time statistics. Out of the five apps, I liked the design of this one the least, but personal preferences vary.
Any of the apps on this list, even if you don't pay to unlock the extra features, will help you stay on task and, most importantly, remember to take regular breaks. Now go maximize your new work-from-home lifestyle!