The 48 Tomatoes Method for Time Management and Productivity

From Two Great Systems to One Helpful Way to Look at Your Day

Mike Sturm
Dec 14, 2017 · 6 min read

Time management is key in supercharging your productivity because it is the most scarce resource you have. No matter what you do, you cannot really get more time than what you are allotted. You can find ways to make more money, you can delegate work so you have less on your plate, but when it comes to time — you get what you get; you just have to find a way to make the most of it.

Much like with money, the best way to start making the most of your time is to begin tracking it. I’m not just talking about tracking what you have already spent — though that is helpful to get you a sense of where your time is going.

What I’m talking about is a way to view your time in 3 different respects:

  • What you have at the start of each day (i.e., when you begin spending your time on things)
  • How much you have left as the day proceeds
  • A unit of measurement for your time that works best for capturing how most people spend it

The system I have cobbled together looks at time as units larger than conventional minutes and seconds, but smaller than hours. It combines visual representation of time available, interval work, and simplistic prioritization.

I call it 48 Tomatoes. Take a look, and feel free to comment on the piece as you see fit.

We all Have 48 Tomatoes Today

The Pomodoro Technique was invented by Francesco Cirillo. While in college, he began using a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato to keep him doing tasks for 25 straight minutes, with 5 minute breaks after each interval. That 25/5 interval is called a pomodoro — Italian for “tomato”.

This technique works, and I recommend it to anyone having trouble staying on tasks for more than a few minutes. But what I like about it goes way beyond the technique itself. I like the way that it views your time. If we really want to think about time like money — so we can better manage it, we must think about how we spend it. In order to do that, we need a basic unit in which to think of it. To me, nothing does this better than the 30 minute block — or tomato.

Why a 30 minute block? Think Goldilocks. An hour is big and hard to think about. You could theoretically get a lot done in an hour, but it’s too big to use as a building block for budgeting time. 10 or 15 minutes seems like pretty neat and tidy discrete block of time, but things worth budgeting for rarely take less than 15 minutes. If you’re going to invest the time and mental energy to budget and track your time, 15 minutes will probably not get you a decent return on that investment. In my experience, anything large enough to block out time to do will usually take no less than a half-hour, all things considered. Consider the rule in project management for budgeting time: however long you think something will take you, multiply that estimate by at least 1.5, and you’ll get the likely duration. As a consolation to those really intent on splitting hairs: you can use half tomatoes, so that gets you down to 15 minutes.

Last time I checked, we have 24 hours each day. That’s 48 tomatoes — 48 half-hour intervals. That means that you start each day with 48 tomatoes to throw at the stuff in your life — projects, tasks, activities, service, etc. Keeping the mindset of how many tomatoes you’ve thrown and how many you have left seems to me like a hell of an easy way to get more serious about valuing your time.

Start With Scarcity

The tragedy is that most of us (hopefully all of us) start our days with 10 to 16 tomatoes already thrown. We sleep for 5 to 8 hours. So essentially you don’t really have 48 tomatoes to throw, you have more like 38 or 32.

So with 32 tomatoes to throw, you can now begin looking at the things on your to-do list, and size them up — not just in their importance and urgency, but also in their expense — as in how much time will they cost you to do?Counting your tomatoes makes this easy. If you have a task that will take you 2 hours to complete, that’s 4 tomatoes, 4 of 32 available, or 1/8 of your daily allowance. So is that task worth 1/8 of your tomatoes? It’s certainly a place to start thinking about time management.

The Daily Budget, Deep Working, and Ivy Lee

In Deep Work, Cal Newport suggests that we schedule every task we want to do in a day, and make every attempt to stick to that schedule — pushing away other distractions. The benefits of doing this can be tremendous, and it makes the best use of your time. When you measure time in tomatoes, you want to squeeze the most work you can out of each one (pun intended).

In order to do this, you will want to make a time budget.

One effective way to make a time budget that I’ve found is to combine the so-called “Ivy Lee Method” for important tasks. It’s been laid out elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. But the gist is this:

  1. Decide on 6 tasks that you see as the most import and/or urgent for the next day.
  2. Work those 6 tasks before and at the expense of all others.
  3. Repeat 1&2 daily.

Once you’ve laid out these 6 items, you can go in and assign them a tomato value. On my master project/task list, I place a 🍅 (tomato icon) for each half hour I estimate the task will take me. Thus begins an effective time budget for the day.

Why This Just Might Work

Visual indicators are effective. Warehouses and manufacturers use them for inventory and production management. Organizational methodology relies on them. Even financial budgeting software utilized visual indicators that take raw data and assign them color, size, or presence/absence change values to show we feeble-minded humans that stuff is changing.

So if you wake up at 6am, your initial bunch of tomatoes looks like this:

Let’s say you have 3 meetings: 2 of them are an hour, one is a half hour. Take those off first:

You have to commute to and from work, and you also have to pick up a few things from the grocery store. Toss a few more:

Now, let’s say you’ve got to cook dinner, eat it, and clean up afterward. You’re also going to bed by 10pm, right?

You’re going to eat lunch, right? And how about that time you use to randomly talk to people/catch up/follow-up/etc?

The above tomatoes are what you’re left with to do your 6 tasks. And let’s be honest, if you actually care about them, you likely will need something like 25 minutes to devote to each one. So at minimum, that leaves you with this for the rest of the day’s stuff:

See how quickly the time flies?

For those interested, I have created a handy Google Sheet that calculates and shows your time for tasks and time left in this visual method:

The Bottom Line

Time is valuable, and scarce. So the more you leverage visual management to treat it that way, the more likely you’ll be to value it. Just my thoughts. As always, I’m tinkering.

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most…

Mike Sturm

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In self-imposed exile from academia, reaping the benefits of intellectual promiscuity. Creator of the newsletter “Woolgathering”:

Better Humans

Better Humans is a collection of the world's most trustworthy writing on human potential and self improvement by coaches, academics, and aggressive self-experimenters. Articles are based on deep personal experience, science, and research. No fluff, book reports, or listicles.

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