Working in intervals of 20 to 40 minutes (so-called timeboxes) interspersed with 5-minute breaks is an excellent way to increase productivity, overcome procrastination, and do something for your health at the same time. In an earlier post I have outlined some ideas on how to implement time boxing.
In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo devised the Pomodoro Technique, a complete time management system based on the concept of timeboxing. According to him, the optimal length of a timebox is 25 minutes. He called this 25-minute interval a pomodoro. Cirillo’s technique has spawned a variety of productivity apps and timers. I’ll introduce you to one cool app below.
I have used timeboxing more or less for several years, but have also varied the work period depending on the task at hand.
If a task is very difficult or boring, starting out with only 15 minutes is fine, if that helps you to get started and avoid checking your phone. I can always do 15 minutes.
For writing, I much prefer 45 minutes of even an hour.
Recently, I got myself a Fitbit Charge 2 fitness tracker. I bought it to encourage me to move more during the day and track my sleep during the night. It also continuously tracks my heart rate and automatically recognizes and records different exercises. For example, it detects and records when I am walking, running, or using a cross trainer or treadmill and supplies stats such as duration, calories burnt, heart rate graphs…
I have come to like my Fitbit a lot – and it can help with time boxing / pomodoros as well.
Hourly activity goals with reminders to move is one of my favorite features
The Fitbit Charge 2 detects longer periods of inactivity, and if I haven’t taken at least 250 steps in a particular hour, it’ll vibrate at ten minutes to the hour to remind me to get going and move.
That way, even if I don’t care to set any timer, I get at least one break every hour and get moving. For health purposes and for many office jobs this feature may be all that is needed. I love it.
Not only does it make you take regular breaks, it also vibrates again when you have taken your 250 steps and keeps track of your longest period of inactivity and stats for the day and week. It just works out of the box, and there is nothing to start or stop.
Quite a few Fitbits, including the Flex 2, Alta, Alta HR, Blaze, Charge 2, and the Ionic have the hourly activity goals with reminders to move.
Unfortunately this feature can’t be set to shorter time periods; otherwise it would be an ideal productivity timer.
That kept me thinking…
How can I get my Fitbit to vibrate at the end of a pomodoro or other time interval?
Could I even connect it with a smart phone productivity timer, so that it vibrates when the smart phone timer tells it to?
I have found a solution for both scenarios.
The Fitbit Charge 2 and the Fitbit Ionic have an interval workout timer
Many people are looking for a countdown timer on the Charge 2. At first glance, it looks like it doesn’t have a one. Well, it does: It is called Interval Workout and you find it under Exercise Shortcuts in the Fitbit app.
1. For example on Android, tap on the Fibit icon:
2. Scroll down until you find Exercise Shortcuts and tap on it.
3. Tap on Interval Workout. This takes you to the timer screen:
This interval timer allows for two time periods: The move period and the rest period. The move period can be set from seconds to 20 minutes and the rest period that can also be set to up to 20 minutes.
We can use this interval timer to implement a productivity timer to work in timeboxes in at least two ways.
1. Work in timeboxes of max 20 minutes and use the rest periods as breaks
If you want to work in intervals of at most 20 minutes and take breaks of 5 minutes, set the move period to 19:59 (the maximum) and the rest period to 5 minutes. The move period becomes the work period.
After each move period, your Fitbit alerts you with two small vibrations that the period is over. This is your signal to take a break and get up from your desk.
Now you have 5 minutes of break time, which you could use for some exercise. After the rest period, Fitbit vibrates again, which is your signal to go back to work.
Set the number of repetitions to four. After four timeboxes you want to take a longer break.
Here is how the timer looks on a Fitbit Charge 2:
If you set it up it in this way, Fitbit also keeps track of how many time boxes you have worked. In your Fitbit app under Weekly Exercise, you find all Interval Workouts.
Unfortunately, this only allows you to work in time boxes of max 20 minutes.
There is a solution though:
2. If you want to work in pomodoros (25 minutes) or even longer timeboxes, use both the work and the rest period to account for your work interval
For the initial setup: set the work period to 20 minutes and the rest period to 5 minutes. Set the number of receptions to 1.
Every time you want to start a pomodoro: start the interval timer on your Fitbit. The first vibrating alert reminds you that you have five more minutes, the second signals the end of the pomodoro.
It is time to get up from your desk and move.
This way you could use timeboxes of up to 40 minutes, which should be enough for most productivity applications. After 20 minutes you are alerted that half of your timebox is over. The second alert signals that your timebox is over.
If you need longer time periods, you might as well use the daily activity goals described above.
According to the Fitbit article on interval timers, this timer is only available on the Charge 2 and the Ionic.
But even if your Fitbit doesn’t have this feature, there may be another way if you have an Android phone. (I haven’t yet found a way for the iPhone or iPad)
With a little help, productivity timer apps for Android phones can even directly connect to many Fitbits
Your phone app keeps track of the timeboxes and just sends a signal to your Fitbit to vibrate together with a text message.
Now this is really cool because sophisticated productivity apps can keep track of your tasks together with the timeboxes you have spent on them.
The following should work for the Fitbit Alta, Alta HR, Charge 2, Blaze, Surge, and Ionic
These Fitbits allow notifications in response to text messages from your smartphone. On Android phones you can use this features to send alerts from many apps to your Fitbit. This way, your Fitbit becomes a vibration device for your phone timer app.
You need two apps on your phone
A productivity timer that counts down and keeps track of your timeboxes: One app that works great is the Pomodoro Timer by Tatkov Lab in either the lite version (free) or the pro version (less than $ 2 when I checked). Timer pro includes stats for your tasks and supports the developer. To get started, the lite version is fine.
Fit Notifications: This free Android app, developed by Smart Dinosaurs Entertainment, can route notifications from most Android apps as text message notifications to your Fitbit.
Setup to connect Pomodoro Timer and Fit Notifications
1. Install Pomodoro Timer on your phone
2. Install and setup Fit Notifcations.
As you install Fit Notifications, it guides you through the process of connecting it with the Fitbit app.
As a prerequisite your Fitbit app needs to be installed on the phone.
3. Then you just enable the Pomodoro timer in Fit Notifications:
A. Tap on Setup Apps
This will load the app list.
B. Find Pomodoro Timer and check the box. I have both the lite and the pro version.
C. Tap on the cog wheel and enable Discard ongoing notifications:
If you forget to do this, Fit Notifications might send a notification every second.
That’s all there is to the setup.
Now start Pomodoro Timer, tap on Start Pomodoro, and get some work done
At the end of a pomodoro, you receive a vibrating alert on your Fitbit.
Start your break period on your phone
The idea of break time is that you get up from your desk and get moving.
At the end of your break, you get a second vibrating alert. Time to get back to work. Start your next pomodoro on your phone.
Sometimes you might just want to do a short meditation or breathing exercise instead of moving during your break.
If you fail to reach your hourly activity target during your pomodoro breaks, at 10 minutes to the hour Fitbit will alert you to get moving. This is a great backup.
This setup (with some modifications) will also work with many other productivity timers.
Most modern Fitbits, such as the Charge 2, support hourly activity goals with reminders to move, a great solution to keep us moving at least once per hour.
There is substantial evidence that being sedentary for tool long is bad for our health, even if we exercise regularly.
Chances are your Fitbit can also receive text notifications.
If you have an Android phone (I have yet to find a way that works with iPhones) and want to work in time boxes, use an app like Pomodoro Timer and connect it via Fit Notifications with your Fitbit. That way, you can also keep track of your tasks and how many time boxes you spent on them.
If you have a Fitbit Charge 2 or Ionic, the workout interval trainer provides for another way of implementing timeboxing on your Fitbit.
Vibrating alerts are particularly useful, if you are wearing headphones or earmuffs to block out external noise. Read How You Can Improve Your Mental Performance by Blocking Noise if you feel bothered by excessive noise in your environment.
If you haven’t yet read it, here is my article with more ideas on timeboxing.