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This column will change your life: Is self-discipline the key to success?

I've had numerous readers asking about self control and discipline over the past 6 months and it seems to work.

It's with all this in mind that I've been testing the Pomodoro Technique, a productivity method that has recently achieved quasi-cult status online. Its originator, Francisco Cirillo, has been teaching it for 10 years, but it has now spawned several web-based fan groups and at least three iPhone apps. Adherents use words such as “godsend” to describe its effect on their ability to focus. In truth, it's unmiraculous, but then so are most genuinely useful things.

Here's what you do: you pick a task, then set a timer – a tool celebrated previously in this space – for 25 minutes, no exceptions. Cirillo uses a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato, and is Italian, hence “pomodoro”. Work. When it rings, stop for five minutes. Repeat three more times, then take a longer break. That's just about it. Yet it works.

Half of all those reading that last paragraph will blink in confusion: “Why do you need a technique? Why can't you just do stuff?” But the rest of us know that such tricks can be hugely effective, slowly strengthening the self-discipline muscle. They are, literally, tricks: the ticking clock takes an internal desire to get something done and fools some part of the brain into thinking it's external, that the clock must be obeyed. (Stopping dead at 25 minutes also creates useful momentum for starting again five minutes later.) Even the hokey language – Cirillo calls each 25-minute period a pomodoro – helps, by making the time-blocks seem like “things”, out in the world. Another geeky productivity scheme with an online following, Autofocus achieves something similar using cleverly structured to-do lists to “force” the user to confront the tasks they've resolutely been avoiding.

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