Lately, I’ve been really into the idea of open source sharing, and of creating an external memory of things I do. I figure, if I put a lot of effort into something, whether that’s submitting to lit mags, paying down debt, developing healthy habits, or creating lesson plans for my students, why not put in a tiny bit more effort to share my work and findings? That way all the energy I expended will benefit more people than just me.
Anyway, that’s why I am reviewing Pomodoro Timer apps and in the near future will review Habit apps. Sometimes, I have a lot of trouble concentrating. I have anxiety, and my anxiety can lead to overwhelm and procrastination. I have fibromyalgia, and that sometimes includes dyscognition or fibro fog that makes it difficult for me to focus or figure out the best way to spend my time. But from what I’ve found talking to peers and students, everyone has trouble concentrating at times, even people without anxiety and periods of dyscognition. That’s why I’ve become a bit of a Pomodoro evangelist. Essentially, you just have to learn to concentrate on a single task for 25 minutes at a time and your productivity will skyrocket. ( This video explains it all.) I’ve found using this techniques help reduce procrastination, which means I do more writing, grading, and submitting in shorter periods of time.
You don’t need an app to use the Pomodoro technique. For years, I used kitchen timers or the default timer on my phone. I thought an app might be able to streamline things, and provide me more with more structure. I thought with an app I might be able to more easily track how many Pomodoros I’d done, and better estimate how many Pomodoros certain tasks require. I also thought I’d be less likely to take longer breaks or stray from my goals with an app. I was right on all accounts, and 100% recommend using an app to track your Pomodoros if you’re using the Pomodoro technique.
I tried out seven free Pomodoro timer apps. I have settled on one: Focus To-Do. Keep reading to find out what these free Pomodoro timer apps have to offer.
Focus Keeper is simple and straightforward. It’s perfect for people who want to use the Pomodoro technique and keep track of how many Pomodoros they complete, but don’t need to track how they spent those sessions.
The main screen is a large timer. The default times are set to what is recommended in the Pomodoro technique: 25-minute focus sessions followed by 5-minute breaks, with a 15-minute long break after every four focus sessions. There’s a default goal of 12 sessions per day. You can only change these numbers with the Pro version. The app tracks statistics on your number of sessions, but you can only view the last three days of data in the free version.
I would only recommend this app if you want a free, simple app. If you want the ability to change the times of your session, or need to view more detailed usage stats, you could use another app instead of upgrading this one to Pro.
At the free level, Focus operates almost identically to Focus Keeper, although it has a different look. The main screen is a timer. The default times are in line with the standard Pomodoro technique, except the long break is 20 minutes. You can adjust all times in the free version, which is an advantage over Focus Keeper.
The Pro version opens up the ability to tie your Pomodoros to Tasks, and will show you usage statistics. These are cool features, but the price tag is high at $4.99/month. If there’s something that justifies this price tag, I couldn’t find it.
My recommendation with this app is similar to that of Focus Keeper: if you want a free, simple Pomodoro app and like the look of this one, it will do the job. If you’re wanting to pay for more features, keep looking. It’s over-priced and there are better options out there.
MultiTimer is a really cool, and dare I say, beautiful app. As soon as I opened it, I wanted it to be “the one.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t meet my needs. While it allows complete flexibility in terms of timer time-lengths, it doesn’t allow organization of timers by Task or Project (though the Pro version does offer different “Boards,” which I think would be most useful if you use a different set of timers in different contexts or locations).
MultiTimer wasn’t specifically created for use with the Pomodoro technique. It is essentially a timer app for people who appreciate minimalist design and want more than their iPhone’s default timer provides. Honestly, I won’t be surprised if Apple rips this off and we see multiple timers in a future iOS update. It’s just that cool.
The default background is dark, but I switched that immediately. I know they save battery, but dark backgrounds are so hard on my eyes. Even though I won’t use the MultiTimer for Pomodoro stuff, I kept it on my phone because I suspect I’ll think of a good use soon. It’d be a good way to track how I spend time (stats require Pro version, though), and to navigate general time management throughout the day. It’d also be useful whenever I want different timers at once, for example, when cooking. I’m curious to see how creative people are using this app. It’s so simple and customizable that I bet many are using it for interesting purposes that I haven’t thought of yet.
When I first opened FlowTimer, I was excited. It has an intuitive, minimalist design I enjoy. Activities can be organized by Projects and Tasks, which I’ve decided is a must for me. At first glance I thought I had found “the one.” Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The FlowTimer timer lengths are the Pomodoro basic times. In the free version, you can control the length of work sessions, short breaks, and long breaks, but you cannot change the number of sessions until a long break without upgrading to Pro. The default daily goal is eight work sessions, which also cannot be adjusted without upgrading.
There are two color options in the free version–a seafoam green and taupe (bleh). You cannot change sound types in the free version. And–the kicker for me–you cannot change the timer face. The default timer does not contain numbers, just an image of a timer that moves as the time counts down. This is a good app with many features, but I want to be able to glance over and see exactly how many minutes and seconds I have remaining. I’m not willing to pay $3.99 just to see that number.
Flat Tomato came really close to being the app for me, but ultimately, it had too much going on and was a little too confusing to navigate. What stood out immediately was the timer itself–it is the only one I’ve seen that is superimposed on the face of a clock with the actual time, so as the 25 minutes count down, you also see what time it is. Pretty cool feature. The app also has Projects and Tasks, which I want. It even has Plans, which appear to be the equivalent of Sub-Tasks.
The interface for Projects is very similar to the interface in ToDoist. Flat Tomato integrates with ToDoist, which could be a draw to many people, myself included. The app also integrates with iPhone calendar, iPhone reminders, and Evernote, but those aren’t tools I regularly use.
You can select a goal number of Pomodoros for each task–something FlowTimer doesn’t offer–and also color-code Tasks and assign them an identifying letter. There’s a detailed journal available for recording notes and rating the work quality of each day. The free version of this app has so many features the other free versions of Pomodoro timers do not have, I hesitate to write anything bad about it. Yet, I must explain why I didn’t go with this app.
There are some weird things going on. There’s a free version, a paid version, and POMOs. It took me a while to understand POMOs, and I still don’t know if I fully grasp them. Basically they are a form of credit that you can buy with money and/or earn by using the app. When you get certain amounts, you can cash them in for customization features such as different color schemes, sounds, and timer faces. I thought the gear icon in the lower left corner would naturally take me to the main app settings, but it leads to a POMO shop of sorts, which became irritating each time I mistakenly tapped it. I would never buy POMOs, nor would earning them incentivize me to complete more Pomodoros, so I found them a nuisance.
There was a trailing shadow on the screen whenever I tapped it, which seems to be for aesthetics only. I found it irritating, and it took me a while to find where to turn it off. There were also sounds I found irritating and turned off. Turning the timer on and off to engage in a Pomodoro session wasn’t intuitive, nor was finding the instructions to do so. Once I started a timer, I had trouble stopping it. For those reasons, I wouldn’t recommend this app to someone who wants to download a simple Pomodoro timer app and get to work instantly.
This app is best for people who want a variety of features in a free app, and don’t mind spending a bit of time up front becoming accustomed to the interface and setting things up to fit their preferences. Note that while there are many options here, you must buy Pro if you want to set up reminders or use the “state” option, which I think is akin to “labels” in Todoist.
Flat Tomato could very well be the best Pomodoro app of this bunch in terms of features, but I just didn’t like aspects of the design, and design is important to me.
Be Focused (iOS)
Be Focused is the Pomodoro app I was using prior to this search for the best Pomodoro app. I’ve been using it a few months, and can’t remember how I chose it; it was probably the first decent-looking app that came up in the app store when I searched. After conducting my research, I was happy to realize that it was a good choice, and is one of the most fleshed out free Pomodoro apps available.
Be Focused looks like simpler apps such as Focus and Focus Keeper at first, and it operates similarly. The advantage with Be Focused is the addition of Tasks, for free, putting it on the level of FlowTimer and Flat Tomato. You can view usage stats in the free version, and if you do decide to upgrade, it’s only $1.99, making this a good option.
It’s a good app, and I am glad I had it, but our time together had to end. There’s an ad at the bottom of the screen, which bothers me, and focus sessions regularly end with pop ups urging you to buy the Pro version. I understand that app developers deserve to make money, but if the free version of your app is irritating to me, guess what? I’m not going to pay for Pro. I prefer to be guided to the Pro version with a carrot of delight, not with a stick of irritation. Also, I want a Pomodoro app that has not only Tasks, but also Projects, which this does not.
Ah, my sweet friend, Focus To-Do. The free version has more features than any other free Pomodoro timer app I could find in the app store. Not only that, the interface is clean and attractive.
The main screen of Focus To-Do is a simple timer, like many of the other apps. The free version allows access to a few color schemes–the screen changes to a different color during breaks, which is unique. When you exit out of the timer screen, you have access to Projects and Tasks. You can add due dates to Tasks and view them by due date rather than by Project, if you prefer. The interface for Projects and Tasks looks very similar to the ToDoist interface. (Because of this I emailed them asking if they think they’ll ever integrate with ToDoist. Response: “Nope.”)
The individual Task screens also look similar to Task screens in ToDoist. In addition to due date and Project, you may assign a priority (out of four priority levels). If you pay for Pro, you may also assign reminders to Tasks, and set Tasks to be repeating. There is a free Sub-Task option, too, which made me excited at first, but after a while, I realized I probably won’t use it. Finally, you may add notes to each Task, for free.
Focus To-Do offers detailed stats that you can view in terms of how many Pomodoros you’ve completed, and which Tasks you’ve worked on.
How happy I am to have found the Focus To-Do app! Since I’m using ToDoist to manage my to-do list, there is still part of me feeling tempted by Flat Tomato and it’s enviable ToDoist integration. Still, I’ve decided to jump in and embrace Focus To-Do. I prefer the design, interface, and features, and I don’t think the Flat Tomato/ToDoist integration is as deep as I’m wanting (I believe toggl would allow the deep integration I want, but it’s $9/month paid annually and that’s just not worth it to me at this point). Also, the purpose of this whole endeavor is for me to better focus and get work done, and writing about timer apps is not the work I’m trying to get done, so I had to just make a choice. I’ve decided to stick to Focus To-Do for one year, and then reevaluate.
I considered moving all of my to-do list to Focus To-Do and giving up ToDoist entirely, which would be another way to keep everything in one place, but am not quite ready to take that leap. It would require buying the Pro version (to be able to set tasks as recurring–a major reason I use ToDoist in the first place). That isn’t a huge deal, but since Focus To-Do doesn’t allow me to import or export Projects and Tasks, I wouldn’t want to manually input everything unless I knew for certain I was going to stick with it for the very long term. Another reason I don’t want to give up ToDoist entirely is Focus To-Do doesn’t have a web-based interface. You can download a desktop app if you want to use it from a laptop, but I want to be able to view all of my to-do list online, from any device or browser. So, I will continue using ToDoist to manage my to-do list, and Focus To-Do to manage the time I spend working on those items.
Side note: This process did push me to think more about how I manage my to-do list, and I realized I was really putting to-do list items in five (!) places: ToDoist, Google Tasks, Trello, Passion Planner (paper), and on blank sheets of paper. I decided to consolidate; I moved everything in Google Tasks and Trello over to ToDoist, and vowed to stop writing regular ole to-do lists on paper. So now, I will use ToDoist as the exhaustive list of all my tasks. My Passion Planner will be where I block out my time, and list what Project or Task is the main priority of each day/week/month, but I will no longer use it for listing detailed tasks and sub-tasks. Focus To-Do will contain only the Projects and Tasks I will do using the Pomodoro technique, and I won’t list exhaustive sub-tasks or attach due dates to items there–that’s what ToDoist is for.
I know this might sound complicated, but I think it will be much simpler than the messy, slapdash approach I’ve been using. I’m excited to try it, and I will report back later. If you try out any of these apps, or have already tried them, please comment with your thoughts!