If you have ever happened to google the terms ‘study’, ‘productivity’, or ‘efficient’ at all in the last several years you may have come across the term ‘Pomodoro Method’. Named after the Italian word for Tomato, this 25 minutes on five minutes off study and productivity technique derives from the use of a tomato-shaped timer and is hailed as the ultimate productivity and focusing technique. The darling of app developers, study groups, StudyTube icons, and more, the Pomodoro technique is supposed to improve focus, concentration, and efficiency and make studying and work so much easier…
Except for when it doesn’t.
While the Pomodoro technique and modified Pomodoro methods are favored by CEOs and Productivity gurus’, education professionals have long since warned that this system has some pretty serious flaws when it comes to developing long term study habits, particularly when pushed to the strictest interpretation of 25 minutes on / 5 minutes off intervals. Certain types of study simply require more immersive time spent in order to be truly productive. But before we look at all the things the Pomodoro technique got wrong, lets look at a few good starting points.
What Pomodoro got Right
Clear Your Work Space
While not necessarily included in the original iteration of the Pomodoro method, creating a clean and functional work space has been a key part of this system since it’s adoption by social media. But what does that actually mean?
Wherever you are going to do your work, whether that is at a desk or a family dining room table, a coffee shop, or a park, clear the immediate surface of everything that you don’t need immediately accessible to do your work. To avoid getting distracted by cleaning, just set everything aside in an empty bin or laundry basket and resolve to go through it later. (Just make sure that old coffee mug is ACTUALLY empty before you do so).
Beyond having a clean and functional work surface, it’s also important to remove anything and everything that you might possibly be tempted or distracted by. This could be as simple as putting your phone on vibrate. Or it could mean putting your phone on charge in the next room so that you have to actually walk past your spouse or roommates or family members to retrieve it.
Use headphones to play either lo-fi or ambient music soundtracks. There are entire playlists on YouTube dedicated to white noise, focus, and studying. The next time you’re bored flip through a few and save them for when you need them. Or use noise-canceling headphones so you hear nothing at all.
Talk with your family and let them know that you really need to focus now. Set up a signal for times when you’re working so that they can (hopefully) respect your privacy and let you get some work done undisturbed.
Create a Prioritized Focus List
The Pomodoro method starts by creating an itemized focus list, usually organized by priority. It is detailed, it is task-oriented, and it is meant to keep you on task by preventing you from flipping through your agenda or to-do list in between each session to consider what you should tackle next.
Each item should be a specific task. So if your main priority is studying for a History test, one task could be ‘Outline Chapter Nine’ or ‘Review Vocabulary Terms’. Simple, specific, and task-oriented. That is what we are aiming for with these lists.
Other aspects of the Pomodoro technique can help psychologically, even if they aren’t actually that conducive to big changes in your ability to focus.
Reduce Decision Strain
Often times students, younger students in particular, will get stuck trying to figure out what they should be doing next. Going through your agenda and creating an organized list at the start not only prevents you from forgetting assignments (hopefully) but also limits the number of decisions you need to make in between assignments.
Decision strain is something that psychologists like to refer to when a person is just so mentally tapped they can’t make a decision one way or another. It’s also part of why mourning routines can be so helpful. Removing the number of decisions that need to be made at the moment can help improve flow, increase your momentum, and keep you going.
Time Blocking vs. Project Blocking
So often when we were kids we were told to start on an assignment and just keep going until it’s done. But, as it turns out, this is not the most efficient way to do things. Often times students can get stuck in a rut and develop mental blocks for a certain subject. They put in increasing effort for less and less reward. The recognized version of this in the working world is well known – it’s called Burnout.
Organizing your study time into time blocks rather than by project helps to prevent this. Especially with studying which, as we mentioned when talking about creating a focused project list, you are never really done with.
One of the key parts of this system is learning to trust the clock. What I mean by that is that you are able to eliminate all other factors, all other distractions, and you no longer have to worry about what else you have to do because the clock will tell you when it is time to move on. This may sound silly to some adults but it is a powerful focus technique when it comes to studying and has a definite positive impact on most students.
Removing Start Barriers
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is just sitting down to get started. Having a regular study routine or habit can help with this over the long term. By having an itemized list of what you need to do and trusting the timer knowing that you won’t need to be working on this forever, this can help many students to jump that first and highest of hurdles and just get started.
So far it sounds like I’m agreeing with the Pomodoro technique overall. And there’s a reason for that.
It’s a good system.
Where Pomodoro Gets it Wrong
Where it falls apart for myself, educators, and many students, particularly younger students, is in the timings and the strict interpretation of the Pomodoro system.
Ideal Focus Times
Some tasks simply require more time than others. Sticking to a strict 25-minute time slot per task is a great way to jar students out of a reading assignment, or frustrated those who are stuck on a project and making no progress. By interpreting Pomodoro time slots in their strictest sense you are overlooking the original intentions of the system; to prioritize work, maximize focus, and reduce barriers.
One of the biggest advantages of using something like Pomodoro to train your brain to use time blocks instead of completed tasks. This is a huge resource because, as many students will note, you are never really done studying. So focusing on completing a task that can never be completed is a really great way to set yourself up for aggravation and burnout.
But if your tasks are inherently incompatible with 25 or 20-minute sessions, the repeated early finishing of tasks or the regular requirement for more time to make any real progress can actually have an adverse effect. Part of Pomodoro is learning to trust the clock, keeping your head down and focused because the timer will let you know when it is time to switch gears.
Do you remember going to school and having a teacher assign a warm-up exercise or problem at the beginning of class? Something short but that needed your focus and attention? There was a reason for that.
Studies have repeatedly shown that short mental exercises can vastly improve your ability to focus and concentrate over longer periods of time. Likewise, as class drags on, teachers will often switch gears again for the last few minutes of class, usually to give homework assignments, but also to review other material.
This constant switching is a training technique for improving neuroplasticity. True neuroplasticity is a biological process which your 7th grade math teacher has absolutely no influence over. The the idea of neruoplasticity from an education standpoint relies on the idea of being able to switch from topic to topic very quickly without any loss in focus on processing speed and is often crucial in developing critical thinking skills.
1:2:1 The Magic Ratio
When I first started using this system, I called it 20/40. And that is because those are the timings that worked best for me. I would alternate twenty and forty-minute chunks of time dedicated to different subjects with only short breaks for bathroom, snacks, coffee and stretching in between. I would usually get through about three of these, a 20, a 40 and a 20 again, before I needed a longer break.
But with the girls I tutor, twenty minutes was just way too long when they were younger. The homework had begun piling up and anxiety was playing a serious roll in this as well, so we would pull out an assignment, sit down, and work for ten minutes to see how far we got. Spoiler alert – it was usually pretty far. We’d take a break for a quick snack and then start a longer one, this time twenty minutes. Then another break and a final ten.
Often times I would need to repeat this process, so we’d start a round of homework, 10/20/10, before dinner and follow up with another after dinner if needed. This is also the system I use when studying for advanced subjects like Organic Chemistry. I’ll do a round of 20/40/20 with short breaks earlier in the afternoon, and follow up with another round in the evening so I have plenty of time to relax in between.
Switching back and forth between subjects prevented them, and me, from getting burned out by diminishing returns. It also gave us the opportunity to both start and end on a high note by getting some out of the way early and wrapping up last minute things quickly. After a while, the anxiety that surrounded homework started to fade and switching subjects after a set amount of time just became the normal practice for both me and them.
Whatever timings work for you may be different depending on your age, subject matter, or even the type of assignment. I do warn against going over 40 minutes, as most people’s attention span can rarely be sustained over that period of time.
Maybe 1:2:1 will solve any lingering problems you had with Pomodoro. Maybe you never had any problems with Pomodoro to begin with, which is great! If it works for you, keep going.
Finding a system that works for you can take a lifetime and will change as you grow and discover new interests. But the open conversation and growing number of resources available that are recognizing the power of systems and routines for focus are hugely helpful in finding one that works for you. So if you have a system that works, stick with it. If you are still struggling at all, I recommend checking out these guys below for some really great study and productivity routines;
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