Learning Success with a Pomodoro: What is Your Ideal Study Time?

25 Minute Pomodoro Timer

By Pat Bowden, published July 25, 2017.

In the 1980s, an Italian named Francesco Cirillo invented a technique to improve productivity. Students, musicians, writers and people in many other fields have since found they can achieve more and get better results in less overall time.

It’s called “The Pomodoro Technique”.

The basic premise is simple: set a timer, originally a kitchen timer looking like a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) for 25 minutes and concentrate deeply on a particular task for that time. When the pomodoro rings, take a five minute break to do something else. Stand up, walk around, have a quick drink or snack, then off you go for another 25 minutes concentration. After no more than four pomodoros or two hours worth, have a longer break, say 15 to 30 minutes.

Using the pomodoro can help you stick to the task and complete your course more quickly.

How to do it.

Many people find it hard to get started on a big task because they know it will take a long time. By breaking it up into half-hour blocks, it can be easier to tell yourself that you only need to spend 25 minutes at a time. Block off your calendar and start your first pomodoro of the day. By the time you have finished the first pomodoro, you are often well into the task and can find it fairly easy to complete another Pomodoro. Marking off each pomodoro as you complete it can also help you feel that you are making progress.

If 25 minutes feels too long, start with a shorter time and build up gradually. Everyone’s different, so finding your optimum concentration time makes sense.

If you don’t already own a timer, there are plenty of pomodoro apps with a range of features, both free and for a small cost. Just remember to turn off other distracting notifications if you’re using your phone. A crucial part of deep concentration relies on having no distractions. Close your email and social media windows or apps. Shut the door and tell your workmates or family that you are not to be disturbed. The only exception is a fire in the building! Unless it’s a real emergency, people really can wait half an hour or even half a day for your attention. Of course, if you are primary carer for an infant or invalid you may need to arrange your pomodoro time for when someone else can cover for your duties.

If you think of something that needs attention, jot it down quickly and then go straight back to your study, so you’re not distracted by having to remember it.

The Pomodoro site recommends estimating how many pomodoros you need for particular projects. I haven’t progressed far in that direction, but find that I can achieve more by concentrating on the task at hand and minimising distractions. My attention span isn’t great, but when I know that in less than half an hour I’ll be able to take a short break to do something else, it’s easier to stick to the task than thinking I have to master a whole topic or write a long assignment in one marathon session.

Why move around in your break?

Studies have shown that sitting for long periods can lead to increased risk of type II diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and perhaps even decreases in brain function. Health experts recommend at least 30 minutes of exercise most days for better health both now and in your future. Standing up or walking briskly around for five minutes every half hour adds up over the day, and will make a useful dent in that 30 minutes of exercise. My post on food, exercise and rest has some more ideas to fit exercise into your day.

Using your break to move around isn’t compulsory, but many pomodoro users find physical activity helpful to give both the brain and the body a change. Some people use their breaks to check emails or social media, but it can be annoying having to stop after only five minutes. Putting these off until your longer breaks can help you get back to the task at hand more easily.

Fans and Detractors

Daphne Gray-Grant is a high achieving writing coach who finds the pomodoro useful, and describes her experience here.

Some critics feel that it’s too rigid. Mike Vardy hates being interrupted by the timer while in “the zone”.

Barbara Oakley, who has produced two very popular online courses (“Learning How to Learn” and “Mindshift”) is a big fan of pomodoros. She believes they are useful to both avoid procrastination and to allow the brain to switch from the focussed mode of deep concentration to the diffuse mode that allows the brain to consolidate ideas into larger chunks before settling in for the next session of concentrated thought. Barbara explains how it works in this article in Harvard Business Review.

A Final Thought

Studying with a pomodoro takes only half an hour at a time. Is it for you? Try it and share your experience in the comments section below.