Looking to send your study productivity soaring? Look no further than the Pomodoro method: a powerful technique to stay motivated, avoid distraction, and get more done.
Francesco Cirillo is widely credited with coming up with the “Pomodoro method” concept in the late ‘80s, while he was a University student. In 2006, after a life spent helping students get the most out of the technique, he wrote a “bible” containing all his best-practice tips and for getting the most out of his Pomodoro study method.
Francesco’s original “bible” is a great read, but at 45 pages, it’s hefty – so here’s the TL;DR summary for your convenience. Whether you’re brand new to the Pomodoro method or a seasoned pro looking to take your skills to the next level, we’ve got you covered.
What is the Pomodoro technique for studying?
At its simplest:
You set a timer for a short, intense burst of work – say 25 minutes. This block of work is called a “Pomodoro”.
When the timer rings, you stop work and take a break – say 5-10 minutes.
Then you rest the timer and do it again.
The benefits of working in intense, timed bursts separated by breaks includes:
- Better motivation: bolster determination to achieve your goals by having an external motivator (the ticking clock) to get you fired up.
- Enhance focus and concentration, encouraging you to cut out interruptions and stay on task.
- Strengthen your determination to keep on trying even when you don’t feel like it, or the work is tough, because you can’t quite while the timer is ticking.
- Higher levels of energy and intensity because of the mild time-pressure, with breaks serving as opportunities to pause and refresh before going again.
Does the Pomodoro study method work?
I suspect it’s not for everyone. But for the rest of us, I believe it’s one of the most powerful ways to get more done in the same amount of time.
The scientific evidence on how well Pomodoro works is still at a relatively early stage, but recent research tested the effect of the Pomodoro method on software developers, and found the technique “dramatically” increased productivity as a result of fewer distractions.
I’ve also seen some fascinating anecdotal evidence for the positive impact of Pomodoro on writing or studying type tasks. For example the golf writer Lois Talagrand found a 60% improvement in the number of words he could write per hour when he used Pomodoro – up from 567 to 905 words per hour.
For more Pomodoro success stories, check out this collection of 32 tales from people that have used Pomodoro (scroll down enough, you might even spot me in there!).
How to use the Pomodoro technique for studying
Here are 8 things you need to know to start using the Pomodoro method of studying today.
1. How long to make Pomodoros?
“Pomodoros” are the individual blocks of work. Aim for a 20 – 35 minute session, 40 minutes at the most.
After a career spent training people to use the Pomodoro method, Francesco Cirillo reckons most people find 30 minutes best – find what works best for you with a little experimentation.
2. How long to make the breaks within a set?
Aim for 5-10 minutes between Pomodoros. Perhaps allow yourself a little longer if you’re tired.
As a bonus tip: try to avoid distraction during your break to maintain your ability to focus when you get back to your work. That means avoiding checking your phone or turning on the TV if you can help it: instead, try going for a short walk, making a cup of tea, looking out of the window and taking in the beautiful details of a tree or flower, or doing a few press-ups.
3. How long to make the breaks between sets?
A “set” is made up of 3-4 Pomodoro cycles of a work block followed by a short break. After finishing a set, you’ve earned yourself a longer break – up to 30 minutes.
If you’re tired, or having been working with high intensity, aim for the longer end of this to allow your brain to recharge.
4. How many sets a day?
For a full days work, most hardened Pomodoro method users aim for three or four “sets”. Given that each set is made up of three or four Pomodoro blocks, we’re talking 10-12 individual Pomodoros – not a bad work rate given you’re working with high focus and intensity during each Pomodoro.
5. What should I use for the timer?
Francesco Cirillo recommended a mechanical timer that you have to wind it up, thereby acting as a signal of your determination to focus. He also liked the audible ticking as it’s counting down, which he saw as a cue to keep your brain on-task.
Today, there are a huge number of electronic apps and timers out there, and many people prefer those. Personally, I use an app called Forest, which lets you grow a little tree every time you successfully complete a Pomodoro block.
6. Can I keep working once the timer rings?
Francesco says “no” – he’s pretty strict on it.
When the timer rings, he says, that’s it – stop work, even if you’re convinced that a couple of extra minutes would finish the task. Part of his rationale is that you need to have total respect for the timer: if you don’t respect it when it says “time to stop”, you’re less likely to respect it when it says “still time to focus”.
Personally, I’m a bit more relaxed about when I stop. If I’m in “flow” state and getting great work done, I’ll usually keep at it for as long as that spurt of focus lasts – maybe another 20 minutes. I spend a lot of my time writing, and as any writer knows, it’s hard to get into “the zone” where words fly easily out of your head onto your page, so when I do get into that zone, I don’t want to break the magic.
I suspect the strict implementation when you stop on the timer may work better for other types of less creative tasks. Experiment, and find what suits you best.
7. What if I finish early?
Francesco is pretty strict on this point too: no such thing as a part-Pomodoro, no such thing as moving on to a different task in the same Pomodoro. If you finish a task with time still on the clock for this Pomodoro block, do more on it.
Again, apply your judgement to this rule: if you have a pile of looking deadlines tomorrow, I’m sure Francesco wouldn’t mind if you got straight on with the next task on your list.
8. When you finish your Pomodoro block
Keep a tally of successful Pomodoro blocks for the day. Part of the satisfaction of a productive day using the Pomodoro method is seeing a nice tally of successful blocks building up on your tracking sheet.
If you didn’t finish your block because you got distracted, be strict with yourself: don’t count that as one of your successful blocks. See below section on “a productive day with the Pomodoro technique” for more on how to use your tracking sheet to help you stay on course.
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What to expect if you’re new to the Pomodoro method of studying
At first, even getting through a single Pomodoro in a day is an excellent result! Build up gradually from that until you’re putting in the amount of work you want each day.
Eventually, expect consistently sharper focus and concentration as you practise. You may also notice you develop a more acute sense of passing time. A few days in, new Pomodoro users often report starting to feel when they are halfway, or 5-minutes from the end of a 25-minute block, which helps you pace your concentration and stay on task.
If you have serious concentration issues – maybe because you have ADHD or similar symptoms that make it hard to focus, or because you suffer from serious anxieties around your work – you may need to start really slowly. At the extreme, that could be just 3-5 minutes in a single Pomodoro block, and only one or two Pomodoros for the whole day. It may not feel like much, but if it’s all you can do, take comfort that this is far better than nothing. With time and practice, you might find you can gradually increase the length and number of blocks you do each day.
A productive day with the Pomdoro technique
Here’s how to run a beautifully efficient day of studying using the Pomodoro method.
Start the day with a To Do sheet…
First, take a few minutes to write up what you want to do that day:
- List the activities you want to do
- Put check-boxes next to each activity for the number of Pomodoro blocks you expect the activity to take. For example, if you think your first task of the day will take 3 Pomodoro blocks (3 x 25 minutes), put 3 blank check-boxes next to the task.
As you complete Pomodoro blocks…
Tick off a box every time you complete a successful Pomodoro. Use Francesco’s suggested notation to track how your expectations compare to reality for the number of Pomodoros needed per task.
- Tick off the check boxes next to the relevant task.
- If you need fewer Pomodoro blocks than you’d guessed for a task, leave the unused check boxes blank.
- If you need more time, add extra check boxes with a different box shape, maybe round circles rather than squares.
At the end of the day…
Make a note of where your estimates of how long each task would take compared to reality. Did you over or under-estimate?
This helps you to estimate the time needed for each task more accurately next time, and run increasingly efficient Pomodoro schedules in future.
Cutting out the interruptions
One of the biggest benefits of the Pomodoro method is reducing distractions.
Here’s how to make the most of this crucial advantage of the Pomodoro method.
Cutting out internal interruptions…
Keep a list for “unplanned and urgent” tasks: if one of these pops into your mind, write it down on this list, and get back to your Pomodoro with renewed intensity.
Go back over this list in your longer breaks – some of them (like ordering pizza, getting more stationary, shopping for groceries) could be done as part of a break. Others may need scheduling as a Pomodoro or two later in the day, or another day. Some you may decide you can strike off altogether!
Dialling down external interruptions…
Ideally, tell the person you’re in the middle of something (make a joke of it if you want – “can’t talk now dude, I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro”) and catch up in 25 minutes, or a few hours, depending on how urgent it was.
If a Pomodoro absolutely has to be interrupted, either due to human weakness or a real emergency, there’s only one thing to do: void the Pomodoro with a dash in your check box. (Yes, even if it’s just about to ring!). The next Pomodoro will go better.
Distractions are the devil, you have to conquer them…
The Pomodoro method of studying is one of the most effective ways to improve your focus when studying, and improve your productivity.
Distractions are one of the most harmful things for study productivity, I’ve written at length about the harm they’re doing to your ability to get your work done, and specific tactics you can use to eliminate them. Read my ultimate guide to maximising your study efficiency by becoming indistractible, and start getting your work done even faster today.
Have fun with your Pomodoros and good luck!