Looking to send your study productivity soaring? Look no further than the Pomodoro Study Method: the wildly popular time-management technique that will help you:
- Stay motivated
- Avoid distractions
- Stay focused
- And get more done!
Francesco Cirillo is widely credited with coming up with the “Pomodoro method” concept in the late 1980s, while he was a university student. In 2006, after a lifetime 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 Study Method or a seasoned pro looking to take your skills to the next level, we’ve got you covered.
If you’d prefer to listen to this masterclass on the Pomodoro Technique, it’s now available as an episode of the Exam Study Expert Podcast. Listen right here in your browser, or follow the links to your favourite podcast app:
What is the Pomodoro Technique For Studying?
“Discovered” by Italian student Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Study Method is a time management technique that involves using a timer to time short, intense work sessions, traditionally 25 minutes long. When the time is up, you take a short break, typically 5 minutes, before resetting the timer and repeating the cycle.
Here’s how to use the Pomodoro Method for studying, at its simplest:
- Step 1: Set a timer for a short, intense burst of work on a single task. Many opt for a 25-minute session, but some go shorter (e.g. 15 mins), some go longer (e.g. 50 mins).
- Step 2: Give that task your undivided attention while the timer is ticking – no distractions!
- Step 3: When the time’s up, take a 5-minute break – or perhaps a little longer if you’re choosing longer work sessions.
- Step 4: Reset your timer, and repeat Steps 1-3!
Each block of work is called a “Pomodoro”.
If you’re wondering where the name comes from, “Pomodoro” is the Italian word for tomato, because when Francesco originally came up with the technique, he used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato to time his study sessions.
Hence “Pomodoro Method”!
I will use Pomodoro Method and Pomodoro Technique interchangeably in this article. Some even call it the “tomato study method”!
Pomodoro productivity technique for studying: short bursts of maybe 20-35 minutes, separated by 5-10 minute breaks
So, is the Pomodoro Technique effective for studying?
This all sounds great, but does the Pomodoro Technique actually WORK?
Well, I’m going to have to level with you: this article’s a bit tricky for me. Normally, the techniques I teach have MOUNTAINS of cognitive psychology data sitting behind them, and I can reel off any number of well-regarded research studies that prove the technique is massively helpful.
I can’t do that with the Pomodoro Study Method, because barely any psychologists have spent their time studying it.
Come on science.
Get it together.
I actually find it really surprising , because the technique is so popular among so many students, as well as professional writers, programmers, and anyone else who has to deal with getting large tasks done within a sea of mostly unstructured time.
So until all the Pomodoro technique studies start flooding out – and I reckon it’s only a matter of time – let me quote Barbara Oakley PhD. She’s the creator of the world-famous Learning How To Learn course, which has been taken by over 1 million students:
“The Pomodoro technique is probably one of the most powerful techniques in all of learning.”Barbara Oakley, PhD
And that’s based on feedback from literally thousands of people who’ve taken her course: she says Pomodoro technique is the most popular she teaches.
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.
What are the benefits of the Pomodoro Technique?
So, what’s the magic behind the Pomodoro Study Method?
Well, I’d summarise 5 main benefits that come from the combination of timed short bursts of work and regular breaks:
1. It helps you stop procrastinating and get started
So often we can get trapped in procrastination because the task we’re about to start is daunting in some way. Perhaps it’s a big project, like a major essay, or a long test prep programme, or perhaps it looks hard, like a set of tough math problems. But the Pomodoro Method switches your focus from accomplishing a task to simply going through the process.
All you need to do is work the task for 25 minutes and you’ll have achieved what you set out to do.
2. Strengthens your determination to keep on trying…
… even when you don’t feel like it, or the work is tough! You can’t quit while the timer is ticking.
In other words, the Pomodoro Technique doesn’t only help you start, it also keeps you going once you’re in motion.
3. You can work with higher intensity
Bolster determination to achieve your goals by having an external motivator (the ticking clock) to get you fired up. Many people find their energy levels feel higher when they’re only working for small sessions under mild time pressure. The regular breaks serving as opportunities to pause and refresh before going again.
4. Helps you cut out distractions
The Pomodoro Technique encourages you to cut out any sources of interruption and stay on task. Distractions will be easier to resist if you’re on a Pomodoro.
You might also find you prioritise your time better, working on elements of the task that help you make the biggest progress in the time you’ve got remaining. Less time wasted getting sucked down rabbit holes!
5. And finally, the breaks refresh your energy and focus:
For cognitively-demanding tasks, it’s hard to stay focused for too long. By taking short breaks regularly, you give your brain a chance to rest a moment and reset, before going again. That helps you keep your productivity up for longer throughout the day.
Is the Pomodoro Study Method For Me?
I think the world divides into 3 camps on whether they like studying with the Pomodoro Technique:
Type A: Pomodoro Always
For others, they love it, and run their entire lives by it.
Type B: Pomodoro Never
There are people for whom the whole concept is abhorrent, no matter what they try. Before you write yourself off in this category, check out the 9 practical considerations in my masterclass below to make sure you’re using the technique properly!
Type C: Pomodoro Sometimes
Then there’s a group in the middle, who sometimes find it useful, sometimes not.
I’m in this camp. For me, I use the Pomodoro technique to:
- Get me through when I’m procrastinating on particularly important tasks that I really don’t fee like doing
- Kickstarting my productivity when it’s low, perhaps when I’m having a low-energy day
- After I’m returning to work after a vacation or time off, and I’m having a little more trouble than normal to get fired up
My best advice would be that if you haven’t tried it, give it a go!
Keep reading for the 9 things you need to know about the Pomodoro Study Method to make it REALLY work for you.
Get more study hacks with my free cheat sheet: the smarter way to ace your exams and assignments this year.
Pomodoro Masterclass: How To Use The Pomodoro Technique For Studying
Here are 9 things you need to know to start using the Pomodoro method of studying today.
1. How long to make the Pomodoro work sessions?
Remember, one “pomodoro” is one fixed-length block of work, the time you go for before taking a break.
“25 minutes” is the most commonly-talked-about timing, but there’s no special magic to 25 minutes.
Remember Francesco Cirillo the creator of the technique? He reckons most people find around 30 minutes best, based on a career spent teaching the Pomodoro Study Method.
Personally, I often go for an hour, of just shy of that – 50 minutes perhaps.
Really, this one comes down to finding what works best for you with a little experimentation.
2. Taking effective frequent breaks with the Pomodoro Technique
Between each Pomodoro, you take a break.
- 5-minute breaks work well for shorter Pomodoro sessions of e.g. 25-minutes
- 10-minute breaks may be better for longer work sessions, of e.g. 50 minutes.
What you do in your breaks matters. If you can, try to avoid anything your brain will find too distracting.
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.
After finishing a set of 3 or 4 Pomodoros, you’ve earned yourself a longer break – maybe 20-30 minutes.
That isn’t to say 30 minutes is the longest you should ever have away from your books. I would expect and encourage you to take longer breaks than that at various points in the day, to eat, exercise and rest.
3. How many Pomodoros should I do in a day?
This is a variant on one of my all-time-most asked questions: how much should I work for.
Well, if you’re fortunate enough to have the time, the energy and the focus to be able to put in a solid routine every day, hardened Pomodoro Study Method users might aim for three or four “sets” in a day.
A set consists of the three or four individual 25 / 30 minute Pomodoro blocks before having a longer break. So we’re talking maybe a dozen individual Pomodoros through the day.
12 or so 30-minute Pomodoros – 6 hours of work not counting breaks.
That’s a pretty impressive output given you’re working with high focus and intensity during each Pomodoro!
As I’ve already said, that may be unrealistic goal for all kinds of reasons, so don’t worry if that doesn’t feel within reach.
4. What should I use for my pomodoro study 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 Pomodoro apps and timers out there, and many people prefer those.
I use an app called Forest, which lets you grow a little tree every time you successfully complete a Pomodoro block.
5. 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” (see Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2002) 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. When I do get into that zone, I don’t want to break the magic!
Personally, I use the strict implementation when you stop on the timer for more mechanical tasks. For creative work like writing, I’m more likely to ignore the stop time if I’m in flow.
Experiment, and find what suits you best.
6. How should I organise my tasks using the Pomodoro Study Method?
Francesco was pretty strict about doing one single task per Pomodoro block – no more.
Of course, you can absolutely take more than one Pomodoro to finish a task, but he wasn’t a fan of moving on to a new task in the same Pomodoro.
He’d say that if you finish a task with time still on the clock for this Pomodoro block, do more on it.
Personally, this is another area I’d apply a bit of judgement. If I have a pile of looming deadlines tomorrow, I’d probably crack straight on with the next task on my list as soon as one is finished.
Start the day with few minutes to draw up a to-do list:
- List the activities you want to do that day. Divide up a big project into smaller tasks as far as you can.
- 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.
7. How to maintain the momentum consistently, for the long term?
Francesco recommends keeping 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.
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.
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.
Don’t worry: the next will go better!
8. Dealing with interruptions on the Pomodoro Study Method
There are two different sources of interruptions, with two different solutions.
“Internal” distractions: your own brain’s mental noise
One source is your own brain chattering away with thoughts about things you need to do, or things it wants to worry about.
The solution for these internal interruptions is simple, but powerful: write them down on a “distractions list”. Once they’re written down, your head will be clear and more able to focus on the task at hand.
Some may be “to do” type items you can deal with on one of your longer breaks.
Some may be things to worry about later.
And others may simply be things you’re worrying about that have no concrete action. Write them down anyway, it will help!
What about external interruptions?
Start by controlling what you can control.
Turning the phone off is a good place to start! Unless you’re using a Pomodoro app, in which case, put it on airplane or “do not disturb” mode. Or log out of social media.
OK, but what about friends or – God forbid – family members dropping by your desk?
One approach is to brush the person off if you can. Make light of it if you want, “dude, I can’t talk now – I’m in the middle of a Pomodoro”!
If a Pomodoro absolutely has to be interrupted, sorry, but you don’t get to count it towards your tally of successful Pomodoros for the day.
Fret not; the next Pomodoro will go better!
9. What can you expect when you first start using the Pomodoro Study Method?
It’s possible that the first few minutes will feel tough, especially if you were feeling a lot of resistance to the particular task you were working on.
You look at the clock and see “only two minutes” down!
But you see there’s a break coming up now in a little over 20 minutes.
Really not that long in the grand scheme of things! And besides, you’re on the clock – you don’t want to let yourself down.
So you keep going, and you finish a full Pomodoro.
At The Extreme: Pomodoro For ADHD & Other Work Challenges
Of course, if you have more serious concentration issues, you may need to start even more gradually than that. Maybe you have ADHD or similar symptoms that make it hard to focus, or because you suffer from serious anxieties around your work.
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.
Whatever your starting point, you’ll be able to build up the length and number of Pomodoros you’re doing each day until you’re happy with your study routine.
As you practise, expect to gradually feel sharper focus and deeper concentration – Pomodoro practitioners often feel the technique is effectively training their brain to stay on-task when it’s supposed to be.
And as an interesting by-product, 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. This helps you pace yourself with the work you’re doing.]
If all this is very new to you, even getting through a single Pomodoro in a day might be a great result. The secret is to gradually build up. See here for more on the science of changing habits.
Stay consistent, and you’ll be a Pomodoro master in no time!
Have fun with your Pomodoros and good luck!