Learn better with intervals of intense focus and breaks – the Pomodoro technique

Earlier I wrote about the importance to have breaks to keep learning efficiently (read here). And as usual, when one writes about something, it can suddenly be found everywhere, I ran across the Pomodoro technique I believe in 3-4 different places completely separate of each other. This is based on the exact same idea that we simply cannot focus intently for a long period of time. The Pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The name comes from Italian and refers to tomato, which was what Francesco’s timer supposedly looked like. The goal of this technique is to reduce the impact of any interruptions on flow and focus whether they come from external factors, such as emails, social media, other tasks, or internal factors, such as wondering mind.

For this technique you need a timer that can be set to go off at 25 minutes and a plan of what you want done in that time. The idea is to focus intently on the planned task for that 25 minutes (a pomodoro). When the timer rings, there is a rest period of about 5 minutes. Then there is another intense working period and another pause etc. until there have been four pomodoros. After that one takes a longer period of rest (15-30 minutes). The idea in those rest periods is to allow the brain to rest and gear up for another intense period.

There are six steps in this technique:

  1. Decide on the task to be done. This can be done in a “to do today”-list of decreasing importance, meaning the most important ones to do first – at least that way works best for me – or simply a list of what needs to be done and some estimations on how long it will take or how many pomodoro’s. Then choose what you want to do on this first pomodoro. Get everything you need ready to do that task. Shut out all external distractions. Phone on silent is an option, but for me, putting it in airplane-mode is best as then it won’t buzz for incoming emails or anything else. Also noise cancelling headphones are ideal if one needs to work in a noisy place such as an open office or cafe. Simply put shut everything out that you possibly can other  than the task at hand. Nearly everything can wait for that 25 minutes.
  2. Set the Pomodoro timer to ring when 25 minutes have passed.
  3. Work intently on the task until the timer rings. If a distraction pops up from within your mind, write it down if necessary but immediately get back to working on what you want done. If you are interrupted, mark the new intrusion as a new to do item and do it later or interrupt the pomodoro. Life is life. Interruptions happen.
  4. After the timer rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper indicating that you’ve done a Pomodoro.
  5. If your paper shows less than four checkmarks, take a short break of 5 minutes and then go to step 2. If you are the type who wants to be connected, this is a time to quickly to check if you are urgently needed elsewhere and are not able to do any further pomorodo’s, but please refrain from going on social media as 5 minutes are rarely enough and might not relax your brain.
  6. If there is 4 checkmarks, take a rest period of 15-30 minutes. Also reset your checkmark count to zero. For those, who don’t have to be connected at all times, this is a better time to check if you are needed somewhere else than the 5 minute rest periods. After the break start from step 1.

It is, or can be depending on personality, satisfying to put a checkmark indicating a finished pomodoro and it is, or -again- can be, intensely satisfying to cross out a task on a todo-list. This adds a sense of accomplishment that increases further intense focus. Also, the 25 minutes a pomodoro is, is such a short time period that even for someone like me, who really wants to be reachable in case something happens with daughter, I can live with 25 minutes of not being available. And, as sleep befuddled as I sometimes am, I find it easy to believe that I can actually focus for that amount of time.

I have found this to be very effective. The planning of course helps with this as it tends to increase effectiveness. But also the conscious choice to focus on the single task really helps. Our brains are still the same brains as cavemen had and they do not multitask very well and unitasking has been found to increase effectiveness.


Some more detail about the pomodoro – check wikipedia on the topic.

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