What’s the best way to fight procrastination, maintain focus, and keep productivity flowing throughout the day? It’s a question that has deep implications in the life of a student—the very crux that defines the successful from the lacking. In my search for the answer to this Holy Grail of conundrums, I landed on the Pomodoro Technique.
It most certainly answered my prayers regarding focus, and it provides the drive and discipline that many of us lack starting out in our premedical careers.
Pomodoro History and Purpose
The Pomodoro Technique was invented in the early 1990’s by Francesco Cirillo. He named it Pomodoro after the tomato-shaped timer he used to track his work as a university student. Since then, it has gained increasing popularity in various productivity and self-improvement circles.
Any large task, assignment, or series of tasks can be broken down into short timed intervals—called Pomodoros. Each is separated by a short break. This takes advantage of the fact that our brains have limited attention spans; the technique uses the short blocks of retention to build a more holistic picture of the task, assignment, series of tasks, or information that you are trying to grasp or learn.
How to Utilize the Pomodoro Technique
Choose a task or series of tasks to be accomplished. For the purposes of premed students, think in terms of assignments, papers, and study materials that need to be conquered in each given time frame.
Set a timer for 25 minutes—either an old fashioned one or an app on your phone. Depending on your needs and the type of task you’re completing, you can adjust this time, but if it’s your first time, begin with a traditional pomodoro of 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off.
Continue to work on the task until the timer goes off after 25 minutes. Avoid constantly checking the timer. After all, you’re not racing the clock; you’re simply trying to divide your material into smaller, more digestible chunks. The timer will let you know when your time is done. Your aim is to be efficient, focused, and disciplined while avoiding external temptations.
When your timer goes off after 25 minutes, take a 5 minute break. Make sure to get up and move during this time. Do not take the break in the exact same spot you are working. Now is the time to use the bathroom, grab a refill on your water or snack, stretch, complete simple exercises, etc.
It’s a short break, so don’t get started on any other distracting tasks like checking your email or social media. The time will go by fast.
Repeat the 25 minutes of focused work, followed by another 5 minute break. After 4 Pomodoro cycles, take a longer break of 20 minutes. Repeat the entire process as many times as needed until you have accomplished what you set out to do.
Distractions That Can Get in Your Way
Do your best to limit distractions during your Pomodoro cycles. The whole point is 25 minutes of intense focus. Do not check Facebook, Reddit, or even the Med School Insiders website. Give you absolute focus to the task at hand.
I put my phone on airplane mode or Do Not Disturb mode. Careful though, as Do Not Disturb mode can affect the notifications of your timer app if you’re using your phone.
If someone calls or comes knocking, use the “inform, negotiate, call back” strategy:
- Inform the distracting party that you’re in the middle of something important.
- Negotiate a time when you can get back to them.
- Call back when your Pomodoro is complete and you’re ready to address their needs.
When to Use the Pomodoro Technique
Pomodoro is a technique I wished I discovered and incorporated during my undergraduate studies. I only found out about it in medical school, so I came a bit late to the party, but I can wholly attest to it being vital to my personal success.
When I find I can’t convince myself to study a particularly dull and boring subject, I get my Pomodoro app started and tell myself I must do at least one cycle. By making the commitment small, it’s much easier to get started. I’ve always found that upon completion of the cycle, the task that seemed so daunting a cycle ago is being overtaken by the momentum I have built.
Building that small bit of momentum means I usually never have a problem moving forward.
When I use Pomodoro: I’ve found it useful for reading textbook chapters, going through my Anki deck, and getting started on background reading for research projects.
Because Pomodoro is a productivity system, don’t feel obligated to always take a break if you’re in the groove. Sometimes it’s to your benefit to just keep chugging along once you’ve built some momentum, and it feels great to be making progress towards your goal.
However, for longer days where you’ll be studying dense subject material or practicing problems for most of the day, I suggest you take the breaks, as this sustains your stamina and prevents burnout.
When I do NOT use Pomodoro: I often stop the Pomodoro timer and continue my work without breaks specifically when I’m reviewing lectures. I generally review one lecture, take a brief break, and move on to the next. These breaks are more natural than the timed breaks of Pomodoro.
I’ve also found that I work better with prolonged periods of concentration when conducting research, data analysis, or writing.
Pomodoro is a template to help you increase your productivity, but for some tasks, it may be better to alter the timing intervals.
Personally, I’m a fan of the 25/5 minute allocation. While I’ve sometimes stretched to 50/10 minute ratios with good results, feel free to tailor the intervals to your own personal study style. Just remember that concentration and discipline are absolute musts.
For more study strategies, premed guides, and the latest advice on getting into and succeeding at medical school, follow the Med School Insiders blog and sign up for our weekly newsletter. And check out my other Pomodoro article, which covers 5 Pomodoro Mistakes You’re Making.