What’s the best way to fight procrastination, maintain focus, and be highly productive throughout the day? It’s a question that has deep implications in the life of a student, being the very crux that defines the successful from the lacking. In my search for the answer to this Holy Grail of conundrums, I came across the Pomodoro technique. It most certainly answered my prayers regarding maintenance of focus, and provides the drive and discipline that many of us lack starting out in our premedical careers.
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, and 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 Use It
Choose a task or series of tasks to be accomplished. For purposes of premed students think in terms of assignments, papers, and study materials that need to be conquered in each given timeframe.
Set a timer for 25 minutes. A note on timers: you can certainly go old-fashioned, or get an app on your phone. My favorite is called ‘30/30’ on the iPhone. It’s my preferred app for these exercises because of its clean interface and flexibility, thus making it easy to do the traditional Pomodoro or customize it to your liking. More on that in a bit.
Continue to work on the task until the timer goes off after the given 25 minutes. Avoid constantly checking the timer; you’re not racing the clock for anything, you’re simply just trying to break up your material into smaller, more digestible chunks – so be efficient, focused, and disciplined and avoid the temptation.
Take a short break of 5 minutes. Make sure during this time that you get up and move. Do not take the break in the exact same spot you are working. I like holding a third-world squat, stretch, and move around. Now is the time to use the bathroom and grab a refill on your water or snack.
After 4 Pomodoro cycles, take a longer break of 20 minutes. Now repeat this process until you have accomplished what you set out to!
During your Pomodoro cycles, do your best to limit distractions. The whole point is 25 minutes of intense focus. Do not check Facebook, Reddit, or even the Med School Insiders website on and off. Give primed 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 smart phone.
If someone else 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 need
When to Pomodoro
As I mentioned in the first video to Med School Insiders, Pomodoro is a technique that I wished I had discovered and started using in undergraduate studies. I came late to the party and found out about it in medical school, but I can wholly attest to it being vital to my personal success.
When I find that I can’t get myself to study a particularly dull and boring subject, I get my Pomodoro app started (for me this is 30/30) and tell myself I must do at least one cycle. By making the commitment small, it’s that much easier to get started. And 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 that I have just built. At that time, it’s never usually a problem to keep 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 practice 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 onto the next. These breaks are more natural than the timed breaks of Pomodoro. I also have also found that I work better with prolonged periods of concentration when conducting research data analysis, or writing.
Again, Pomodoro is a template to help you increase your productivity. For some tasks it may be better to alter the timing intervals. I am personally a fan of the 25/5 minute allocation, and have sometimes stretched to 50/10 minute ratios with good results, but feel at liberty to change the intervals how you see fit to your studying style. Just remember that concentration and discipline are absolute musts.