The Pomodoro Technique has grown significantly in popularity over the past few years, but despite its following, most people aren’t using it to its full potential. Here are 5 common Pomodoro mistakes and what you can do to fix them.
- Being Too Strict About Time Intervals
- Not Spending Breaks Effectively
- Not Taking Advantage of Your Energy State
- Not Setting Goals for Your Study Intervals
- Not Combining Study Strategies
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management tool designed to help you fight procrastination, maintain focus, and increase your productivity. It helps you divide larger, more time-consuming tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.
To use the Pomodoro Technique in the traditional way, you set a timer and complete focused, high-effort work for 25 minutes. After the 25 minutes are up, you take a 5-minute break. This is known as a single Pomodoro.
You then repeat this process for 3 additional cycles, after which you take a longer 20-minute break. The 25-minute blocks of focused effort help decrease the friction of getting started and the breaks in between help you sustain high levels of focus over long periods of time. It sounds simple, but there are some common mistakes I see when students use this technique.
1 | Being Too Strict About Time Intervals
The first mistake is being too strict with time intervals.
Although some people will tell you that you need to adhere to the 25/5 rule as strictly as possible, I disagree. Sometimes, you may find yourself entering a “flow state” where you’re fully immersed in what you’re doing. You’re not concerned with internal or external distractions. You feel energized. You feel focused. And you’re actually enjoying what you’re doing.
In running, this sensation is often referred to as “the runner’s high.” And if you’ve ever experienced it, you’ll know that the minute you stop, it’s often gone. Studying is no different. If you stop arbitrarily because of a 25-minute timer, you’re snapping yourself out of that flow state and have to invest more energy trying to get back to it.
Just like the concept of inertia in physics, objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and objects in motion tend to stay in motion. When you’re in a good rhythm, it’s easy to keep going. When you stop, it often takes a while to get going again.
It’s important to remember that the ultimate goal of the Pomodoro Technique is to achieve a high level of output over a long period of time. Sometimes this means deviating from the standard 25/5 rule. Instead, check in with yourself and see how you feel. Still take breaks, but if you find the shorter work blocks impede your rhythm, don’t be afraid to lengthen them. On the other hand, if you wait until you feel like you need a break, it’s often too late.
Keep in mind that how long you can go before needing a break will vary heavily depending on your baseline level of focus and productivity. If you’re just getting started with your productivity journey, you may only be able to sustain your focus for 10 minutes–and that’s okay. Breaking the cycle of procrastination and working for 10 minutes is still far better than doing nothing at all.
On the other hand, if you’ve put substantial effort into developing your ability to focus for long periods of time, then 25 minutes may feel incredibly short. Although it’s important to take breaks to maximize your total output, there’s no biological basis for the 25/5 rule. If you’re particularly engaged in what you’re doing and feel fresh, there’s no need to stop prematurely.
In addition, fixating too much on the timer can be a distraction in itself. If you’re constantly checking the clock to see how much time you have left, you’re distracting yourself from the task at hand.
I think many students can benefit from a more intuitive Pomodoro schedule. Instead of taking a break after 25 minutes exactly, experiment for yourself. On some days try longer blocks, on other days shorter blocks. You may also find it optimal to use longer blocks earlier in your day when you’re fresh and shorter blocks toward the end of the day as your focus begins to wane.
This is also why I advise against using your phone as a timer and instead using 25-30 minute hourglasses. By using an hourglass, there is no alarm to disrupt you when you get into a good rhythm. In fact, you probably won’t even notice exactly when the timer has elapsed.
Now I know your next question, “If I’m not following the 25/5 rule, how do I know how long to take a break after each work block?” A good rule of thumb is to rest for 10 minutes for every hour spent studying. If you studied for 60 minutes, then you should take a 10-minute break. If you studied for 120 minutes, then you should take a 20-minute break. This can be adjusted up or down depending on how you feel at the moment.
Intuitively, your next question is probably “how should I be spending my breaks?”
2 | Not Spending Breaks Effectively
This brings me to mistake number two, which is not spending your breaks effectively.
It’s common for students to spend their Pomodoro breaks on their phones watching TikTok, responding to text messages, or scrolling through Instagram. This is a huge mistake.
In today’s day and age, your phone is your biggest distraction. If you spend your breaks scrolling through social media, it becomes incredibly easy to lose track of time. What started out as checking Instagram or TikTok to pass the time can easily turn into 20- or 30-minutes of missed productivity.
Not to mention, social media is optimized to take advantage of our increasingly short attention spans by feeding us short, easily digestible content. It’s designed to keep us moving from one post to the next. As a result, our minds become accustomed to short bursts of focus, which makes the longer, more sustained focus required for studying that much more difficult.
The first step in spending your breaks more effectively is to ditch your phone. The next step is to stand up. Sitting for prolonged periods of time can negatively impact your health, so it’s critical to make sure you get up and move throughout your study sessions.
Now that you’re up, use this time to go outside, use the restroom, play with a pet, make a healthy snack, or do some mild exercise. Short bursts of aerobic exercise have been shown to increase memory and arousal. So not only is this a great way to incorporate exercise into your busy schedule, but it can also serve as a great pick-me-up – giving you a burst of energy to reinvigorate your study session and let you get back to work feeling recharged.
3 | Not Taking Advantage of Your Energy State
Mistake number three is not taking advantage of your energy state.
Everyone has a natural rhythm to their energy throughout the day. This is why we’ll commonly hear people describe themselves as “morning people” and “night owls.” No matter who you are, there are certain times throughout the day where you are more focused and certain times where you are less focused.
For me, I’m freshest and think most clearly in the mornings so I like to begin my deep work block right after my morning workout. I’m able to do my best, most focused work at this time. In the afternoon, I notice a dip in my efficiency before getting another burst of energy in the evening.
That being said, everyone is different. If you find yourself most focused in the afternoon, don’t try to force yourself to wake up at 5 AM to bust out some Pomodoros. Similarly, if you’re a morning person, waiting until 9 PM when you’re exhausted is also unlikely to be fruitful.
Determine your optimal study times and lean into them. This will lead to much more effective Pomodoro blocks and ensure you’re working at the highest possible levels of efficiency. Remember, you want to train your brain to work at high levels of efficiency. By working with your energy state instead of against it, you’ll be able to get the most of the Pomodoro Method.
4 | Not Setting Goals for Your Study Intervals
Mistake number four is not setting goals for your focused Pomodoro intervals.
As the late American author and motivational speaker Zig Ziglar put it, “if you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” If you don’t have a goal for your studying, then it’s easy to get distracted and spend your time inefficiently. It also increases the likelihood of you jumping from one task to another.
You may think that multitasking is an effective way of increasing your productivity – after all, why wouldn’t you want to get multiple things done all at once? But this is a mistake. It may seem like you’re focusing on multiple things at once when you multitask; however, you’re still only focusing on one thing at a time. What you’re actually doing is shifting your focus from one thing to another rapidly.
Research has shown that focusing on more than one thing at once often leads to more mistakes and slower time to goal achievement. Although it may feel like doing 4 things at once is more productive, you’ll often find that doing each thing one at a time will allow you to complete them much quicker.
By setting a goal to complete just one task during a Pomodoro interval, you ensure that you are focused on that particular task. This also makes it much easier to track the amount of time that you’re allocating to a particular task as opposed to when you’re doing multiple things at once.
Focusing on one task at a time also allows you to employ Parkinson’s Law which states that “work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion.” This means if you give yourself 5 hours for a task rather than 2, it will take the full 5 hours. If you give yourself 2 hours, you will be much more efficient. Even if you miss the target of 2 hours, you’ll often find yourself spending far less than 5 hours.
This is a tricky technique because you have to purposely cut things close and not give too much time for any one task. It takes experimentation to get just right, but I use this regularly, including when researching and writing Med School Insiders content to keep myself efficient.
5 | Not Combining Study Strategies
This brings me to my last mistake, which is not combining study strategies.
The Pomodoro technique is an effective way to manage your time and increase your focus; however, the same principles of efficient studying should still be applied. Active learning techniques that challenge you to recall information, make connections, and apply information are much more effective than passive methods such as re-reading through your textbook and notes.
We tend to gravitate towards more passive forms of learning because they feel easy and comfortable; however, effective learning should feel difficult and uncomfortable. If it doesn’t, you’re leaving learning gains on the table.
By combining active learning techniques with your Pomodoro intervals, you can reap the benefits of increased focus and increased efficiency. Becoming proficient with the Pomodoro technique may increase your capacity for work; however, learning to employ active learning techniques alongside it will drastically increase your effectiveness.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out Why You’re Not a Straight-A Student (& How to Become One).