Retrieval practice, spacing, the memory palace, and other evidence-based learning strategies will help you achieve your learning goals. However, without a schedule for implementing them in a focused way, you may find your efforts futile. In his books Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, computer science professor Cal Newport explores the necessity of deep, focused work sessions for producing meaningful learning, innovation, and satisfaction. In our age of distractions and socially acceptable multitasking, cutting through the chatter to focus is paramount.
Enter the Pomodoro Technique. First developed in the 1980s, the technique stipulates the user engage in focused work without distraction (eg, no checking your phone, social media feeds, email) for short bursts, generally 25 minutes. The message: You can do anything for 25 minutes, right? A break, generally 5 minutes, follows each session, allowing the user to recuperate. Theoretically, these breaks allow the user to engage in more cumulative deep work than they otherwise would. A user attempting five straight hours of deep work, for example, may crash and burn, eliciting feelings of burnout and requiring more recuperation time.
When it comes to learning effectively, here’s the one-two punch of why we need the Pomodoro Technique: 1. We must engage in deep, focused work to produce meaningful learning. 2. We should incorporate frequent, regular breaks to maximize our deep work longevity. Consciously or not, you’ve probably implemented this strategy at some point, but it’s helpful to formalize it and dig into the various implementation options.
How long should each session, or “pomo,” be? The technique’s creator suggested 25 minute pomos interspersed with 5 minute breaks. I first implemented the technique in college, starting with this approach, but 25-5 is just one option among many. In both Learning Medicine and Medical School 2.0, for example, the authors argue in favor of roughly 90 minute pomos with 15-30 minute breaks. In the case of medicine, 25 minutes may indeed be too short to dig into complicated topics.
Users should develop their own personal preferences. In the 8 or so years I’ve experimented with the technique, I’ve settled on my own modified pomo: 50-10. When working on a complicated subject such as medicine or an engineering problem set, 50 minutes allowed me to sink my teeth into the material without too frequent interruptions. Additionally, 10 minute breaks are generally enough time to accomplish something meaningful (eg, household tasks like vacuuming, shooting a basketball, taking a walk). If I find my morning motivation sapped, I may start with a 25 minute pomo to build momentum before upping the timer to 50.
Although stopwatches and phone timers are functional, I’ve taken to the iPhone app Focus Keeper. The app allows you to set any pomo-break combination and keeps the timer running—no need to manually switch between 50 and 10 minute timers ad nauseum. I’ve experimented with other apps, including Forest, the app recommended by Barbara Oakley in Learning How to Learn, but I prefer Focus Keeper for its continuous timer.
In Deep Work, Cal Newport mentions he tracks his deep work sessions, allowing him to gauge how productive each day, week, etc., has been. I do something similar. I keep a Google sheet open in my browser and record my minutes after each session. This record-keeping allows me to assess my daily productivity and motivates me to push the count higher each day.
I have found formally implementing the Pomodoro Technique to be one of the greatest boons to my learning efficacy. Cathy and I have taken to blurting, “respect the pomo!” when one of us falls into distracted or inconsistent work. With the Pomodoro Technique in your learning toolkit, go forth and work deeply! Respect the pomo!
Check out part 2 of our series on the Pomodoro Technique here—Optimizing The Pomodoro Technique: Strategies For Maintaining Focus During Deep Work.
Also check out Silence Is Golden? White Noise, Coffee Shops, and the Learning Boost of Habituation for Cathy’s thoughts on the utility of background noise for optimizing pomo efficacy.