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Issue 20 Science Shoutout

The most popular anti-procrastination method

🕒 8 min

Ah, the never-ending cycle of continuous working, feeling you haven’t done enough and then binging on YouTube self-improvement videos hoping to start fresh tomorrow… or on Monday… or, well, at least next year. We have all been there and we have all done that. The amount of money those self-help videos and books make is even more ridiculous when you realize how toxic they can get. However, among the noise there is legit advice and a few methods that have been proven to work and are even applied in school curriculums for children suffering from attention deficits. One of them, the most popular one for sure, is the Pomodoro method.

What does a tomato have to do with productivity?

Despite popular opinion, the name “Pomodoro” doesn’t have a deeper, scientific background. The method was in fact named after a kitchen timer that its Italian creator used for the original implementation of the idea and that was shaped like a tomato, or pomodoro in Italian. Francesco Cirilo was a med student struggling with time management when he came up with the idea of dividing his work into smaller chunks. He set up his kitchen tomato-timer to help him observe how long it takes him to complete a certain task, so he could plan his work smarter. Every 25 minutes the timer would go off and he would evaluate the work he’s done. What he realized, and later described in the paper he published in 2006, was that he became much more productive during those 25 minutes. Although the awareness of having limited time to finish a certain task was at first a bit stressful, his brain soon adapted to the schedule and he would manage to make the most out of each “session”.

So, what exactly is the Pomodoro method? It is a time management method in which you divide your work into 4 sessions of 25 minutes each and take 5 minute breaks between them. Basically, you take your timer, set it to 25 minutes during which you do focused, undistracted work and once it goes off, you take 5 minutes to rest your brain, take a short walk, play with your pet, stretch, grab a quick bite etc. When your break is over, another 25-minute session of work starts. After four such sessions, you take a longer break of 15-30 minutes, however long suits you, and repeat the process as many times as you want during the day.

According to research, an average brain is able to do focused work for approximately 25 minutes. After that time, it starts to wander and we enter so-called cognitive boredom. However, this can vary, so 25-5 Pomodoro sessions might not work for everyone. Thankfully, there are many options that you can try out and find the session length that suits you best: 25-5, 30-10, 45-15, 50-10 etc. Breaks are a crucial part of the Pomodoro method and whatever you choose to do during them should not involve any kind of intellectual or cognitive work – so don’t read a book or the news during your break, don’t even look at the screen, but rather choose to do some “brain dead” things during those 5 minutes so your brain can rest and refresh.

 The 5 objectives of Pomodoro method

There are a few goals every Pomodoro practitioner should achieve to get the most out of the Pomodoro method. Let’s list them:

  1. Learn how to predict the time you need to complete the task – this will help you plan out your day and the number of Pomodoro sessions you need to get it done.
  2. Reduce all interruptions in order to stay focused on the task throughout the work session. This means putting your phone on airplane mode, closing the door so that no one can interrupt you, turning off the TV etc. This helps you make each Pomodoro as effective as possible, which brings us to the next objective.
  3. Increase the effectiveness of each session – apart from limiting the interruptions during work session, evaluating yourself at the end of each session also helps you keep track off how much you’ve already achieved and where you should put your attention during the next session.
  4. Once you’ve mastered the first three objectives, you are ready to set up a timetable. Learning how to effectively plan out your day, week or even a month and dedicate a certain amount of time to rest and enjoy yourself is extremely important for your motivation in the long run. Also, if you plan out your time accurately and realistically, you can enjoy your time off without feeling guilty and thinking that you could be doing more work.
  5. The last objective comes after practicing Pomodoro for a while and it allows you to create your own objectives – that means reviewing how much time you are spending on a certain task and potentially changing it so it better aligns with your ultimate goal.

Multiple advantages of practicing Pomodoro

Like we already mentioned, short breaks help us concentrate better and fight cognitive boredom, but they can also be good for us because they make us get up and move every half an hour. Physical activity has been proven to be one of the most effective fuels for our brain and memory, but it also keeps our body healthy. Let’s not forget the famous saying: “Mens sana in corpore sano.”

Taking short breaks after a short working session also keeps our motivation high. Think about it: if you tell yourself you can take a break once you’ve finished all your work, your brain knows it’s about to work for 6 hours with no rest and no reward and chances are it will actually take you 9 hours to get that done. At the end of the day, you feel like you’ve accomplished nothing and didn’t even get the chance to enjoy yourself properly.

In a book called “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”, dr. Gazzaley and dr. Rosen highlight: “From decades of research on learning and behavior, we know that the shorter the time between reinforcements (rewards), the stronger the drive to complete that behavior and gain the reward.” However, if you choose to check your social media during the break (which is strongly recommended not to), it is important to set a clear boundary between working session and a break and not letting yourself think about Instagram when the next session starts. Social media causes this small instant bursts of dopamine rush in our brain and makes us want to check our phone every now and then and get an instant gratification, so it’s better not to touch your social media during the short breaks at all. But that’s a subject for a whole new article :D.

Taking frequent breaks during your work also betters your decision-making. This is especially important for those of you who have to make a lot of decisions during the day. Being exhausted takes a toll on your reasoning and you might end up not taking everything into consideration and making the wrong decision just to get it over with. Also, when you know we have a limited time during our work session, this pushes us to make the decision and not to procrastinate.

One of the best things Pomodoro method teaches you is how to get rid of the stress of time management. If you measure time in small chunks of work that you need to do, rather than counting seconds until the deadline, you are less likely to think how you won’t make it on time.

A few suggestions for further reading

If I still didn’t convince you to try the Pomodoro method, let me suggest a few books and papers for further reading on the subject. Hopefully these will make you come around.

P.S. I promise those are worth a try 🙂

How to get 40 Hours of Work Done in 16.7 by Chris Winfield

A short book (a case study) in which the author describes his own process of incorporating the Pomodoro method in his everyday life. He talks about several things he experimented with and observrs how the way he works and feels changed with the methods used. He also offers some great advice on how to find a perfect fit for yourself – the duration of Pomodoro work sessions and breaks, the amount of Pomodoros in a day and in a week, the importance of being flexible and not too strict with yourself.

The Anti-Procrastination Habit: A Simple Guide to Mastering Difficult Tasks by S. J. Scott

This page turner offers a straight-forward, systematic framework to built better habits and end procrastination in all areas of life (school, job, diet, physical activity and planning finances). The book is full of observations and practical advice written in an easily read way.

The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

The book discusses ways in which we can hack our brains to be more productive in the world of media and multitasking. The authors explain how exactly does multitasking work (and does it really work?), they offer practical strategies to fight distractions and back it all up with science.

The Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo

The book covers the 5 objectives of the method – what are they and how can we achieve them. The author and creator of the technique teaches us how to work with time, not against it, how to eliminate burnout, manage distractions and ultimately create a better work-life balance.

Why Men Earn More: The Startling Truth Behind the Pay Gap and What Women Can Do About It by Warren Farrell

The author takes up a very controversial subject of gender pay gap and offers arguments to support his logical explanation of this myth. He states that, while discrimination sometimes does play a part, both men and women unconsciously make trade-offs that affect how much they earn. The book also provides female readers with scientifically proven ways to earn more.

Let us know if you give any of these a try! What are your anti-procrastination methods?

By Đesika Kolarić

Đesika is a pharmacist with an exceptional love for science. Apart from clinical pharmacy, her biggest love is computational biology, which she's currently pursuing through a predoctoral training at Medical university Graz. She loves long walks accompanied by her dog and a good beer.

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