The Danger of the Pomodoro Method – Why Most People are Using it Wrong13 min read
The Pomodoro method has revolutionized the way I study. However, after three years of religious use, I have learned there is a better way to do it. When I first started using the Pomodoro method, I would often lose focus, get burnt out, or not study right. In this post, I’ll take you through 10 ways to start studying better with the Pomodoro Method.
What is the Pomodoro Method?
If you don’t know the Pomodoro method, it was developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo and breaks up studying into study-break increments. The most common way is working for 25 minutes and then taking a 5-minute break, that is one “Pomodoro session.” Then you repeat that four times, except you take a longer, 20 to 30-minute break, on the fourth session.
Plan Your Studying
What do you want to accomplish?
Before the greatest study session of all time begins, you need to know what you are actually going to be studying. For me, it is fairly straightforward, I have a certain amount of flashcards I need to complete every day and then a certain amount of practice questions I need to complete and review every day.
So, I plan to do X flaschards, then do X practice questions. However, this can get more complicated depending on the task; the more specific, the better. For example, if I was writing an essay, or when I write these posts, I say, “Ok, first I am going to outline the post, then do an extremely rough draft of the post, then edit the post.” I would use the same strategy for an essay.
For example, if I had to learn about heart failure, it might be something like, “watch a video about heart failure, then study flaschards about heart failure, then do a few practice questions about heart failure.” Importantly, I have this list of things to do ready to go. So, if I finish one task at minute 12 of my first Pomodoro session, the video watching, I continue to the second task right away, the flaschards. No breaks until my scheduled break time. The fantastic power of the Pomodoro method comes from the fact it focuses you during this time; I am always working on something during the study portion of the Pomodoro session.
When I was studying for my Step 1 exam, I used the strategy of having a goal number of Pomodoro sessions per day. I used the 25/5 method. Usually, my goal was about 12-16 Pomodoro sessions a day which equates to about 5-7 hours of actual studying per day across 7 to 10 hours of “work” time.
Overall, try and answer these questions: What will I be studying today? What will I be studying first? If I finish the upcoming task before the timer is over, do I have the next thing ready to study? What is my goal number of Pomodoro sessions to complete or total time studying goal today?
Only Use The Method During “Work Time”
For what hours the day will you be “working?” I usually worked from 7:00-11:30, then 12:30 – 4:30. If I had a heavy study day, I would then study more from 5:30-8:30.
Importantly, I only use the Pomodoro method during these “work” times.
Everyone should get oriented and organized in the morning. I like to eat breakfast as well. Everyone should get some larger respite at midday, and I like to eat lunch. Everyone should eat dinner and go to bed at a reasonable time. Everyone should prioritize mental and physical health over squeezing a little extra studying.
I feel people can sometimes get too crazy over the exact study break timing with the Pomodoro method. For example, some people plan to eat lunch or squeeze in a workout during their 30-minute break. That’s silly. Trust me; if you use the Pomodoro method correctly, you will receive golden study time during those focus sessions. Your efficiency during those focus sessions, those 25-minute intervals, will allow you to take longer breaks as long as two hours if you need. And the occasional longer break, for lunch or exercising, will help you perform better when you come back to studying (I’ve talked about how breaks enable you to perform better here).
Personalize the Timing
The timing does not have to be 25 minutes, followed by a 5-minute break. Any time within 20-60 minutes will work fine; you need to figure out what timing works best for you. Many people I know prefer doing 50-minute Pomodoro sessions with 10-minute breaks.
Experiment with studying with 25/5 sessions for a day, then try 35/7 sessions, then perhaps try 50/10 sessions for a day. Do you find yourself happier at any of those Pomodoro timings? Experiment, you know you.
The only rule is to stick to is that approximately for every 25 minutes, you will take a 5-minute break, and after 100 minutes of cumulative studying, you take a 20 to 30-minute break. I’ll outline those three options I listed above:
- 25 study
- 5 break
- 25 study
- 5 break
- 25 study
- 5 break
- 25 study
- 30 break
- 35 study
- 7 break
- 35 study
- 7 break
- 35 study
- 30 break
- 50 study
- 10 break
- 50 study
- 30 break
Don’t Stop during “Flow”
Flow is a state where the task is sufficiently difficult, but not too difficult, and you are in such a zone that your performance and focus are at an all-time high. If you’ve experienced flow before, you know exactly what it is. When I am in a flow state, I lose track of time, forget to eat, and forget to reposition my body because my entire body and mind are focused on completing the task in front of me. Occasionally, I enter this state when I am aggressively cleaning my apartment, recording a YouTube video, or studying.
Flow states are golden states; I try to stay in them as long as possible because of how much higher my performance is during these states. That is why, if during a Pomodoro session I feel myself enter a flow state, I keep going.
For example, this often happens in my first or second Pomodoro session of the day; I will feel motivated and ready to learn (crazy, right). As I am approaching the end of my first 25-minute Pomodoro session, I realize, “hmm, I still want to study; I am not ready for a break!” So, I don’t mindlessly follow the Pomodoro session; as soon as the timer hits the end of the 25-minutes, I set it back 25 more minutes and keep studying. I stay in the flow state.
Notably, after my now 50-minute session, instead of the 25-minute session, I take the associated increased break time, 10 minutes instead of 5.
Use a Physical Timer
Why do people write in notebooks? Computers have eliminated 99% of the need for handwriting. Why do people read printed books? Kindles and iPads have removed any need for a physical book. Yet we still hand-write in notebooks, and we still read printed books. I found this same indescribable benefit from having a physical Pomodoro timer. Here’s the one I use.
I have no evidence for the benefit of a physical timer other than personal experience; having this one in front of me makes the session feel more real. It’s not just a timer on my phone or a timer on an app on my computer; it’s a physical timer in front of me.
Importantly, this timer also removes possibilities for distraction. There is no search engine on this timer; it doesn’t even have an internet connection.
Even if the only thing it does is make studying nicer, it’s a small price to pay for making something you do 5-10 hours a day nicer.
Remove Possible Distractions
Eliminate the possibility of being distracted during your Pomodoro sessions. Please remove all unnecessary materials from your desk, including your phone, books, other homework; get it out of the way. I have talked about it before, but visual distractions of any kind can hinder performance. My phone is also set away on silent in another room.
Next, if you are working on your computer, remove the distractions from your computer. I go crazy here and have a computer just dedicated to studying. I have not logged into messenger on that computer; I have not logged onto email on that computer; it is just for studying flashcards, doing practice questions, looking at scholarly articles, or reviewing a patient’s history.
One great app is self-control. This fantastic app blocks access to websites or anything on the internet. Once you hit “start,” there is no going to that site, no matter what.
Use Classical Conditioning, You Are Not Allowed to Stray
My separate computer is just a “study” computer. It classically conditions me to only study on that computer. If you don’t know what classical conditioning means, it is when you begin to associate one stimulus with another stimulus unconsciously. So, for example, if every time I said your name, I hit you with a stick (don’t worry, I won’t), you would start to expect a stick to beat you every time you heard me say your name. Eventually, me just saying your name would cause you to flinch without thinking because your mind has been “conditioned” to expect the stick when you hear your name.
This is how my special “study” computer works. Because I only use it to study, when I open my laptop, it’s study mode.
However, I’m not saying you go off and buy a computer just to have a separate study computer. I am saying that you need to only study during your study time.
This is the most vital tip you must take from this post. You must only study when you are in your study sessions.
This is the whole point of the Pomodoro method: making sure you focus during these sessions. When you stay focused during a session, you classically condition yourself to study during subsequent study sessions.
Oh, and this applies to your breaks to, when it’s break time, take a break! Don’t continue studying unless you want to extend into another study session, as I discussed when I feel the “flow.” I will go over how to take the best breaks later in this post.
Use Music (Correctly For You)
The evidence is not definite for music and its effect on studying. In some studies, music is detrimental to performance; in others, it is beneficial. Based on my cursory review of the evidence, it seems quiet music with no lyrics can be beneficial when performing easier tasks in regards to focus and motivation. Still, all music is detrimental when working on harder tasks.1 A fascinating scholarly article posted in 2021 reviewed the current evidence and performed its own experiments as well; here is what it said:
- Instrumental and calm music has the least detrimental effect on cognitive performance.
- Background music can improve focus and attention when performing easier tasks.
- The more difficult the task, the less intrusive the music people tend to listen to while studying. For example, the more challenging the material, the more likely people will listen to no music whatsoever.
An interesting theory related to listening to music is the distraction-conflict theory, where simple tasks need less attention, and therefore, the mind starts to wander more easily during a simple task; if the mind fixes on another thing, it could be this other thing is too distracting and pulls the subject away from studying. However, if you are listening to background music, boredom and mind-wandering could be limited because your mind is tuned to the music and the simple task, reducing your chances of your mind wandering to something else that pulls you away from studying.
Here is the strategy I use:
- At the beginning of the studying, or with a challenging task, I listen to no music.
- When you feel yourself losing focus during a session, add the most minimally invasive music possible first such as “ambient” or classical music. Try to stick to these types of music when you are studying.
- When the lower intensity music isn’t cutting it anymore, usually during my last 30 minutes to 1 hour of studying, I’ll get up the tempo with “lofi beats” or faster electronic music.
- Avoid music with Lyrics.
- Have playlists tailor-made and only use those playlists during studying (taking advantage of classical conditioning again). For example, I have five playlists that I listen to in increasing order of intensity while studying, ambient, classical, Epic, lo-fi beats, and intense electronic music. I only listen to those five playlists when I am studying or working, and I listen to those playlists at no other time.
- You see, now here’s the thing…. There once as a man named Leroy digger I once knew of a sailor who played the seven sees he knew what
My Playlists on Spotify
Level 1 (Ambient – my second favorite one): https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3JacwVsWihLfnyEpEOTrsi?si=4cefa526bc684274
Level 2 (Classical): https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DWWEJlAGA9gs0?si=5df840c18c834769
Level 3 (Epic Music – my favorite one): https://open.spotify.com/playlist/0Uqkud5bT23h1ojtREu01d?si=8830274e0a744db7
Level 4 (Lofi): https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DWWQRwui0ExPn?si=135809c2161140f5
Level 5 (Intense): https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4QuyWZz23xzN8RjDyFNfnl?si=cbc24630aad1431a
Take Better Break
You can check out my post here on the best breaks to take from studying, but briefly, taking better breaks will help you learn more information and maintain mental and physical well-being. Here are my favorite breaks from most favorite to least favorite:
- Go Outside
- Change Position
- Grab a Healthy Snack
- Clean Up
- Play with a pet
- Play an Instrument
- Talk to a friend or relative
- Stare out the window
- Have a Short Nap
- Watch a YouTube Video
Finally, gamifying things has been shown to increase performance.2-4 My favorite app is the Forest timer on the iPhone, where I can continue to grow my forest. Importantly, if you navigate away from the timer on your phone, your tree dies. This accomplishes two things, it sets the timer for your study session and removes the possibility of you being distracted by your phone while you are studying. I won’t answer phone calls, texts, or anything during a session because I don’t want my special tree to die. You can also access Forest on a web browser.
Another app people like is Habitica, where you can level up your character based on whether you complete tasks or not. I used the Focus+ timer app on the computer and set a goal for at least 10 study sessions a day.
All in all, the Pomodoro method is an extremely powerful studying tool. But just like any tool, it can be used correctly or incorrectly. Use the Pomodoro method correctly, and your studying and test performance will improve, I promise.
Thanks for reading!
- Goltz F, Sadakata M. Do you listen to music while studying? A portrait of how people use music to optimize their cognitive performance. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2021 Oct;220:103417. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2021.103417. Epub 2021 Sep 20. PMID: 34555564.
- Berton A, Longo UG, Candela V, Fioravanti S, Giannone L, Arcangeli V, Alciati V, Berton C, Facchinetti G, Marchetti A, Schena E, De Marinis MG, Denaro V. Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Gamification, and Telerehabilitation: Psychological Impact on Orthopedic Patients’ Rehabilitation. J Clin Med. 2020 Aug 7;9(8):2567. doi: 10.3390/jcm9082567. PMID: 32784745; PMCID: PMC7465609.
- Liu T, Lipowski M. Sports Gamification: Evaluation of Its Impact on Learning Motivation and Performance in Higher Education. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jan 31;18(3):1267. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18031267. PMID: 33572557; PMCID: PMC7908154.
- van Gaalen AEJ, Brouwer J, Schönrock-Adema J, Bouwkamp-Timmer T, Jaarsma ADC, Georgiadis JR. Gamification of health professions education: a systematic review. Adv Health Sci Educ Theory Pract. 2021 May;26(2):683-711. doi: 10.1007/s10459-020-10000-3. Epub 2020 Oct 31. PMID: 33128662; PMCID: PMC8041684.