“I just can’t make myself get started,” a high school senior told me. She was sitting in my office in obvious distress. College deadlines were approaching, and all she had for an essay were a few scattered notes.
“Try a Pomodoro,” I suggested. “Right here, right now. I’ll set the timer for 25 minutes. You don’t have to finish your essay — just work on it till the timer goes off, then take a break.”
Twenty-five minutes later, she looked up. “OMG. I’m half-way done. That totally worked!”
When faced with a task you are dreading or that seems overwhelming, the hardest part is usually just getting started. And this is the space where so many of the parent-child homework battles live.
The single most concrete, effective tool I’ve found for starting a task and remaining focused on one’s work is the Pomodoro Technique. Alas, I was twice my student’s age before I heard about this strategy. During an interview with Barbara Oakley — author and creator of the wildly popular Learning How to Learn MOOC — she shared with me that of all the techniques she teaches in that course, the Pomodoro Method is “far and away” the most popular.
Since that interview, I’ve spent four years teaching workshops to adolescents on how to build stronger study habits. And in the final surveys, nearly 100% of the students rank this strategy as the most useful. There is no close second.
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
Developed by Francesco Cirillo, this strategy is deceptively simple. It involves using a timer to help you work and break at set intervals.
- First, choose a single task to accomplish. Remove all other distractions.
- Next, set a timer for 25 minutes and work until the timer goes off.
- Then, take a five-minute break: stand up, stretch, get a drink of water, etc.
- After three or four of these 25-minute intervals, take a longer break (15 – 30 minutes) to recharge.
As Dr. Oakley told me, this technique “trains your ability to focus and reinforces that relaxing at the end is critical to the process of learning.” You can hear more from Dr. Oakley in this three-minute video (a good one to share with your children or students):
There are several Pomodoro apps, including some that effectively shut down your phone and simply turn it into a timer during focus time. You can even add Pomodoro extensions to your Chrome browser. (I’m using a Pomodoro app called Forest right now as I write this).
This strategy works for younger kids, too. When the play area in our house is a disaster, my kids often don’t know how to start cleaning up — the task seems too overwhelming as a whole. So I set a visual timer for 15 minutes. “Just get started,” I tell them. “And after you work for 15 mintues, we’ll take a five-minute dance party break.” After 15 minutes, they’ve usually made such a dent in the work that the final clean-up is much less overwhelming. The same applies for that math packet or spelling homework they’ve been avoiding.
Why does it work? Here are my theories:
- It promotes focused uni-tasking
Often, our kids get choice paralysis. Do I work on my math homework, edit the English paper, respond to the group chat about the research project, or avoid it all and watch Netflix? Or do I dabble a bit on each? With Pomodoros, you pick one task and solely focus on that task for 25 minutes. Flip a coin to choose if you need to!
- It concretely minimizes distractions
Since task-switching drains attention, this technique can increase our productivity. And if your child uses a Pomodoro app that effectively shuts down their phone (or if they put their phone away and use a microwave timer), they remove a key source of distractions.
- It reduces anxiety
So much of our anxiety is anticipatory! The more our kids avoid a task, the bigger it looms in their minds. As psychologist Lisa Damour says, students often feel stressed because “they overestimate the difficulty of a situation and underestimate their ability to deal with it.” With Pomodoros, the emphasis isn’t on finishing a task, it’s on starting it — and once they get started, they often realize that it isn’t as difficult as they imagined it to be.
- It offers short breaks for consolidating learning
Research suggests that taking short breaks during a study session allows us to consolidate our learning — and this improves retention and skill development. The Pomodoro technique builds in these brain breaks.
Last year, a middle schooler sought me out. She was someone who, by academic performance alone, seemed to have solid study habits. “Okay, I know you always talk about the Pomodoro technique,” she said. “I finally tried it — and I got to bed before 10 p.m. for the first time in months. I can’t believe it really works!” Sometimes the simplest solutions are the most effective. Next time your child is struggling with starting a task, encourage them to give this strategy a try — just as experiment — and see what happens.