The 25 Minute timer is not the right solution for taking breaks.
One of the time management techniques that is commonly used by students is called the Pomodoro Technique, aka the 25 minute timer. Basically, the idea is that it breaks your tasks into 25-minute work sessions followed by 3-5 minute breaks with a longer break after a couple of hours. Before I explain why I don’t like the Pomodoro Technique, I want to be clear that I do like the concept of what it is designed to do. I am a big believer in taking frequent breaks during study sessions. When I was in college, I got up and walked around regularly, read the newspaper, or hit the nearby magazine racks in the library. I also like it as a tool for breaking procrastination and breaking work into small bites. I’m also a big fan of timing what you are doing. I think putting a clock on your task brings focus. When you know that the clock is running, it gives you a sense of urgency to get things done. So, what’s the problem with the 25 minute timer, or any other length timer?
Why I don’t like the Pomodoro technique
First of all, I’m not a big fan of set time intervals. No matter what you’re doing, whether it’s working out, practicing your guitar, playing a game, or even studying, your mood and focus change over time. Sometimes you get into a groove and can go for long periods of time. Other times you are so confused and frustrated by what you are doing that you just need to get up and walk away. That is never determined by a timer. If I’m reading something exciting, working on an engaging problem set, or writing a paper, I don’t want or need an alarm going off. I’m in my groove, I’m feeling good, and I have lots of good thoughts flowing in my mind. I don’t want to be interrupted. When I was in college and law school, I could easily get into a solid hour-long study trance and not even realize how much time went by. I can’t think of anything more annoying than a timer going off when I’m deep into whatever I’m doing. I don’t want to take a break. I know how I feel. I’ll make that decision.
Take breaks at logical stopping points
I do agree that no matter how deeply you are into studying something, you should still take breaks. You don’t want to burn yourself out. I just want to take those breaks at a logical stopping point and not in the middle of something. Maybe you take a break at the end of a chapter or after reading a certain number of pages. Or you can take a breather when you are done with one problem in your problem-set. I call this a ‘task-oriented’ break. Whatever it is you’re working on, pick a spot that is based both on how you feel AND a logical place to take a break. Sure, it should have some reasonable time limit, but it’s more about getting through a specific task.
Reward accomplishment, not time!
A big reason for using a task-oriented break interval is that it rewards accomplishment and not time. There is no guarantee that a student has done anything more than scroll their Instagram feed for much of their 25 minute Pomodoro period. If the break only comes after actually doing something like reading the next 10 pages of a textbook, students get rewarded for actually getting some work done, which is the purpose of the break. If you don’t use your brain for 25 minutes, you don’t need to rest it. Rewarding specific accomplishments completely eliminates all subjectivity about how you really used your time. The work is either done, or it isn’t. When that is the standard, you won’t be tempted to goof off until a timer goes off. So turn off the 25 minute timer app and just focus on getting something done up to a logical stopping point. Page forward in your book. Look for the next chapter or a change of topic. See how many pages it is to get there and do a quick estimate in your head of the time you’ll need to read it. No matter what you are working on, there is some kind of a logical break point. Now actually work to get there
. Yes, you can and should take breaks. Yes, you should break your work down into small tasks and use short bursts of intense focus, but you decide what those are, not a clock.
Time everything you do, but for a different reason
Actually, we do think that you should time every task you do, but not for the purpose of taking breaks. The real purpose is to help you make good estimates about how long things take to get done so that you can track your progress on each task with high accuracy. We actually include a timer in Shovel Study Planner
for just that purpose. One of the biggest problems that students have is that they underestimate the time they need to complete their tasks. They start late, don’t have enough time, and bad grades follow. With Shovel, based on your reading speed, reading source, and the number of pages of each reading, you’ll know exactly how long it will take you to finish every reading task. And once you start reading, you can time every reading task and see if your estimates were right, or if you need to adjust your reading speed with one click. Shovel does the math for you. You’ll always know how long each reading will take. No surprises. Additionally, you can estimate how long each assignment (paper, problem set) is going to take. So once you start working on it and time yourself, you’ll be able to see if the time you spent on it reflects your progress and if it does not, you can adjust how much additional time you’ll need. Example: you estimate that you’ll need 2 hours to complete a problem set. You work for an hour, but you’re not half way done, you’re only one fourth of the way done. You can adjust from 2 total hours to 4. Super easy, yet very accurate. Avoid the stress in the first place by always knowing how much time you need and track your progress by the time you spend on a task. Just don’t take breaks based on time.