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Academic Coaching & Writing

V. Use a Timer: The Pomodoro Technique

Oct 03, 2012 by Dr Sally

Many writing coaches recommend using a timer for your daily writing practice. The Pomodoro Technique uses a kitchen timer set for 25 minutes and helps writers develop the discipline to concentrate on an activity, without interruption, until the timer rings.

Francesco Cirillo developed the Pomodoro Technique in the late 1980s while he was a student. He began teaching the technique to others in 1998, and in 2006, Cirillo published The Pomodoro Technique. The technique takes its name from the shape of the kitchen timer Cirillo used, which was shaped like a tomato, or “pomodoro” in Italian.

This time-management technique can increase your writing productivity. First, however, it is important to understand how to apply this technique to daily activities. According to Cirillo’s research, people are most productive when they work on tasks for 25 minutes, and then take three- to five-minute breaks. Each 25-minute period is called a “pomodoro.”

Planning. At the start of each day, create a “To Do Today” list, with activities for the day. Prioritize these activities. Next, draw up an “Activity Inventory,” listing each activity, along with an estimate of how many pomodoros will be required to complete it. Cirillo refers to this as the “planning” stage.

Tracking. Tracking occurs throughout the day. In this stage, mark off each pomodoro on the inventory sheet, and cross out the activity when completed.

Recording. The Pomodoro Technique also includes three evaluation stages: “record,” “process,” and “visualize.” At the end of the day, you will have recorded everything you did while working, which you can review to determine what improvements, if any, you need to make to your writing practice.

Cirillo suggests that you break your work day into sets of four pomodoros, with a 30-minute break after each set. The schedule you create is based on your own work habits and circumstances. If you have a full day to work, you might schedule 12 pomodoros, whereas with less time, you could schedule fewer.

The key to success is that you cannot “count” a pomodoro if you interrupt your task to do something else or if you stop before 25 minutes. Recognizing and eliminating internal and external distractions is an important part of mastering the Pomodoro Technique. If you are distracted by something you think you need to do, you put it on the “To Do Today” list if it is urgent and on the “Activity Inventory” if it is not urgent. In addition, do not “add” time to a pomodoro. When 25 minutes is up, you must stop. If the activity is not completed in the number of pomodoros allotted, you move to the next activity on the list and, at the end of the day, try to figure out why your estimates of how many pomodoros required for an activity were not accurate.

The Pomodoro Technique Applied to Academic Writing

Many academics have difficulty finding time to write. Applying this technique to scholarly writing can help make the best use of limited writing time.

The first step is to break down your writing project into “activities” that can be completed in five (two-and-a-half hours) to seven pomodoros (three-and-a-half hours). Clearly, “write a journal article” is too ambitious for your “To Do Today” list. Instead, the list might include the activity “write a section of the literature review” at an estimated six pomodoros.

Now start the timer. Work without interruption for 25 minutes. Then take a five-minute break. Resist the temptation to distract yourself by stopping to check your email, turn on the TV for the local weather, or call a friend. Each time an alternate activity occurs to you, note it on your To Do Today list or on the Activity Inventory sheet to be scheduled at another time. Handle outside interruptions the same way. Let the phone call go to voice mail, or ask your students to stop by later when you have office hours.

By tracking the tasks that threaten to interrupt your pomodoro, you will see that many activities can be combined into their own pomodoro. For example, you might need a pomodoro to take care of your email before you start writing. Cirillo makes the distinction between “operational” pomodoros, which focus on a work activity such as writing, and “organizational” pomodoros, which help you “clear the deck” before you write.

Break down scholarly writing across days or weeks, making writing a daily priority. Using the Pomodoro Technique, write at least 25 minutes a day. As you continue to apply the technique over time, you will become more adept at figuring out what is required to complete a writing project.

To learn more about the Pomodoro Technique, you can download Cirillo’s manual for free off of the Internet at www.pomodorotechnique.com.

Questions for Reflection

  1. The Pomodoro Technique is a prescribed strategy, and many people rebel against it. What are the elements of the Pomodoro Technique that you have tried or would be willing to try?
  2. Many researchers have found that the ideal work time is 25 to 30 minutes followed by a short break. What have you experienced with a 45-minute work period? How do you think a shorter work period and more frequent breaks would impact your productivity?



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