CETL Learning Tips: A pomodoro for procrastination

Christina Moore, CETL Virtual Faculty Developer

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Welcome to the Learning Tips Series! I, with a little help from my Oakland University friends, will provide quick but powerful tips to get the most out of learning in your classes and beyond.

This is the point in the semester when you’re likely staring down big tasks, the type that raise anxiety just enough to make you dash toward any distraction. When we’re looking at a mass of work, it’s hard to imagine scaling such a mountain. Breaking it down into smaller tasks can help, but even that can be difficult when all you see is the mountain in front of you.

When you feel the anxiety rising, try a simpler strategy — the pomodoro method. Named for a pomodoro (tomato) timer, it involves simply setting a timer to work on something for a small amount of time, such as 20 minutes. 20 minutes is doable, right? With the simple task of working on something for 20 minutes, two important things are likely to happen: the anxiety diminishes enough for you to get going, and when your 20 minutes are up, you’re on a roll and don’t want to stop. This simple time management strategy can do wonders.

The power of this movie is shifting focus from product — “I need to finish this introduction” — to process — “let’s start writing an introduction and see what happens.” That mental shift is enough to thwart the anxiety that paralyzes you.

To get the most out of this strategy, set an actual timer and commit to no other distractions. Use a timer on your phone or laptop, but turn off all other sound notifications and close any other windows or media. Twenty minutes isn’t long, but it needs to be distraction-free. When the timer sounds, feel free to keep working if you are in the zone.

Based on the work, sometimes a product approach is motivating, like if you want to work toward 15 flashcards in the “answered right” pile. But the pomodoro method is a powerful, simple strategy to have at the ready when you feel the symptoms of procrastination welling up. It’s a strategy you can use for many difficult or dreaded tasks beyond school — I use it all the time in writing papers and working on projects that don’t grab my interest. Even after how long I’ve used it, I’m surprised at how quickly my motivation picks up in those 20 minutes!

The pomodoro method has been a long established practice, but it came on my radar due to Dr. Barbara Oakley, an OU industrial engineering professor who explains this in her Learning How to Learn Coursera course(Tip: Oakley developed a related OU course, ISE 1170: Learning How to Learn.)

Pick the timer device of choice — whether a phone, tomato, egg or other shape — and try it out!

Christina Moore
Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning