This article is written by Truth for Teachers writer Jennifer Schwartz.
If you are anything like me, you can get so overwhelmed by the endless list of to-dos running through your mind that despite waking up with a clean slate of a day and your aim of being super productive, you suddenly look up at the clock and it’s 2 pm and you haven’t accomplished anything!
Signs that you are a master procrastinator include stress cleaning your entire desk (or closet … or house …) during report card time, scrolling through Instagram or deleting emails while ignoring the nice little stack of notebooks sitting on your desk just waiting to be graded, and binge-watching a new TV show knowing that your entire (fill in the blank) unit remains unplanned.
So often, getting started is the hardest part.
The Pomodoro Technique: What It Is
One of my favourite tools to combat this type of procrastination is the Pomodoro Technique. Created by Francesco Cirillo, it is a simple time management system of working for twenty-five minutes, followed by a five minute break.
The idea is to remove any mental resistance you may have to the enormity of any given task, such as grading thirty English essays or writing report cards, by simply committing to twenty-five minutes (or any small time interval of your choice — I find twenty to thirty minutes works best!) and then taking a short break, usually around five minutes, with the option to continue working — or not!
It’s the perfect technique to pair with batching which, if you’re a regular consumer of Angela’s content, you’ll know is when you complete many similar tasks in one go rather than doing them sporadically throughout the day.
There are several apps and timers available to help, but even the timer on your phone can work, or if you’re old-fashioned and want some time away from technology, a twenty-minute hourglass does the trick. (Don’t get me started on hourglasses — they work for me, not just for my students, and there are some extremely aesthetically pleasing options out there! Spending a little money on something that brings joy during the daily grind is always a yes for me!)
If I am ever having difficulty starting a task, I commit to just twenty-five minutes, or one “pomodoro.” I tell myself that after that I can do whatever I want!
Oftentimes, though, once I’m started, I take the five-minute break after one pomodoro and then, because I have seen progress, I am motivated to start the timer again. Five minutes is enough to stretch my legs, give my eyes a break from staring at the screen, go to the washroom, swig some water, or grab a snack.
After three or four pomodoros I give myself a longer break – anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour. I would suggest doing something active and energizing, like going for a walk, calling a friend, or eating lunch with your spouse – whatever recharges your batteries and gives you a true break from the task at hand. (Hint: stay off social media!)
So how can you use the Pomodoro Technique? Allow me to suggest six concrete areas in your life where it can make a huge difference.
For planning lessons
You may have heard of Parkinson’s Law: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. I have found this to be so true, in both my professional and personal life. For example, when I first started planning for teaching online, I spent hours and hours scrolling through units and lesson plans on TPT, YouTube videos, and various other resources. Then I realized the amount of time it was taking me to come up with a lesson — plus practice slide decks for one forty-minute period — was totally unsustainable.
The Pomodoro Technique was my way to put a boundary on my time. I started to get an idea of how much time it would take to plan a full day with eight periods, collaborating with a trusted colleague online who taught the same grades. Together, we would tackle different math and language units and then share what we had created. Working like that, it took me about two hours to plan a day, and I used the twenty-five-minute blocks of the Pomodoro Technique to ensure that I never spent too long on a single lesson plan.
For grading assessments and writing report cards
During report card season in particular, I use the Pomodoro Technique routinely as it helps me focus on just one thing at a time. For example, I worked on grading math assessments this morning and inputting the grades into my report card system and was able to knock all of that out in three pomodoros.
As a Grade 4/5 teacher this year, I teach a total of nine subjects to 29 students, and looking at all the assignments I have to grade can be overwhelming. When I assign each subject an amount of pomodoros, I can truly focus on just one subject at a time, knowing that my trusty system will help me get started and stay on task.
For miscellaneous work tasks, including email or household chores
I also use the Pomodoro Technique throughout the school year for miscellaneous tasks like responding to emails or parent communication. I’ve found it really important to batch email so that I am not distracted by checking it all day, and knowing that I have a designated amount of time to look at it each day helps me turn off all my notifications while still responding regularly to colleagues and parents. It works for most of the small tasks we do as teachers that defy categorization; in fact, I am using it right now to write this post!
Perhaps you feel like you’re constantly cleaning up at home or puttering around the classroom tidying. If that’s the case, set the timer for twenty-five minutes, do whatever dishes and fold whichever clothes are in reach if you’re at home; tidy off your desk and write tomorrow’s schedule on the blackboard if you’re at school, but when that timer goes off, you’re done for the day.
For time-sucking social media apps
The Pomodoro Technique can also be an excellent way to limit the time you spend on personal tasks that expand to fill your time, especially those that fall into the category of “mindless fun.” (TikTok, I’m looking at you!) Unless you put a time limit on, these tasks may suck you in for hours without necessarily adding value to your life.
After a long day of school, you might feel that you deserve to kick back and watch the latest comedy skits uploaded to Youtube — who doesn’t need a good laugh?! — but before you know it, it’s midnight and you’re watching cats being scared by cucumbers instead of curling up in bed with a good book. In such a case, you might want to set the timer for twenty-five minutes, and once the timer goes off, so do all your electronics.
For personal betterment
You can even use pomodoros to help you become the version of yourself you intend to be! Plenty of people say they want to be in better shape or read more, but also say that they don’t have the time. As a working mother, I completely sympathize, believe me! At the same time, even while I look after my toddler and plan for my Grade 4/5 online class, the Screen Time app on my phone reveals that I do, in fact, have more than twenty-five minutes of leisure time in my day, every day.
Sometimes I will use a pomodoro to give myself twenty-five minutes of focused reading time or lift some weights or do yoga. Once I’m done, Netflix, here I come!
The trick is to reduce the mental resistance you have to whichever habit you’d like to incorporate until it is something that you want to do. If that means starting off with just five or ten minutes (or three minutes, in the case of me and meditation — eek! Anyone else?!), that’s totally fine too. It’s all about finding the best balance that works for you!
For teaching students time management skills
Not only does the Pomodoro Technique help us teachers, it can also be an excellent tool to help your students learn time management. My class was online this entire year, which brought its fair share of challenges, but there were also some benefits, including being able to utilize the many online tools and apps available for teaching time management skills. Since I was teaching a split grade, I would tell my Grade 4 students to do “one Pomodoro” of math practice while I taught the Grade 5s, then send the Grade 5 students off for “one Pomodoro” while I spent time with the Grade 4s.
We used the website Pomofocus, which also allowed the students to track their tasks and estimate how much time it would take them to complete them, another important skill that can sometimes go untaught unless we are intentional in teaching it. What is true for us is true for students, too: once you start using the twenty-five-minute blocks regularly, you become more adept at estimating how much time is needed to complete a task, and that’s an incredibly useful and underrated life skill.
Not only does the Pomodoro Technique help me regulate focused work time and breaks, but it also helps me disrupt the narrative I sometimes tell myself, that I am “always” working and busy. When I fritter away the day cleaning, checking Instagram, watching shows, and then finally getting down to business in the late afternoon, it can feel like I spent the entire day on the task.
If I use the Pomodoro Technique, however, I can clearly see that the task only took eight spurts of intensely working for twenty-five minutes spread out over five hours, leaving the remaining eight or nine hours in my day gloriously free to clean my house, scroll Instagram, or binge watch a show — without my to-dos hanging over my head.
I invite you to try the Pomodoro Technique, if you haven’t already, and see if it works for you. Now if you’ll excuse me, my timer just went off and I’m going to take a break!