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Time Management with the Pomodoro Technique

By Sofia Kousi

One of the most difficult things about completing a Ph.D. program is that it is a slow and seemingly never-ending project that is not contained within a 9-5 job schedule. You are never done, until you present your dissertation after many years of hard work. In between, there are very few milestones that offer the satisfaction of having completed something.

In the beginning of my Ph.D. program, I found myself very frequently feeling like I was not progressing or accomplishing much, even after a 10-hour work day. In talking with fellow doctoral students, I realized that this is a shared experience. Tasks like writing even a paragraph on a paper might end up requiring reading multiple papers, quickly leading down a rabbit hole of new papers, different journals and promising new reference lists. Although this is an integral part of the Ph.D. process, and helps one progress toward the overall goal, it certainly does not feel this way when it is happening. It feels like wasted time spent lingering around one issue, and not being able to cross it off the to-do list.

One system that I have found really helpful in addressing this is the Pomodoro time management system. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it consists of 25-minute work bursts, followed by a 5-minute break. After 4 consecutive 25-minute work & 5-minute break sessions, the break is then 15 minutes long, and the cycle begins again. This is a very simple technique that rests on one condition: that during the 25-minute work session all distractions are turned off and you are only allowed to work on one task. Practically, this means putting the cell phone on flight mode, and having no access to email, social media, or any other distraction, including other projects you’re working on.

In terms of time management, this simple system helps with two critical issues: Getting you started, and keeping you going when you are stuck. Facing an entire work day ahead may seem endless and daunting. What’s worse, it gives the impression that you have a lot of time at your disposal, which encourages procrastination. Twenty-five minutes is a short enough period of time that it doesn’t feel intimidating, which helps you get started. It is a lot easier to negotiate with yourself and dive right into your task, if you think you only have a 25-minute work session ahead. Surely you can commit to just 25 minutes of uninterrupted, focused work. Once you’ve started the first pomodoro, the rest flow very easily, since your brain finally gets into the work mode. That is until you get stuck with something, like when you can’t get a certain sentence just right. For most people this would be the time they would look for a way out, and opt for a distraction: quickly check email, the news, social media, make a phone call, make coffee. When you find yourself stuck during a pomodoro session, the system itself encourages you to keep going for just a little bit longer, as the end is never more than 25 minutes away. It is easy to tell yourself that you can keep going for another 10 or 20 minutes before you are allowed to give up and take a break. In most cases, if you manage to avoid the distraction and power through, you overcome the problem and move on without losing the momentum.

In addition to the time-management element of the pomodoros, I have found that it does one more thing: it quantifies your work at the end of the day. The nature of the Ph.D. does not allow one to reach the finish line of tasks easily. It is not very frequently one can say ‘I finished the paper’. Assuming that you do really work focused and uninterrupted during the pomodoros, you can use them to measure the work you have put into a project, slowly building up to its completion. This does wonders in alleviating the frustration of never-ending projects, and allows you to finish your workday without any guilt. It can help contain the workday, so that it does not spill over to the entire day, which is exhausting and a can lead to burnout.

Of course, this system is combined with a to-do list prioritization and the breakdown of large projects into smaller parts, which most people are familiar with. While the Pomodoro technique requires only a clock to count down the 25 minutes of work and 5 minutes of break, there are several apps available for Android and iOs. Some have the basic function of counting down the time, while others allow you to designate projects and assign pomodoros to each project. For example, one project can be the conference paper you are working on, another the questionnaire you’ll use on your next experiment, and another the administrative work you may have to do for your department or supervisor. At the end of the day, you can track the amount of time you put into each project and assess your progress.

Hopefully, this technique will help bring order into your workday and allow you to enjoy the process of completing your Ph.D.!