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  • Writer's pictureThe Rivers School

The Pomodoro Technique: A Practical Homework Tool

Have you ever had the experience of sitting down to complete a small task, and 25 minutes later, you still haven’t finished it — but you have answered three emails, read two texts, put a snack in the microwave, and spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of the song in the background?

Distraction. It’s the world we live in . . . and it makes it hard to get things done. The antidote to distraction is focus. Learning how to focus is an absolutely vital skill — something that our kids need to practice, and practice, and practice again.

One simple, powerful method for tuning out distraction and building focus muscles is the Pomodoro Technique.

I first learned about this technique from Barbara Oakley’s new book LEARNING HOW TO LEARN: How to Succeed in School Without Spending All Your Time Studying — a book we have been using in our middle school this year. Oakley is an engineering professor and co-creator of the world’s most popular online course — also titled Learning How to Learn. Her books and course demystify the neuroscience behind learning. She is a self-described“math flunky” who “retooled her brain.”

Oakley says that the Pomodoro Technique is the most popular strategy she teaches — the one students say has had the most impact on their learning. And it’s simple.

Choose a task to work on.Put away all distractions — turn off the notifications on your email, put your phone in a drawer, turn off the TV, and tell your family that you need some focus time.Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work until the timer goes off.Take a five-minute break (again, set the timer). During break time, stretch, grab a snack, dance to a favorite song — give your mind and body a rest.

That’s one Pomodoro — 25 minutes with a five-minute “reward.” Sometimes homework will take two Pomodoros. Sometimes it will take three. But what students discover is they get their homework done significantly faster when they use this technique. Typically we waste lots of time refocusing our attention on the task at hand. In fact, one study found that it takes an average of 23 minutes to return to an original task after becoming distracted.

As Oakley writes:

Don’t switch between tasks when you’re doing your Pomodoro. Pick a task and work at it until the bell rings. (Of course, if you finish a task during a Pomodoro, you can start another.) Some students think they can do several tasks at once, or switch back and forth between several tasks at once. This is called multitasking. But the idea of multitasking is a mistake. Your focus can only be on one thing at a time. When you switch your attention, you waste mental energy, and you will perform worse. It’s like a pinball machine where two balls have been released instead of one, and you have to crazily try to manage both the balls. You inevitably fail and both balls drop.

To learn more about this technique, you can read an excerpt from Oakley’s book here or watch this three-minute video of her explaining it. Try doing a family Pomodoro one night to get started — you might be surprised by how much you all accomplish in 25 minutes!

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