I swear the picture is relevant!

My students often ask me how long they should spend on each revision session. There is no right answer to this – it’s different for different people and you will find it’s different for different topics. For me, if it’s something I’m really interested in, I can easily work for a few hours straight without needing a break. But if it’s something that bores me to death I will struggle to do 15 minutes without a break.

If you really find it hard to motivate yourself or find it hard to know when you’ve done enough work to deserve a break try the ‘Pomodoro technique’.

It works like this:

  • Set a timer for 25 minutes. During this time you do proper get-your-head-down-and-get-on-with-it hardcore revision.
  • Then, you set your timer for 5 minutes. This is your break.
  • Then, set your timer for another 25 minutes and do more revision.
  • Then, set your timer for a 5 minute break.
  • And so on and so forth until you’re done

This method of breaking up your tasks was invented by an Italian named Francesco Cirillo, who originally used a tomato-shaped timer to time how long he had spent on a task. The italian word for tomato is pomodoro, hence ‘pomodoro technique’.

Why it works for me

If ever I really, really need to get on with something, I use this technique. Believe me, I wish I knew about it when I was going my A levels!

25 minutes is a really good amount of time to concentrate for – it’s long enough to really get stuck into something, but it’s not too long as to feel like it’s dragging on forever. No matter how dull or difficult something is you can make yourself do it for 25 minutes.

I also find that watching the timer go down really forces me to concentrate and to try and get as much done as possible, whereas if I don’t time myself I do a few minutes of work, then do the whole “I’ll just check my email” thing and it ends up taking me so much longer.

5 minutes is a good amount of time to take a break for. Although a longer break sounds far nicer, if you take too long it makes it really hard to get back into your revision and makes you more likely to sack it off and go do something else instead.

When I first read about the pomodoro technique I thought it sounded too simple and pointless. Let’s face it, we can all just use a timer to make sure we get our revision done. But it’s one of those things that’s kind of more than the sum of it’s parts. Because the pomodoro technique is a ‘thing’ and so many people swear by it, it makes you take it more seriously than if you were just sat there at home timing your revision like a weirdo.

What can you do in 25 minutes?

You can get a fair few exam questions in 25 minutes or make notes from 2 or 3 (maybe more) text book pages (provided you’re taking notes properly).

If you’re someone who likes to make a set of summary notes or flashcards and go over them several times in the run up to the exams the pomodoro technique will be great for you. You could organise your revision so that you spent 25 minutes reviewing notes/flashcards for one chapter, have your 5 minute break, then spend your next 25 minutes on a different chapter etc.

Don’t feel like you have to get every task done inside the 25 minutes. It’s fine for something to take longer, just spread it over several 25 minute sessions.

www.tomato-timer.com - great for timing yourself while you're working online.

www.tomato-timer.com – great for timing yourself while you’re working online.

My tips on making the pomodoro technique work for you

Get yourself a tomato timer. You can literally buy a tomato shaped timer but there are tonnes of free apps available for your phone which will time your 25 minute sessions and your breaks. If your working on your computer you can use this website.

Don’t go on the internet in your break. I know it’s tempting but if you go on your phone and end up on tumblr or youtube or whatever, you know you will have longer than 5 minutes.

Do some kind of physical activity in your break. The official pomodoro technique website recommends that you do ‘office yoga’ or go outside. But even if you just get up and walk to the fridge to get food it’s better than just sitting down and looking at your phone. Try doing a few star jumps or jogging on the spot for a bit and see how much more motivated you feel. Seriously, this actually works for me.

After every 4 25 minute sessions take a longer break, say 15 minutes of 30 minutes if you need to have a meal. You can go on the internet in this time 😉

Why you should try it

Anything that makes revision less like being tortured and more productive is worth a try. It’s as simple as that. As you go on to university and work you will have the same challenges managing your workload as you do with managing your revison at the momeht. The younger you are when you find a way of coping, the more you will benefit in future.