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One afternoon in our College Planning session, Kevin, a 10th grade student, told me that he’d been up until midnight trying to prepare for his math test. “I just ran out of time,” he confessed, clearly frustrated. When I asked him more about his evening, he reported that he’d started on his homework about 5pm without much of a plan, taking breaks to text with friends, exercise, and eat dinner. He then resumed studying at 8pm until he felt too tired to continue and went to bed at midnight feeling anxious and flustered. Even though Kevin ended up getting an A on the test, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t “working smart.” He admitted that he wanted to break this cycle but did not know how. Sound familiar?

By the time many teens enter high school, they’ve already developed unsustainable study habits, yet feel unprepared to manage their time better. They don’t have a sense of the “how.”

Fortunately, high school students can improve their time management and study skills once they learn, practice, and are mentored in techniques. One of our favorite, go-to techniques is the Pomodoro Technique. Once Kevin  practiced it for just a week, he reported that he felt more organized, confident, and in control of his schedule. He was able to get to bed before midnight and felt rested and confident in all of his classes.

The Pomodoro Technique

We are big fans of the Pomodoro Technique, a simple time management practice during which students use a timer to divide study periods into intervals with brief breaks in between. These intervals are known as pomodoros, the Italian word for tomato, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the inventor of this method, Francesco Cirillo, used in the 1980s as a university student in Rome.

In short, the Pomodoro Technique improves focus and productivity by encouraging users to create a plan and “chunk out” their work into smaller portions that feel doable. Pomodoro also helps teens learn how to survey their work and estimate the time they need to finish each task on their to-do list.

The Pomodoro steps are simple and easy for teens to implement:

  1. Write out a to-do list. Estimate how much work can be accomplished in 25 minutes; set a loose goal for each session.
  2. Focus on one to-do at a time. If a task is finished in less than 25 minutes, teens can move on to the next item. If they can’t finish in 25 minutes, they can take a break, and resume in the next chunk of time.
  3. Set the timer to 25 minutes (make sure to turn off phone notifications!).
  4. Work on the task(s) until the timer rings.
  5. Take a 5 minute break.
  6. Resume for another 25 minutes to finish the task and/or start the next one.
  7. After 4 work/break intervals of 30 minutes, take a 30 minute break.
The Pomodoro Technique

Pomodoro users can experiment with the length of the pomodoros and breaks to customize the process. For example, longer pomodoros of 60 minutes may be more effective for students who need longer work periods; other students may want to start “smaller” for the duration of time they can concentrate before their attention starts to wander and then work their way up to longer periods of time.

Advantages of the Pomodoro Technique

  1. Simple and easy to adopt.

The Pomodoro Technique helps students get into the optimal mindset for productive studying and stay there without distractions. Students can use their phone timer, a Pomodoro app like Clockit, or even a good old-fashioned kitchen timer.

  1. Minimizes procrastination.

Students need not commit to completing all of the work for one subject at once. If they approach the work pomodoro-by-pomodoro, it’s not as intimidating. They can also build in breaks as needed.

  1. Makes multitasking unnecessary.

Contrary to what we frequently believe, the human brain cannot effectively handle more than one task at a time; it can only alternate among them. The Pomodoro Technique reduces the tendency to try to multitask, increasing focus and retention.

  1. Sets limits on study time and increases productivity.

In the 1950’s, Cyril Parkinson researched workplace behavior and published “Parkinson’s Law,” which states that work will fill the time available for it. Studying, like work, can drag on indefinitely if no end point is set, to the detriment of other study topics that need attention. The Pomodoro Technique remedies this problem.

Pomodoro + Blue Stars = Foundation for Student Success

After Kevin’s success with the Pomodoro Technique, I started teaching it to all of my College Planning students. The resounding response is that they are now better able to finish assignments on time and prepare for tests without losing focus or dragging out the tasks on their to-do list. Additionally, they’ve learned to assess how long certain tasks take and can plan accordingly, which ultimately helps them take control of their study schedule.

The Pomodoro Technique can be a stepping stone for students who need a place to begin with their study habits. Once students fine-tune the art of segmenting their time, assessing how productive they can be during focused sessions, and keeping track of how long certain tasks take, they see positive results.

Summer break is an excellent time to hone these skills and start practicing the Pomodoro Technique. Internships, summer school, volunteer programs, and independent projects all present low-risk opportunities to try out this technique, which will also be useful as students embark on the college application process.

At Blue Stars, we love sharing tools like the Pomodoro Technique with our students, coaching them long term as they go through the “growing pains” of learning new techniques, and seeing them make great strides in their academic growth! Get started with a Blue Stars counselor sooner rather than later to build solid time management and study habits.

About the Author: Amy Morgenstern

Dr. Amy Morgenstern, affectionately known as Dr. M, is the founder and CEO of Blue Stars Admissions Consulting. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and an MFA in contemporary art. A former professor of philosophy, honors program associate director, and assistant to the director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, Dr. M brings a wealth of academic and multicultural experience to her practice.

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