Measuring Time with Tomatoes

Can tomatoes improve your study skills?

One of the challenges of self-directed study is the essential need for self-discipline. In-class university courses mean having your studies measured out for you, in increments of class time and fixed dates for assignments and exams. Self-directed study allows welcome flexibility, but the freedom to arrange your own time can be a heavy burden.

I measure out my study time with a self-imposed study schedule and target dates. That part is easy. The tricky part is making myself stick to it. I’m not stuck in a classroom for three hours. I can wander?physically and mentally?and do something else: make a phone call, check my e-mail, gaze out the window.

Usually, I can motivate myself to get through course readings. My biggest stumbling block is essays. I love writing?I really do?but there is an element of torture to it. Even when I know what I want to write about, I have difficulty forcing myself to begin. Once I start, word usually follows word and it’s not difficult to continue. But the agony of getting the first word down! I can sit for an hour doing anything but writing that first word.

One technique that I sometimes use to get started?or to continue?is to set an easy goal. For example, I’ll commit to getting 100 or 200 words written or writing for a short period of time, say ten minutes. In the latter case, I set the timer and start writing. By the time ten minutes has passed, I’m on a roll so I turn the timer off and keep going.

I recently heard about the Pomodoro Technique®, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo. When Cirillo was a university student in Italy in the 1990s, he found he had difficulty sticking to his studies, too. He developed a method whereby he worked for 25-minute increments without interruption before taking a short break. Stringing a series of these timed sessions together became so successful for him, he wrote a book about it.

Cirillo used a wind-up kitchen timer shaped like a tomato (pomodoro in Italian) and the tomato has been the symbol of his technique ever since. You can check out the Pomodoro Technique’s website for more information or to purchase Cirillo’s book (or even a tomato timer!)

I don’t have a tomato timer?although the idea is oddly appealing?but I figured I could make do with my digital timer. The next time I sat down to begin writing, I set the timer for 25 minutes. As Cirillo’s technique dictates, I allowed no interruptions during that time. Once that period was up, I took a 3-minute break, then reset the timer for 25 minutes.

I found it manageable to work for 25 minutes and had more than 300 words typed by the end of that time. When my e-mail beckoned with a ding, I was able to defer checking it to the end of the 25 minutes?it’s not too long to wait. It felt satisfying to accomplish that short period of self discipline. That satisfaction helped motivate me to continue with the next 25-minute period, and the next.

Self-control, which is the root of self-discipline, is not a natural gift. It’s a skill to be acquired. Like all skills, it requires practice. Focusing for 25-minutes on one task and denying all distractions is a practice that helps me get through those agonizing moments and get the job done. And the more I practice, the easier each 25 minutes becomes.

It doesn’t matter whether you use a tomato timer or an app, or if you follow the Pomodoro Technique’s 25-minute increments or another timed method. Any practice that allows you to focus?undistracted and uninterrupted?on your studies will allow you to measure your studies in incremental successes.

Barbara Lehtiniemi is a writer, photographer, and AU student. She lives on a windswept rural road in Eastern Ontario. Follow Barbara on twitter @ThereGoesBarb.