The Cambridge dictionary definition of ‘procrastination’ is “to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring”.

Sound familiar? It’s something we hear of all too often – students who are battling an overwhelming urge to do anything other than study, revise, or write an essay or dissertation despite deadline day looming right around the corner.

That’s where the Pomodoro Technique comes in. Capitalising on our capacity to work extremely well whilst the task in hand feels ‘new’, it’s a surprisingly simple time-management tool used by businesses and academics alike. It encourages the user to work in controlled short bursts, while taking frequent breaks to re-energise and relax. In essence, it’s a way of helping us control time, rather than the other way around, which is all too often the case for many students.

But it’s about more than just ‘taking breaks’. The theory goes that trying to focus knowing you have hours of work ahead of you is often daunting and off-putting. Conversely, it’s far easier to feel motivated by the prospect of small tasks. By setting a timer to 25 minutes and only working for this long at one time, the goal is help you produce better work, faster than you’d able to without the timer. It’s an exceptionally effective way of minimising distractions, feeling more motivated, and attacking particularly large tasks like drafting a dissertation chapter. Plus, if you can be more efficient and productive when you are studying, you’ll be left with oodles of time to get on with the things you enjoy doing – because we all know, university isn’t just about work.

Tempted to give it a go? Read on for further details and tips on how to get started.

What the hell is ‘Pomodoro’, anyway?

Developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo, a then student at Guido Carli International University, the technique was given its unusual name thanks to the way it was conceived. Finding that he was easily distracted, Cirillo decided to give himself the challenge of studying without interruption for 10 minutes. He used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer to keep track, and ‘pomodoro’ is, quite simply, the Italian word for tomato.

Cirillo has worked in the forefront of software development for over twenty years, using a more refined version of his original technique to help improve productivity and efficiency for developers all over the world.

The technique isn’t just great for techies, however – the official website suggests it can also be used by writers, lawyers, directors, students, teachers, and even parents.

How to start using the technique in four easy steps

1. On your marks: choose your task

Start by choosing the essay, dissertation, or exam preparation you want to complete. Remember – you can use this technique for doing almost any piece of academic writing or exercise, so it works equally well for presentations, reports and research, too. Now, decide on the total amount of time you want to spend; this will help you then split your work into blocks far more easily once you’ve got the hang of the technique.

2. Set… your timer

Using a Pomodoro timer for authenticity, or any timer that works well for you (see below for our recommendations), set it to 25 minutes. The aim here is to work productively through short-bursts of focused activity, so it’s essential that your working blocks aren’t too long. For many people, 25 minutes can be too short so feel free to up it to 28 or 30 minutes, but no longer. Conversely, any less than 25 may not allow you the time to get into a deep, productive flow.

3. Go! Start work

For the next 25 minutes, give yourself the best chance of success by committing entirely to the task in hand. Focus all your energy on what you need to get done. Remember – the aim here is not to get as much done as possible in 25 minutes; it isn’t a race. You’re aiming for the very best work you can do, so make sure there are no distractions to throw you off. It may be wise to put your phone on flight mode, and whatever you do, don’t log onto any social network. If the thought of disconnecting from virtuality for any longer than 5 minutes makes you feel nauseous, remember that as soon as the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break in whatever form you prefer.

4. And… relax

Again, a little discipline is required here. Take a break for 5 minutes, and 5 minutes only. Any longer and you may struggle to get back into a flow. After every fourth working block, take a longer break of between 15 to 30 minutes.

During breaks, make sure you step away from where you’re working; stand up, do some stretches, drink water, get some fresh air – whatever makes you feel re-energised and gives your brain some time to relax, so that you can continue to work productively during your next working block.

Keep up this pattern of working and resting for as long as feels good, or until you reach the goal you set yourself for the day.

Apps and gadgets to help you keep time

Whilst it’s fun and the novelty may keep you motivated for a while, there’s no requirement to use a tomato-shaped timer to keep track of your blocks. Easy and free alternatives include your phone’s built-in stopwatch, downloadable apps (see below), or you can even use a basic kitchen timer, if you have one.

The following free apps are available for iOS, Android or desktop, and have been specifically designed with the Pomodoro Technique in mind so include a variety of useful features.

  • Eggscellent (formerly Pomodorable)

    An Apple app that combines a Pomodoro timer with the OS X’s to-do and Reminders app. It allows you to estimate the total number of working blocks you’ll need to complete your task (handy if maths isn’t your strong suit) and also includes reminders to prompt you ahead of upcoming task deadlines. Overall, a very easy-to-use app. More >

  • Clockwork Tomato

    A beautifully designed Android app with editable task lists. The app is fully customisable, so if you're picky about how your apps look and sound, this is the one for you. More >

  • Marina Timer

    This web-based app can be opened in a browser tab to continuously monitor the progress of your work. It offers the user complete flexibility in choosing work and break periods, and sends prompts whenever the timer reaches a deadline. More >

  • Pomodroido

    The first Pomodoro Timer app developed for Android devices, this option is ideal for those who want a little more motivation from their timer. Users are ranked and scored each time a task is completed, and the developers are currently working on challenges and personalised leaderboards so that users can compete with one another, and with themselves. A particularly useful app for those of a competitive nature. More >

  • Tomighty

    Tomighty lets you customise your working and break periods and as it’s available for Windows and Mac, it’s ideal for those who want to switch off their phone while working (recommended). The timer function does reset after 4 work/break periods, which we found a little inconvenient, but overall this is a nifty app. More >