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photo of pomodoro timer in front of keyboardRose Hendricks is a guest author and PhD student in Cognitive Science at the University of California, San Diego. You can follow her on Twitter at @RoHendricks or on her blog What's In a Brain.

Managing time productively may be one of the most challenging aspects of graduate school. Somehow you need to juggle research, classwork, and teaching, while hopefully setting time boundaries to pursue a life outside grad school at the same time as taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep and eating well. Sometimes I feel that seemingly-important distractions are everywhere. I might be reading an article for a class and decide I should check out one of its references. Then I glance at my email to see 5 new messages, one of which is from my advisor and warrants an immediate response. I open my Google calendar to set up a meeting, and realize that my rent is due, so I log in to my online banking account to verify that I have enough in my account… and the next thing I know, my mind is far from that article I was reading in the first place. If you ever fall victim to a time-sucking chain of events like this one, you know that using time efficiently is crucial. I’ve explored a few different techniques for making the most of my time, and one in particular that has been helpful is the Pomodoro Technique.

The actual technique is very detailed and methodical (so much so that there’s a whole book on it!), but the nice thing is that you can follow the Pomodoro Technique as closely or loosely as you want. Here are some of the key points:

  • A Pomodoro is an indivisible 25-minute chunk of time. Your work is measured in 30-minute blocks: 25 minutes of work followed by a 5-minute break. This constitutes one Pomodoro. After 4 consecutive Pomodoros, you take a 15-30 minute break. Use a timer. (The technique actually got its name because the creator first used a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato, and “pomodoro” is Italian for tomato.)
  • A Pomodoro should be completely uninterrupted. This is hard, but crucial. The 25-minute block of time should be completely distraction-free. Technically, if you cave and end up on Facebook or if something requiring immediate attention does come up, you’re supposed to start the Pomodoro over, but this is one of those aspects that can be tailored to your preferred rigidity. This allows for what blogger and academic Cal Newport calls deep work: “cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve.”
  • Set daily goals. These goals should be ambitious, but realistic. They’ll ensure that you always know what lies ahead and can pace yourself. Although it’s best to keep a consistent eye on these goals so you know how you’re progressing through the day, it’s especially important to check in with them at the end of the day. This will allow you to evaluate how well you did. If you achieved what you set out to do, your goal list reminds you to congratulate yourself. If you fell short, you can use it to reevaluate whether you need to alter your expectations or your work habits.
  • Measure new tasks in Pomodoros so you can better estimate how long they’ll take. When you’re doing something that’s different from work you’re used to, it can be hard to know how long it will take you. If you time it (or measure it in Pomodoros), you’ll have a starting point for the next time you have the same or a similar task. You should even find that your time estimation improves over time.

There’s certainly more than one way to effectively manage time in grad school. The Pomodoro technique is one method that allows you to eliminate distractions in order to accomplish focused work in a timely manner. It can be effective both for getting concrete tasks done and acquiring new skills more quickly, and may be worth a shot if you find yourself swimming in a sea of distractions.

Do you use any techniques like the Pomodoro method? How have you been able to achieve deep work and use your workday most efficiently?

[Image by Flickr user David (Standout) used under creative commons licensing.]

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