by Aggie Chapman
You may have tried a number of things – cramming the day (or night) before the test, poring over the materials for hours and hours in an attempt to really understand and remember what you are studying. Perhaps you’ve even had a go at multitasking to make things quicker? All in vain, time wasted and no results…
Here I am to tell you why those methods don’t work and what to use instead. Before we start planning our learning process, it’s vital to understand how our brain and memory work. No, I’m not about to start a lecture in neurology here! What’s important to know is that our brain is in many ways like a muscle. It can develop and grow with regular, consistent practice, but it needs some time to rest, and can be over-worked with too much activity.
Trying to learn all the material at once is like going to a gym for 12 hours instead of training regularly. No way is it going to work. Multi-tasking is merely an illusion of efficiency, but in reality, due to constant distraction, we need more time to complete each task, and even then the outcome may be far from perfect.
You know the times when you have something at the back of your mind, but you can’t remember it despite trying very hard? Then suddenly it comes to you, just like that – after a break, or a good night’s sleep! What happens here is your brain gets tired and needs a rest in order to find the information you need.
The best thing to do is to use our brain the way it works – taking full advantage of its concentration span and letting it rest. Our brain works best for about 25 minutes, then it needs a break. There will be times when you feel like you can do more and there’s no need to stop, but trust me, you’ll get much better results if you do and come back after a bit. Your brain will get refreshed and thus will have more energy for the next bit of work, so you can repeat the cycle of 25 minutes of focus followed by a short break multiple times a day, using them for doing one task step-by-step, or series of different ones. The technique is called Pomodoro, after a small, tomato-shaped kitchen timer that can be set to ring after 25 minutes. It’s become so popular that there are even Pomodoro phone apps available to download and use while studying.
Just compare the two scenarios below.
You’ve got a lot of material to learn for (here insert the name of the most boring subject):
1. You put all your materials on the desk, start the computer/iPad to do any online search you may need, bring some drink and snacks and spend the whole afternoon or evening studying. How long will it take before you get bored and start looking for distractions? Or worse, before you feel so overwhelmed that you’ll feel like ditching it all together because it feels like you’re never going to learn?
2. You split the large task into small parts – if you’ve earmarked an afternoon for studying, look at exactly how much time you’ve got – how many Pomodoro cycles can you realistically fit in there?
Which one feels more achievable? Doesn’t it feel a bit easier to get through just 25 minutes rather than who knows how many hours? Even the fact that you know when you’re going to take a breather makes you feel more in control – the whole process is more predictable and organised!
The science behind it is based on research in our concentration span and brain activity with or without breaks. Using pomodoro lets our brain reset during the break and come back with pretty much the same amount of energy and ability to concentrate as at the beginning of the task. Plus, it’s definitely easier to think that we’ve got a period of 25 minutes work after which we reward ourselves with something nice during the pause. The break should be about 5-10 minutes, just enough to get reinvigorated, change focus by getting up, looking out of the window, going to the kitchen to get a drink, sending a few text messages to friends, scrolling through your Instagram feed or watching a couple of funny TikTok videos, or playing with your pet. Whatever tickles your fancy, just don’t get carried away and start watching TV series – that’s a bit too much of a break! 😉 That said, after you’ve done 4 Pomodoro slots, reward yourself with a more generous break – a solid 20 minutes or half an hour of reset will give your brain the time organise all the new information and get ready to receive more.
Pomodoro will only work, however, if it’s 100% distraction free. It’s the time when we don’t play with the phone, check social media, email or let our thoughts drift away to something else other than the task at hand, but after a bit of work we get to do something nice. The promise of reward can really work miracles on your motivation. You can keep a notepad nearby in case you suddenly remember something important to do afterwards, but don’t fall into a trap of making notes rather than studying.
Of course, it’s not a fix for everything. It will make it easier to focus and learn what you need to, but just because you divide you studying period into smaller chunks doesn’t mean that a boring subject will miraculously become fascinating. It will also take a bit discipline, especially at the beginning to get used to this way of working. Notice that the recommended study time is a lot shorter than any lessons we have at school or university. Sometimes you may feel irritated by the timer ringing for you to stop, when you’re in the middle of an activity. What to do then – stop because it’s break time, or continue to finish the task? I’d say it’s your decision – use your best judgement. It’s not the end of the world if you extend to the study time by a couple of minutes. But if finishing the task means doubling the study period, it rather defeats the point.
It may also not be easy to predict how much work can be done in the 25-minute long window. You’ll get better at it after some initial trial and error, as long as you carefully observe how things work for you. Some people like the method so much that they use it for daily routine planning not only studying or work!