7 August 2020


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How Tomatoes Can Help you Finish Your PhD

By Catherine Pope

August 7, 2020

Posted in Productivity

It’s no exaggeration to claim that my PhD was completely transformed by the Pomodoro Technique. I still use it most weeks, and talk about it almost daily. If you’re not familiar with it, hold tight. Pomodoro is Italian for tomato, and it refers to those novelty tomato-shaped kitchen timers. Here’s what you do:

  1. Choose a task to be accomplished
  2. Set your timer for 25 minutes (it doesn’t have to resemble a tomato)
  3. Work on your task without any interruptions – so, don’t check email, make a cup of tea, or talk to the cat. If anything unrelated pops into your head (which it will), quickly make a note of it and return to your task.
  4. When the buzzer or bell sounds, take a 5-minute break and record your progress.
  5. Repeat, taking a longer break for every 4 tomatoes completed.

The Pomodoro Technique was devised by Franceso Cirillo, back in the 1980s. The science behind it is that most of us can focus for only 25 minutes before our mind starts to wander. That’s when we resort to faffing and stop making any actual progress. A 5-minute break allows our brain to relax, but it’s not long enough for us to lose momentum or forget what we were working on.

You can use those breaks any way you please. Personally, I find it almost impossible to restrict myself to 5 minutes of internet browsing and nearly always overshoot. Also, my mind is then distracted by what I’ve just been reading and my thoughts become disordered. I use those breaks to stretch or get a cup of tea. Those of us with dodgy backs can benefit enormously from being told to get up every so often. It’s much harder to finish your thesis with sciatica.

Everyone is different, so you’ll need to experiment to establish an approach that suits you. Some find 25 minutes too long, or require ten minutes between tomatoes; others need a giant 60-minute tomato to make any progress. You might not even find it helpful at all. Maybe you just need one tomato to get you going, then you’ll be flying.

Pomodoro Timers

Although I have a clockwork tomato, I don’t use it when writing. It makes a noise like Armageddon and I have to peel myself off the ceiling. There are hundreds of Pomodoro timers out there, including desktop tools, mobile apps, and physical devices. Here are my three favourite timers:

  • Mytomatoes.com – this simple website acts as a timer and also allows you to record what you achieved. This is wonderfully motivating. I used this site during my PhD and return to it when I can trust myself to have a web browser open.
  • Brainfocus app – although this is a Pomodoro timer, you can easily adjust the duration of your tomatoes and even build longer breaks automatically. Helpfully, it’ll also block your wifi while you’re working. I use this if I’m writing longhand and want to keep away from my computer.
  • Alexa – I know she’s spying on me, but I do find Alexa very helpful for setting reminders. I can say “Alexa, set timer for 25 minutes,” then she’ll let me know when the time is up. I also sometimes ask her to do some fact-checking while I’m writing. This means I don’t start browsing Wikipedia and getting lost in an internet rabbit hole.

Why is the Pomodoro Technique effective?

The Pomodoro Technique works for most of us because it encourages short bursts of focused activity and allows us to break our work down into more manageable tasks. It might take you a little while to get used to it, but soon you’ll start thinking of tomatoes as a unit of labour, “Hmm, that looks like a three-tomato task.”

You’ll be surprised by what you can achieve in 25 minutes, too. It depends on the type of writing (e.g descriptive, analytical, contextual), but 500 words is feasible if you know what you’re going to write. Complete a tomato each day and guess how much you’ll have accumulated by the end of the month? 10,000 words. Yes, really! That could be the basis of a thesis chapter.

If you’re struggling to fit everything in your schedule at the moment, just make a commitment to yourself to complete one tomato a day. Once you’ve done that five days in a row, see whether you can squeeze in two per day. The key is to not overstretch yourself by setting an unrealistic target. It’s much easier to take a short walk every day than it is to run a marathon once a week. Think small and consistent, not big and sporadic.

A few years ago, I regularly saw a student who was struggling to finish his thesis. He’d got stuck on the penultimate chapter and couldn’t imagine ever finishing. One day, I spotted his smiling face on campus. “Catherine, I’ve done it!” he shouted. I said, “Well done, that’s wonderful news. How did you get through that final chapter?” His response? “It was 150 tomatoes.”

You can do it, one tomato at a time.

Catherine Pope

About the author

Since completing her PhD in 2014, Catherine has supported thousands of researchers through to the finish line. Having enjoyed a varied career as a web developer, lecturer, and coach, Catherine now shares her skills and knowledge through PhD Progress.

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