Do you ever find yourself:
1. mindlessly scrolling through social media when you should be hard at work, or 2. hard at work and find yourself losing focus?
This blog post might have the right solution for you. However, let’s first learn the science behind why one might encounter the above scenarios.
Why Does This Happen to Us?
In the former case, researchers believe that when we experience stimuli on social media, for instance, receiving “likes” on Facebook, this stimulates the release of dopamine in our brains . This chemical dopamine is responsible for the intense sensation of pleasure we experience using social media . Therefore, this release of dopamine reinforces our behavior to continually check our phones and scroll through social media to seek more of such stimuli in a repetitive vicious cycle. Hence, social media users may unknowingly get sucked into such dopamine-driven feedback loops .
However, perhaps you have mustered all your willpower to stave off social media use. Why does your productivity seem to be poor when you dedicate so many uninterrupted hours to work? After all, Jennifer Lopez famously said, “You get what you give. What you put into things is what you get out of them.” So, putting in maximal effort guarantees maximal output, right? Well, researchers at the University of Illinois may feel otherwise. This is because the results of 84 participants performing vigilance tasks revealed that participants who did not experience actively controlled disengagements from the original task had lower vigilance throughout the original task. Hence in a nutshell, this means that after we work on a single task for extended periods, our brains tune out . That is, we lose focus.
The Secret Formula
Speaking of losing focus, have you lost your focus reading this blogpost yet? I have delayed introducing the solution to the two above scenarios for so long that you might have already lost your attention. Do stay with me for a while longer! Let me introduce the Pomodoro Technique, devised by Francesco Cirillo to you[A]. Why the name “Pomodoro” you might ask? This is because Mr Cirillo used a tomato kitchen-shaped timer to keep track of his Pomodoro cycles, and “pomodoro” means tomato in Italian!
Click on the “Francesco Cirillo” hyperlink to be directed to his book for a more detailed explanation.
This technique can be implemented in five simple steps:
- Decide on the task(s) you intend to bring to completion.
- Set a “task timer” of 25 minutes. You could download the Pomodoro smartphone app [B] or use a timer on your smartphone for this. However, if you happen to get distracted by smartphone notifications easily, perhaps consider using a traditional timer device instead. Proceed to dedicate 101% of your attention to your task at hand during the 25 minutes.
- After the task duration, you could set a “rest timer” of 5 minutes. Proceed to take a well-deserved break during the 5 minutes.
- Repeat Steps 1-3. After the fourth Pomodoro cycle, take a more extended break of 15-20 minutes.
- Repeat Steps 1-4.
Now, let us come back to our earlier two scenarios.
|Scenario #1: Getting Distracted (by social media)||Scenario #2: Hard at work but losing focus|
|The Pomodoro technique keeps distractions like social media at bay during the task duration. Not only that, but it could also capitalize upon the reinforcement by social media stimuli to keep us incentivized to complete the 25 minutes cycles to use social media during the rest period. However, take care not to get too occupied using social media while resting, thus exceeding the rest period.||The Pomodoro technique keeps our minds from tuning off after focusing so intensely on a single task. It does so by actively disengaging ourselves from the task momentarily and infrequently, allowing us to regain our vigilance and focus .|
Of course, the Pomodoro technique is not a silver bullet when it comes to productivity. Especially for students, other learning strategies such as spaced repetition [C] and more, should complement the Pomodoro technique. These learning strategies can be found in the upcoming Strategic Learning book by Professor Robert K Kamei, which I highly recommend you to check out. Also, the Pomodoro technique can be further personalized to suit your studying styles. You could do so by adjusting the task duration and rest duration with experimentation. With that, I would like to wish you all the best in improving your productivity to make the most of the precious hours we have, and ourselves.
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 A. Alter, Irresistible: the rise of addictive technology and the business of keeping us hooked. New York: Penguin Press, 2018.
 A. Ariga and A. Lleras, “Brief and rare mental ‘breaks’ keep you focused: Deactivation and reactivation of task goals preempt vigilance decrements,” Cognition, 05-Jan-2011. [Online]. Available: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0010027710002994?via%3Dihub. [Accessed: 08-Jan-2021].