Studying languages more effectively with the Pomodoro technique

I have a confession to make – I am a serial procrastinator. As much as I love learning Japanese and blogging, there are days when I can’t seem to get round to doing either of them. There are also days when I set quite a lot of time aside to write a blog post for example, but only end up with a half-finished post.

If I am honest with myself, my lack of productivity on days like this is normally because of two things:

  1. I haven’t thought through what my goal actually is and what I need to get it done
  2. I pick up my phone to check an email and somehow end up wasting time on somewhere like Facebook/ Twitter/ Reddit

Fortunately, the Pomodoro technique has helped to reduce my “bad productivity days” not only with blogging but with language learning too!

About the Pomodoro technique

Pomodoro is the Italian word for ‘tomato’. The Pomodoro technique is a reference to those tomato shaped timers used for cooking.

Time management expert Francesco Cirillo came up with the Pomodoro technique which has 6 easy steps:

  1. Choose a task you’d like to get done
  2. Set the Pomodoro for 25 minutes
  3. Work on the task until the Pomodoro rings
  4. When the Pomodoro rings, put a checkmark on a piece of paper
  5. Take a short break (5 minutes)
  6. Every 4 Pomodoros, take a long break (usually 20 minutes)

Benefits of the Pomodoro technique

There are numerous benefits to the Pomodoro technique:

  • It’s easier to get focused and stay focused – 25 minutes is long enough to get things done, but not so long that you get bored.
  • Avoid distractions such as social media (you can check them on your breaks of course!).
  • Short breaks give your brain time to recharge – studying for a long time without breaks is counterproductive.
  • You soon work out how much time you need to dedicate to longer tasks. This is especially good if you have a deadline coming up!
  • Easy to track how time has been spent. This is to make sure that you are spending time working towards the goals that are relevant to you.

I had been using the Pomodoro technique for certain tasks that I struggle to motivate myself for such as tidying my room. It was only recently that I realised that it can be easily applied to language learning too.

Language learning requires a lot of energy. Sustaining the level of concentration needed to study effectively becomes more difficult over longer study sessions. From my own experience, studying for long periods of time without a proper break usually leads to frustration and burnout.

How I use Pomodoro for languages

For me, the Pomodoro technique is particularly useful when I am working towards specific goals, such as studying grammar for the JLPT or working on improving my pronunciation. For regular daily study, I have a series of mini goals that I spend 10-15 minutes on (see my Habits over Goals post).

I particularly struggle with studying for the JLPT. Finding the motivation to study grammar, drill vocab and do mock tests can be extremely difficult, even when the test is only a few days away. This is an example of how I am using Pomodoros for my JLPT prep (I am working towards the JLPT N1 exam in December):

Before I start a session, I decide on a specific goal and how I am going to achieve the goal.

For example, I will spend 25 minutes reviewing JLPT grammar points from my Kanzen Master textbook. I usually stick to one learning resource only, as referring to more than one usually leads to procrastination.

I then set the timer to 25 minutes and prepare to study

At this point, I also make sure I have my noise-canceling headphones, some water, and any other tools I might need within easy reach.

I choose to listen to music during my Pomodoro study sessions. I always used to find music distracting. But I realised that I absolutely cannot listen to music with words, because I usually start singing along! There are some great instrumental videos on Youtube if you search “study music”. My personal favourite things to listen to are Ghibli soundtracks and chilled hip hop.

Work on task for 25 mins, then take a short break

As soon as I start playing my study music, I know it’s time to get focused!

Sometimes I extend the Pomodoro length to 30 or 35 minutes if I feel like I am in deep focus, and taking a break after 25 minutes would be counterproductive. If I do this, then I usually reduce the number of Pomodoros accordingly.

I make sure that on my breaks that I physically get up and take a short walk, drink some water and grab a snack if I am hungry.

Complete 3 or 4 Pomodoros, then take a long break.

Review progress made and make notes for next session

I think it is important to look back on your session and review any issues you came across. The questions that I often ask myself include:

Did I identify some kanji/ vocabulary that I need to review?

Do I need to refer to another resource to clarify my understanding of a grammar point?

By doing this, I can make adjustments for my next session that will help me work more effectively.

How I track my Pomodoros

One of the best things about the Pomodoro technique is that the only tool you need is a timer. Having said that, there are a lot of apps out there that can help with tracking your Pomodoro sessions. Here are a couple of apps that I personally use:

Google Chrome Extension – Marinara: Pomodoro Assistant

I use Google Chrome as my browser, and there is a simple but extremely useful Chrome extension called Marinara that I use for blogging (as I normally need to be connected to the internet!)

Screenshot 2018-06-24 at 12.07.28
The icon on the far right shows a Pomodoro in progress

By clicking on the Marinara icon I can jump straight into a Pomodoro session. When each session is done, I get a popup to remind me to take a short or long break depending on how many Pomodoros I have completed.

Marinara has a countdown timer, which I find motivating when I feel my concentration slipping – knowing that I only have a couple of minutes to go helps to keep me going!

Screenshot 2018-06-24 at 12.06.36

You can adjust the length of the Pomodoros and how the extension alerts you to the end of a Pomodoro if you wish. Marinara also tracks your Pomodoro activity which is quite nice too.

Pomotodo App (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows)

When it comes to offline Japanese study sessions, I make use of Pomotodo. By creating an account, you can make to-do lists and track Pomodoros completed; these can then be synced to track your productivity across multiple platforms.

Pomotodo also has a few other useful features. For example, the mobile version allows you to block the use of certain apps whilst a Pomodoro is in progress. You can set daily, weekly or monthly goals and also see what times of the day or week you are most productive

Pomotodo is very user-friendly and I love the clean, simple design. The app is free but has a Pro version costing $3.90 per month – I don’t think that the Pro version adds enough value to be worth purchasing it though.

Using the Pomodoro technique has confirmed to me that the most important thing is not the length of time spent on a task, but rather how you use the time spent. Defining what goals you have and how you are going to achieve them is also key to using your time effectively. I only wish I had come across this technique before I last took the JLPT!

Do you have any time management hacks (for language learning or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments!

0 thoughts on “Studying languages more effectively with the Pomodoro technique

  1. choronghi.WORDPRESS.COM says:

    do you also work on intonation when you practice pronunciation?? I recently pledged 10$ to dogen to watch his pitch accent videos and I’m glad I did.

    • kotobites says:

      Yes, although unfortunately I have only started working on this fairly recently. I will definitely be buying Dogen’s videos at some point, his free videos on the topic are really good!

      • choronghi.WORDPRESS.COM says:

        I’ve also recently worked on pitch accent. however from watching dogen’s videos I definitely am not aiming for native-like japanese pronunciation (I think you’ll know what I mean by this if you end up watching his 40-something vids on pitch accent and phonetics aka how to sound like a japnese native). My pitch accent has improved from watching his videos and can improve more with practice and I’ve found more stuff to be aware while listening/watching to Japanese. i also found this video helpful
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEaB0Xv1NXA&index=4&list=PLwh5V5gOUMiTVP7Gty2BSrbh0oHxbGgZk

        she speaks korean mainly but it’s obvious from the pictures what she means!

    • kotobites says:

      Thanks for the video! I think I’ve been studying Japanese too long to get rid of all my bad pronunciation habits (without significant effort anyway), but I definitely want to sound as natural as possible

  2. Julia says:

    I use the Pomodoro technique too, and I love it! The only thing for me is that 5 minutes of break is a bit too short, so I usually opt for a 35 minutes study/work/whatever followed by a 10 minutes break. It has worked pretty well so far =)

    • kotobites says:

      Hi Julia, I am the same – sometimes I get really absorbed in what I am doing and so I extend my work time to 30 or 35 minutes, which also has the benefit of a longer break 🙂

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