Study Techniques Like the Pomodoro Method (Powerful Alternatives)

The Pomodoro method, although a personal favorite study technique of mine, is only the tip of the iceberg as far as productivity methods go. If you’re looking for alternatives that achieve similar results; ones that let you study more in less time, there are plenty of powerful alternatives.

From the five-minute rule, the Eisenhower matrix, GTD, and beyond, this article takes a closer look at them.

Let’s get started.

Techniques Like the Pomodoro Method

1. Don’t Break the Chain

Also known as the Seinfeld method (yep, from the TV show), the idea with this technique is simple. Each day you set yourself a task. You do the task and mark it off on a calendar (or notebook, or spreadsheet, etc). And the idea is you don’t break the chain.

Eventually, you build a chain of ‘X’s’ or marked days that psychologically you become averse to break. Thus driving your compulsion to get that thing done!

This can be a nice trick for those who don’t want to use some flashy app or overly complicated productivity method. It’s simplicity at its finest. And requires only very basic materials to get started.

You don’t even have to do it daily either. This technique works just as effectively on a weekly (say you aim to strike out all the Fridays in a month) or monthly basis also.

To find out more about don’t break the chain and to connect with other people using it, I’d recommend the following two communities:

  • r/theXeffect – Lots of stories here and helpful guidance on how to set goals for your chain, what to do should you break it and cool ways you can implement it.
  • r/NonZeroDay – Nice community to see other habits and goals other people are using this technique for. From exercise, coding, dieting and more. A nice break from the bubble that is med school.

Both are great places for further productivity ideas too.

2. Getting Things Done (GTD)

First laid out in the book of the same name by time-management expert David Allen, the GTD method is more about planning rather than working.

For many, this is sometimes half the battle. Figuring out what to work on? A commonplace a lot of us get stuck.

The method is based on a five-step workflow; capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. Where you prioritize tasks by listing them all down and working out which are the most actionable.

From there you then work out your next best steps, tackling things systematically by their level of importance.

This video explains the method really well.

3. 90 Minute Focus Block

The 90-minute focus block is similar to the Pomodoro technique except for the recommendation of working in long, 90-minute blocks rather than 25 minute periods.

The concept lends itself to the book The Enchanted World of Sleep by Peretz Lavie and the idea of “ultradian rhythms“. These are phases similar to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that is linked strongly to hormonal release. Our cognitive functions and energies are reported to be at their maximal during these periods.

Occurring periodically throughout the day in 90-minute bursts of high-frequency brain activity, the idea is you “lock on” to this timing. Scheduling your productivity sessions alongside them, is the name of the game.

To find out more about the technique, and how sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman came up with it, I recommend checking out this article.

4. Flow State

One of the biggest complaints about the Pomodoro technique is that it can sometimes disrupt people when they find themselves in a “flow state”.

Feeling you can continue studying for longer than the allotted 25 minutes, the timer of a Pomodoro can sometimes feel quite restrictive.

The flow state refers to a mental phenomenon first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. It is described as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake”. Where our sense of self falls away and we become hyper-focused on an activity or task.

For busy individuals looking to tap into this powerful frame of mind, Csikszentmihalyi (in the book Flow) recommends four approaches:

  1. Picking an activity we enjoy or are passionate about
  2. Choosing something beyond our current knowledge state
  3. Selecting something challenging that involves mental exertion
  4. Following a plan of action with definite goals in mind

Working this into existing techniques, you might want to forego setting a timer to instead fall back on a detailed study/work plan. Then seeing where this takes you.

Here’s Mihaly discussing it himself in his famous 2004 TED talk…

5. Eisenhower Matrix

Also known as the “Urgent-Important Matrix”, this is another technique similar to the GTD system that focuses on prioritisation over productivity.

File:7 habits decision-making matrix.png - Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: Wikipedia

The method works by dividing tasks into four “boxes” based on their areas of perceived importance. For students, it’s best used after listing down all the possible tasks you’re expected to manage. Then filtering them accordingly.

If you’re anything like me, and a bit of a perfectionist, you’ll probably tell yourself that every task is worth doing. This is far from the truth! So use this matrix ruthlessly.

More often than not? You’re not likely to lose anything from the tasks you choose to eliminate. Instead of gaining back valuable time.

6. Tocks

Tocks is another system similar to Pomodoro and other time-chunking productivity techniques. Created by the founder of productivity app Beeminder, where you put down money as a motivator to keep your habit going, the technique is another simple one.

A tock is a 45-minute work chunk that goes a little bit further than the Pomodoro method and actively encourages users to write down their distractions while they go about working on whatever goal it is they’ve set.

That way, according to Danny, its creator, you don’t have to “juggle all the other things your brain wants to think about.” As well as having a handy list of other things to work on come break time.

7. 52/17

This is a method dreamed up by Julia Gifford who wrote about her findings in The Muse in relation to a study charting productivity in the workplace.

Using a time-tracking app and monitoring the habits of the most productive employees, Gifford’s team found that the most productive “work for 52 minutes at a time, then take breaks for 17 minutes before getting back to it.”

The key here, according to Gifford, is that those using the technique work in a super-focused state during each “sprint”. Drawing a lot of parallels with the flow state and the 90-minute methods mentioned before.

Another reminder that effective study is all about remaining distraction-free. Especially during extended periods of time.

8. The 2 Minute Rule

The 2-minute rule is all about coming to terms with your mental resistance and accepting the fact that sometimes you’re just feeling lazy and not up to the task.

The way it works is that you decide to commit to a task for just two minutes. No matter how much you resent or dread doing the thing in question.

Once those two minutes are up? You can then decide what to do next.

This is a nice mental trick that forces you into taking action by selling yourself on the idea that you’ll work for just a short amount of time. Thus capitalizing on the idea that you’ll continue anyway and go for longer. Having mustered up the energy and taken the first steps in the first place.

Here’s James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, explaining more on how you can apply it to larger tasks too. Namely by “downscaling” them into a two-minute action.

Notice how he says not to commit to the outcome but only the process? That’s something that can really help people needing to push through a plateau.

9. 1-3-5

This productivity hack is very similar to the Eisenhower matrix and depends on you again breaking down a to-do list to that of a list of actions.

The basic principle is you pick one big thing (your main priority), three medium things, and five small things to work on. Then go at them in that order. Meaning you chip away at the major thing likely to get you the best results (80/20 rule) first.

This could be working on the subject that happens to be your closest exam. Or an urgent work project.

10. Caffeine Nap

Finally my favorite productivity/study tip on this list. And there’s a reason I saved the best until last; coffee!

Combine that with my second love; sleep, and you’ve got something really special.

Here’s Vox explaining how it works.

As the video says you want to do this carefully. Making sure you have fast access to a bed once you’ve imbibed your lovely warm cup.

For students doing the bulk of our work at home? That shouldn’t be a problem, however.

Pomodoro not working for you?

Before trying some of these alternative methods above, perhaps it’s worth spending some time recapping the Pomodoro technique (see my article on the Pomodoro method) and seeing if you can’t modify it to fit your needs better.

Here are some quick suggestions on how you might improve it:

Supercharge your Pomodoro breaks

Incorporate meditation, deep breathing, stretches, or binaural beats into your downtime. These will help you recover your energy. And possibly lessen the intensity to prolong your stamina too.

Play with pomodoro lengths

25 minutes feels too long? Cut those sessions down and ease yourself into the technique gently. Build up to that length over time.

Use a passive timer

Sometimes the sound of a timer going off can be quite harsh and disruptive. If that’s the case look into using visual timers or music that fades out after a set length.

Noise cancelling headphones

Although I don’t use these myself, these can be great for blocking out distracting noise and help you focus more deeply during your sessions.


Although the Pomodoro technique can be super effective, it’s not for everyone.

Hopefully, the alternative ideas above can give you more inspiration as to tactics you can employ to try to increase your productivity time and achieve faster results.

And for those people aware of these tactics but unsure how best to study? Make sure you check out my article on how to study medicine effectively.

Image credit: Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash.