10 Powerful Study Techniques Like the Pomodoro Method (Useful 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 medicine in less time, there are plenty of powerful alternatives.

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

Let’s get started.

Modifying Pomodoro

Before diving in to some of these alternative methods, perhaps it’s worth spending some time recapping the technique (see my article on the Pomodoro method).

And if you’re searching for other techniques because you’ve tried the Pomodoro method and feel it’s not working all that great? This one’s for you.

Here are some quick suggestions though on how you might improve on the technique before picking up a new one:

  • Supercharge your pomodoro breaks. Incorporate meditation, deep breathing, stretches or binaural beats into your downtime. These will help you recover your energy. And possible 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.

Now it’s time for the others.

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.

In medical school this can be a nice trick for those who don’t want to use some flashy app or overly complicated productivity method. It’s analogue. And requires 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 study ideas too.

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 med school students though this is sometimes half the battle. Figuring out what to work on? A common place a lot of us get stuck.

The method is based on a five-step workflow; capture, clarify, organize, reflect and engage. Where you prioritise 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.

90 Minute Focus Block

The 90 minute focus block is similar to the Pomodoro technique except for the recommendation of working in longer, 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“. Phases similar to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep that are linked strongly to hormonal release. And also when our cognitive functions and energies are reported to be at their maximal.

Occurring periodically throughout the day in 90 minute bursts of high frequency brain activity, the idea is you “lock on” to these periods. Scheduling your study sessions alongside them.

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

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

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

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

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

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 in med school. But, as I advise first years specifically, 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 gaining back valuable time.

Related article: Should I Skip Medical School Lectures?

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, it’s 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.

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.

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 capitalising 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 or 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 med students who need to push on through a study plateau.

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.

For med students this could be working on the subject that happens to be your closest exam. Then going down the list in the order of your schedule.

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 though. Here’s Vox explaining how it works.

Med students should get the science behind this one too; specifically how caffeine antagonises adenosine to prevent us feeling drowsy.

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

Summary

Hopefully these ideas can give you a lot more inspiration as to tactics you might try to increase your study time and achieve faster results.

And for those people that know the tactics but are unsure as to how best to study? Make sure you check out my article on how to study medicine more effectively.

Image credit: Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash.