Study well: a whistle stop tour from tomato timers to workplace ergonomics

It is important to structure your study time to get the most from the hours you invest.  One of the most effective methods is known as the Pomodoro Method (from the Italian for ‘tomato’). 

The inventor discovered that using his tomato-shaped cooking timer to set himself short sprint-like periods of intensive working with a specific goal in mind – study a particular subject, write a certain section of an essay, read so many pages of the textbook – separated by a few minutes break thinking/doing something entirely different, he was able to achieve much more than if he forced himself to work continuously.  The short breaks seemed to ‘reset’ his concentration, and because he knew he was only going to work for a certain length of time before he got another break, he was able to ignore distracting thoughts and make himself concentrate.

Traditionally, the method recommends 25-minute segments of concentrated work separated by 5 minutes of doing something entirely different – origami, colouring, playing music, going to make yourself a drink, staring at nature, and so on.   When you return to your task of reading/thinking/writing, those parts of your brain will have had a little rest and so should be somewhat refreshed.

The exact periods of work and breaks are something you will need to play around with to find what works best for you.  There seems little point taking having a break just because your clock tells you to if you have just reached that state of effortless ‘flow’ when everything is going smoothly and the world outside your task has ceased to exist for you.  That said, your posture starts to collapse after around 20 minutes; moving around regularly helps you regain a comfortable sitting posture and restarts your slowing metabolism, helping keep you much healthier, so regular short exercise breaks (just walking up and down is enough – there’s no need to go mad) may help support your longer-term health.

Other tips for safe and healthy study

Other things to remember for safe and comfortable study include:

Man sat at right angles to a cluttered desk, twisting round and leaning over to write.
How not to sit at a desk.

Make sure you are sat comfortably at your computer – Studying for long periods at a computer puts you at risk of repetitive strain injuries if you are working awkwardly.  Life-changing injuries can and do happen to those sat badly for long periods at a desk.  Make sure you are sat comfortably and supported by your chair, with your joints all relaxed, your feet supported flat on a surface, with the top of your computer screen around eye height, comfortable to look at and free from reflections.  I strongly recommend you run through the checklist provided in this guide from the HSE to make sure your workspace is optimised.

Stay hydrated – It is all too easy to forget to drink enough when engrossed in something but dehydration makes you feel bad and seriously impairs clear and rapid thinking.  Have water or a watery drink beside you at all times and get in the habit of sipping it regularly to stay topped up all day long.

Take a longer break around every 2 hours – this avoids you stiffening up and helps fight cumulative tiredness and screen fatigue.

Take time to relax – Relaxation and mindfulness improve emotional regulation and mental clarity but like all skills, they only improve with practice.  A member of Sports & Recreation has created a mindful relaxation podcast that you can listen to or download from her blog and listen to when you need to regroup and relax.

Image credit: “Egg timer in tomato shape for Pomodoro Technique”by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Assistant Librarian (Promotions) at the University Library. An enthusiastic advocate of libraries, diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice for all, inside and outside the workplace.

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