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There are a lot of simple tips to help you stop procrastinating. Procrastination is one of the biggest obstacles to learning, driving memory and retention down to unusable levels. It’s actually the brain’s response to painful or uncomfortable thoughts or tasks; the pleasure centers of our brains light up immediately after we decide to do anything else, putting off our dreaded tasks until another time. This can have severe impacts on learning and retention.

Barbara Oakley breaks down a particularly effective technique, known as the Pomodoro Technique. Here is how to get the most out of this practice:

  1. Turn off all notifications, phone noises, and other distractions.
  2. Set a timer for 25 minutes.
  3. Dedicate that full 25 minutes to conscious, intentional study.
  4. Without getting frustrated, let distracting thoughts come in and out of your mind as you refocus on the learning at hand.
  5. Following the 25 minutes, give your brain a break and occupy your thoughts to anything other than the subject matter. This will help solidify the knowledge you just stuffed in there.

It’s within this decompression time following the activity that learning occurs the most – once the brain switches gears to a retention-driven mode. When we run creative writing and storytelling workshops, we modify this timer to be for 45 minutes. We follow this block of work with a reading activity in a subject completely unrelated to writing or storytelling. Often, we will ask students to read a few pages of a physics book or something in the historical sciences. This frees up their creative mind and actually helps keep the energy up for the next block of work.

How do you improve the retention in intense learning sessions for your company? Have you tried the “Pomodoro Technique” and, if so, what were the results for your team?


Barbara Oakley: “Procrastination is actually one of our biggest impediments to learning. When we even think about what we don’t like and don’t want to do, it activates a portion of the brain that experiences pain. So the first thing we do is we shift our attention from whatever activated that pain to anything else. We feel better almost instantly.

“The easiest way to tackle it is to use what’s called the Pomodoro technique. Turn off all distractions. No little popups on your screens or little buzzers or whatever. You set a timer, any timer, for 25 minutes, and then you just focus for 25 minutes.

“Now, if you’re human, like me, you’ll have other thoughts that arise when you are doing this. And I let that thought go right on by, and I just return my focus to my work. And then when I’m done with that 25 minutes, I just relax. I’ll take five, ten minutes, and do whatever I want.

“Do you think that you’re only learning something or only working when you’re focusing on something? When you’re relaxing, your brain is continuing to process, and that allows you to learn or to think about whatever you’ve been handling in a more creative and effective way. So that relaxation period is also an important part of the learning process.”