Overcoming Procrastination

This past June, I had the pleasure of participating in the Integrating Positive Psychology into Legal Education conference at Suffolk Law School, organized by Professor Lisle Baker.[1] Each of the twenty or so participants in the conference were tasked with preparing a two-page “Advisory” as well as a nine-minute presentation, designed to improve student well-being.  I chose to write and present on Overcoming Procrastination.

In her terrific MOOC, Learning How to Learn,[2] and companion book, A Mind for Numbers,[3] Barbara Oakley shares a powerful technique for overcoming procrastination: the Pomodoro Technique, invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s.[4]  Cirillo used a kitchen timer, shaped like a tomato, thus its name.  The technique is simple:

  • If you find yourself avoiding work you should be doing, commit to spending 25 minutes working as intensely as possible on that assignment or project.
  • Use a kitchen timer or app on your phone to time yourself.
  • Before you begin the work, however, think of some reward (Ice cream? Web surfing? A walk in the park?) you will give yourself when the 25 minutes are up.
  • And even if at the end of the 25 minutes you want to keep going—stop and give yourself that reward!

Oakley explains that when human beings are faced with assignments, projects, tasks that they aren’t intrinsically motivated to complete (like your students’ Contracts reading, or your tenure article, perhaps?), the pain center in our brain lights up.[5]  So we put off the task because few of us enjoy pain.  Instead, we look to do something that gives us pleasure.  Once we actually sit down and focus on the dreaded task, however, the pain often disappears.  As one expert has noted, “The dread of doing a task uses up more time and energy than doing the task itself.”[6]

And even if the task remains unpleasant, almost any of us can suffer for twenty-five minutes.  And then there’s the dish of ice cream, a walk in the park, or ten to fifteen minutes of guilt-free web-surfing!  Just anticipating that reward helps ease our suffering.

Furthermore, brief study sessions followed by a break improve our students’ learning and fix what they are focused on into their long-term memory, as it allows time for whatever they are studying to “sink in,” so that when they return to task, refreshed, they find they understand the material better than when they left it. That’s because breaks from task allow our brains to process what we are learning, or work on solving a complex problem, while we are focused on something else.[7]

Oakley, who readily admits to being a first-class procrastinator, says that science doesn’t yet know exactly why 25-minute increments work so well, but it is widely found that they do. But she offers certain caveats, useful to those of us among us who procrastinate, as well as our students.  First, sometimes it may make more sense to use somewhat longer periods of time, depending on the task.  Oakley also admits that if she finds herself in a state of flow[8] she may keep going, deferring her reward.[9]  She posits that it takes about 20 minutes for the anticipatory pain to dissipate, so by the time you are in the last five minutes, you may well find yourself in that rewarding flow state.[10]

Oakley emphasizes that one needs to stay focused on the time, not on the task.  By doing so, one can proceed more deliberately, and thus produce better results.[11]

The Pomodoro technique is widely used, with variations in its application.  In an excellent seven-minute video, Thomas Frank offers good, practical suggestions, such as keeping a list of whatever distractions come into our mind while we are in our Pomodoro session.  This moves the distractions from our mind to paper, thus facilitating our return to task.[12]

In a very entertaining 14-minute TED talk, blogger Tim Urban, a self-proclaimed master procrastinator, argues that leaving things to the last minute generally isn’t a problem for him when he has a deadline, but it definitely is when there is none.  Thus, it can be a major problem in achieving one’s long-term or life goals.  Nor does Urban suggest that he does his best work when he leaves it to the last minute, which he demonstrates with great humor.  If you decide to try the Pomodoro technique yourself, I recommend checking out Urban’s talk as your reward after working your intensive 25 minutes![13]


[1] R. Lisle Baker, Suffolk Law School in Boston, https://www.suffolk.edu/law/faculty/Lisle_Baker.php.

[2] Barbara Oakley, Learning how to Learn, https://www.coursera.org/learn/learning-how-to-learn/lecture/Dci3o/a-procrastination-preview.

[3] Barbara Oakley, A Mind For Numbers (2014).  This book is useful for anyone interested in how the brain learns, retains, and retrieves information, whether you ever have the need to solve a complicated math problem.  It was one of two books on the science of learning our then new Dean, Harry Ballan, gifted to members of the faculty in December 2016; the other was Peter C. Brown, Make it Stick (2014).

[4] Francesco Cirillo, The Pomodoro Technique, Work Smarter, not Harder https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique.

[5] Not a literal pain center, but we feel discomfort, and our primitive brain (our amygdala) seeks to avoid that discomfort.

[6] Oakley, supra note 3, at 85 (quoting Rita Emmett).

[7] To understand how and why that happens, and for many other excellent tips on improving learning, I heartily recommend Professor Oakley’s free Coursera MOOC and/or book.  See Oakley, Learning how to Learn, supra note 2; Oakley, A Mind for Numbers, supra note 3.  See also Pam Armstrong’s May 15, 2018 blog post on this site, Mixing It Up: Interweaving Lecture/Lesson and Retrieval Practice for Better Test Results.

[8] Barbara Oakley, Brain Training to Beat Procrastination with the World’s Easiest Learning Technique, The Big Think, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTQDaUQ9MAU (3 ½ minutes).

[9] Researchers at MIT have determined that studying in blocks of one hour—50 minutes of study with a ten-minute break is optimal for effective focus and learning.  Effective Breaks, Study Tips, http://uaap.mit.edu/tutoring-support/study-tips/tooling-and-studying/tooling-and-studying-effective-breaks.

[10] Oakley, supra note 8.

[11] Here there might be some disagreement between Oakley and the technique’s founder, Francesco Cirillo.  Cirillo does focus on the end product, and his steps include calculating how many Pomodoros one will need to accomplish a task, presumably by a set deadline.  See Cirillo, supra note 4.

[12] Frank notes that procrastination operates differently for different people.  For him, it’s only a problem getting started.  The Pomodoro technique helps him get over that hump.  Thomas Frank, How to Stop Procrastinating: The Pomodoro Technique, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H0k0TQfZGSc.

[13] Tim Urban, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU.

2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this post. I needed it!

    • Ok.

      When can you be available tomorrow? I can do it Monday, btw 10 – 11 or after the Exam.


      Allison K. Bethel Clinical Professor of Law Director, Fair Housing Legal Clinic The John Marshall Law School 315 S. Plymouth Court Chicago, Illinois 60604

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