Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

The Pomodoro Technique for Writers

So I’ve been using something called the Pomodoro Technique to help me in my writing. It’s been nothing short of amazing. On the surface, it’s very simple. You block out 25 minutes to work, crank up a kitchen timer and only focus on that task until the timer rings. But I have found it to be Double-Plus-Advanced-Level-Zen-Productivity-Ninja-Superbest for writing. And here’s why — It defeats something psychologists call the Anxiety of Becoming.

Here’s what the creator of the Pomodoro Technique, Francisco Cirillo has to say on the subject:

For many people, time is an enemy. The anxiety triggered by “the ticking clock”, in particular when a deadline is involved, leads to ineffective work and study behaviour which in turn elicits the tendency to procrastinate. The Pomodoro Technique was created with the aim of using time as a valuable ally to accomplish what we want to do the way we want to do it, and to empower us to continually improve our work or study processes.

That feeling of the ticking clock is the feeling that we should be further along in our writing. This anxiety has been very useful to me in my professional life. Writing ads or even brochures is like sprinting. Faster! Faster! Faster!

But a book is a marathon. A serious article has to be a 5k. And for both, there is certainly something to be said for pacing. And limiting anxiety. For me, the anxiety gets in the way. All those thoughts of, I should be faster, I’ve got to hit this word goal, I’ve got to make sure that these words are good enough to keep or I will fall behind and I really really suck at this are counter-productive.

As writers, I’m not sure any of those worries are within our control. Or any of a thousand other worries that beset us as we are trying to go about the business of getting words on a page. All we can really do is control our focus. And the Pomodoro technique helps me get better at that.

The Real Distractions

Sure, distraction is the enemy. Everybody knows that. Facebook, Twitter, googling random things — the productivity that a computer can grant us is easily counterbalanced by the interrupts that it offers. But the real interrupts aren’t digital. They are psychological. The thoughts that you have while trying to write that have nothing to do with writing. Here’s how the Pomodoro helped me with distraction:

Every time you have a thought about or desire to do something else, I write it down and continue with my work. At the end of the Pomodoro (25 minute interval) I would review the things that had attempted to derail me and see if any of them needed doing, or had merit.

For example, “take the dog for a walk” has merit. I should take both the dog (and my fat ass) for a walk at some point during the day. But “need to look up commas because you are using them wrong” has no merit. Maybe, I, am, using, commas, wrong. Who cares. Fix it in the rewrite. No reason to let one misplaced comma get in the way of 500 good words.

There are a billion worries and criticisms that can get in the way of getting the first draft down on paper. If we are unaware of them, then were are powerless over them.

Quality versus Quantity versus Progress

There’s probably not much we can do about the quality of our writing in the first draft. It is what it is. If we write enough first drafts and then rewrite them, we will become better writers. The more you work at something, the better you get. But what the Pomodoro Technique has done for me is give me an atomic unit of effort. A first draft is a rough number of words. But to get there I will have to spend X amount of quality, focused time. Not X amount of anxiety. Not X amount of times putting it off. Nope, X amount of time actually at the keyboard (or pad, completely focused on what I’m trying to write)

So the measure of a draft becomes X Pomodoros. Not words. Not quality. The psychological relief of this is immense. It gives me a way to just show up and do my part of the job. I put in the hours, I get the result. But if I worry about the result while I’m trying to put in the hours the process becomes much, much harder.

Here’s an example. I now have a progress bar for a 50k(ish) word story that I’m working on called “Unkillable.” Each box is a pomodoro’s worth of effort.

unkillableprog

The Illusions of Quality

I’m not sure anybody can judge what they are making while they are making it. At least, not in the first draft. If you’ve been at this game for a while you’ve been over the moon excited about something you’ve written, only to go back and discover that it’s not that good. Likewise, you’ve cranked on something you thought was total shit and when you’ve gone back to re-read it, you realize that it’s not that bad. While you are giving birth is not the time to critically evaluate your children.

Estimation

So give yourself over to your writing for 25 minutes. And then another 25 minutes. Do this for N trials. Say N > 30. And you’ve got a statistically valid sample of how fast you write. How fast YOU write. Not how fast you should. Not how fast someone else writes. But you. Average those suckers together. In the next 25 minutes you might write more or less. But now you are able to estimate your progress. Now you have a production process. The more I turn the lever, the more words come out. I have a measure of control over the creative act that I did not have before.

Sure, sure. Sometimes you get lost. Sometimes you get nowhere. But over time, that’s not the case. Otherwise writers would never finish anything.

Treating Yourself Like a Dog

Another interesting facet of the technique is the sound of a kitchen timer in the background. After a little while, it become a powerful reinforcing device. Just like Pavlov could ring a bell and get his dogs to drool, the sound of the kitchen timer now causes me to focus. It also reassures me that all is well. It’s an audible signal that I’m working and things are as they should be. This is not a feeling that many people encounter naturally while writing. Especially not while writing fiction at the limits of your ability.

And let me tell you, I’m not above treating myself like a dog (or marmot, or ibex or prairie dog) to get good work done. Really, whatever takes. And anything that can make the passage of time reassuring — sign me up.

Check It Out for Yourself

You can download Francisco’s excellent book and find out everything you want to know about the Pomodoro Technique (including why it’s called Pomodoro) here http://www.pomodorotechnique.com If you put the technique to use. Leave a comment to let me know about your results.



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