| Don’t Write Alone
Toolkit In Praise of the Pomodoro, or Finding Writing Freedom Through Constraints
You might surprise yourself at how much you’re able to accomplish in short, focused periods of twenty-five minutes.
It’s 9 a.m. on Tuesday. The children have been fed breakfast and delivered to school; the dog has been walked; the dishes have been washed; the laundry has been started. I’ve run six miles, showered, and dressed. The coffee maker is beeping at me, a sign that it’s turning itself off after keeping the pot warm for two hours. I pour myself a mug and sit in front of my computer, with several glorious, open-ended hours sprawling before me. At last, I’m ready to work on my novel revisions.
Except, I don’t. Instead, I do the Wordle and then the Italian Wordle (easier, because there are fewer letters in the Italian alphabet, and harder, because so many words comprise the same letters). I check email, read a few writing newsletters, make note of a journal that recently opened to submissions. Next it’s over to Twitter, liking friends’ posts, clicking through to read a few flash fictions, opening a tab with a Times article I’ll save for later, unless—why not—I’ll go ahead and read it now. A tweet reminds me of a book to add to my Goodreads “Want to Read” list, and then I write a review of the book I finished last night. Before you know it, two hours have elapsed—time I’d meant to devote to writing.
Okay, then. My time is slipping by, and I’d better change something up if I want to accomplish the real things I’d set out to do today—make progress on my novel revisions. Focus, Jill. So I open the manuscript, start revising, and notice a detail that I’d meant to confirm. Are there public swimming pools in rural Uzbekistan? I open a Wikipedia tab, looking for the answer. Click through to several travel articles about Uzbekistan. Return to my manuscript, correct the erroneous sentence, and plow forward. Then I notice the repetition of a thorny word. Open thesaurus.com and find a substitute. But now that I’m back in my browser, I click on my Twitter tab and scroll through my notifications. Then I notice a DM and I chat for a few minutes with a woman in my writing group. Just like that, I’ve lost my focus, again, and even more precious minutes have slipped by.
I daresay I’m not the only person suffering from endless distractions when I’m meant to be doing a singular task (drafting, or revising, or filing taxes . . . you get the drift). When we’re trying to squeeze a few hours of writing into our otherwise-busy days, we want—nay, need—to be as efficient as possible. But how can we say, “Brain, let’s really focus for the next hour—no lollygagging, okay?” in a way that will make our brains respond?
One productivity method that I, and other writers , have embraced, is the Pomodoro technique. A Pomodoro, Italian for “tomato,” is a twenty-five-minute block of work time, followed by a five-minute rest period. The word came from a tomato-shaped timer favored by the technique’s creator, Francesco Cirillo. I’m such a Pomodoro fan that I’ve considered buying my own tomato timer, but that might be gilding the lily, when a watch or a free timer app will do just as well.
There’s something magical that happens when you tell yourself that you’re going to write and you open your document and set the timer for twenty-five minutes. You do the writing. Your brain focuses on your singular task, not because there aren’t a million other things going on in the background (there are, there always are), but because you’ve given your brain permission to not think about them. You’re essentially saying, “Brain, we’ll think about those other things later. Maybe in the five-minute break we have coming up, or maybe when we’ve hit our word-count goal for the day. But not now.”
After the twenty-five-minute timer goes off, you set yourself a break timer for five minutes. Use those minutes to stretch your legs, refill your coffee, use the bathroom, cuddle with your sheepadoodle. But only five minutes! Enough to allow your brain and body to rest, but not so long as to lose the flow of your writing. Then, set a new timer for twenty-five minutes and begin the cycle again.
Once I saw for myself how effective the Pomodoro technique could be, the logic behind it crystallized in a familiar way. I remembered returning to work after giving birth to my third child. I was leading the human resources department at a growing start-up, but I had less time to get my work done than most of my employees. Three half-hour chunks of my day were spent pumping breastmilk in a tiny, windowless office. I couldn’t pack extra work in by arriving early or staying late, due to childcare constraints. But with fewer hours to accomplish my work, something remarkable happened: I became more efficient. No more dawdling on tasks, no more getting distracted by Slack conversations or Twitter memes. I knocked out my assignments with the singular focus of a programmed robot.
As it turns out, the brain thrives on constraints. As anyone with a looming deadline can tell you, the imposition of a time constraint may provide the trigger that sets your fingers in motion on the keyboard.
When I left start-ups to focus on writing and childrearing, I imagined that open-ended days would provide plenty of time for me to draft essays and revise short stories. Instead, it’s on those unscheduled days I struggle most to be productive. Knowing that I may have hours to spend on writing, I become careless, and if I’m not careful, I squander them. I needed to find a way to channel that new-mom efficiency, even when the new-mom urgency was no longer present.
The Pomodoro mimics that urgency by carving your available time into small, workmanlike chunks. Ironically, it helps us be our most productive selves, even when we have only small pockets of time to devote to our craft. Need to work on your WIP during your lunch hour? A half hour provides time for one Pomodoro. Only have an hour between reading the kids to sleep and turning your own lights out? That’s two Pomodori. You might surprise yourself at how much you’re able to accomplish in these short, focused periods. The Pomodoro creates a writing (or researching, or revising) sprint for you, at the push of a button.
The Pomodoro creates a writing (or researching, or revising) sprint for you, at the push of a button.
But just as in writing sprints, sometimes the words won’t come, and in those cases, a Pomodoro can feel more like a nemesis than a partner. It is literally a ticking clock, an instrument that every novel workshop wants you to add to your novel to heighten tension and accelerate the main character’s (and the reader’s) heart rates. Sometimes I’ll glance at the timer and panic when I see five minutes remaining and a still-blank Word doc before me. Usually, that stimulus triggers my competitive drive (I mustn’t fail at a Pomodoro!), and I manage to write a paragraph or two before the timer expires. Some of those paragraphs will survive edits and others won’t, but the same is true of all writing, Pomodoro-induced or otherwise.
When first-drafting my latest novel, my most efficient writing sessions took place in the front seat of our rental car, with all three kids and our dog in back, as we road-tripped through Italy (our home at the time). We’d only have an hour or two between destinations, and once arrived, we’d be walking the cobblestone streets of a new town, visiting a church or a market, stopping for lunch, then heading to a beach or a playground. Once the car stopped, I wouldn’t have time to write, so my brain buckled down the only time it could, when I was buckled in that seat.
So think of the Pomodoro as your own personal writing seat belt. Find freedom in the constraint. When you crave focus, when you need a tether to keep you on track, set your watch timer for twenty-five minutes, and observe how readily your brain falls into the soothing rhythm of single-tasking. Your writing will thank you for it.