At times I think of myself as a “stealth writer.” I like to sneak up on writing, catch myself by surprise, and write about something that I never expected. And, I equally enjoying discovering ways to feel I’m being more productive in writing, without feeling like I’m punishing myself. Self-punishing is no way to invent truly creative work!
In recent weeks I’ve been experimenting with a stealth writer’s-productivity tool – the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is an idea borrowed from the world of software development. I learned about it recently in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. But even though the idea didn’t come from a writing conference or a how-to book on writing, it has been a terrific technique to help me get more writing done. Bonus: I feel much more satisfied when I am done!
How does it work?
In a nutshell, you set a timer for 25 minutes (or any set amount of time), and then work on a project you’ve chosen. When the timer rings, you place a check mark on a piece of paper. (Yes, on paper!) Take a 5-minute break. Start again – set the timer and work on your project until the timer rings. Make another check mark on the paper, take a 5-minute break. Continue until you have four check marks – four pomoderos or units of work time completed – and then take a longer break (15-30 minutes). Come back and start again.
Here is a link to a tutorial on how the Pomodoro Technique works: http://lifehacker.com/productivity-101-a-primer-to-the-pomodoro-technique-1598992730.
Is that all there is to it?
It is deceptively simple. But the intentional act of setting the timer helps focus the mind. If you have interruptions or distractions, that’s okay, don’t panic! – just note the interruption very quickly and come back to the project. You’ll take care of the interruption after the timer rings, during your 5-minute or 15-minute break.
Why use pencil and paper?
This makes it a very tactile ritual. You could automate the record-keeping, use a computer-based spreadsheet or print out a pre-designed form. But the act of drawing a check mark on a piece of paper when the timer rings, of setting a timer and (perhaps) hearing it ticking away, the brrring! sound when the timer goes off – all these sensory activities act as aids to keeping the mind focused on your writing, making it less likely you will “self-interrupt” by checking email, looking at your Facebook feed, or going to YouTube for a video distraction. You CAN do all that – but you’ll do it during breaks between pomodoros.
What does it look like?
I really enjoy the way it feels to draw a row of four check-boxes, labeling them with the pomodoro time (25, above the box), and the break time (5, below the box). Perhaps it’s the engineer in me, or maybe it’s the artist that runs in my family. The visual feels so satisfying. At the end of the row of pomodoros, I like to add two or three “what I’d like to write on/about” items. That helps me keep track of what I’d like to work on during my project time.
I have added the feature of jotting down non-project items that I need to take care of during the day; I write this list on a yellow Post-It note that I put on the back of the pomodoro sheet. When an interruption happens – say, I remember I need to email someone or make an appointment today – all I have to do is flip over the pomodoro sheet and make a note. When the timer rings and I take a break, I can check the list of Post-It note items, and I’ll do one or two during the 5-minute break time, if I feel like it . . . otherwise I wait until my longer 15-30 minute break after 4 pomodoros are completed.
There is a fun book called The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, written by Staffan Noteberg, a software developer in Scandanavia, with very cute little water-color illustrations included … and I recommend it if you’re looking for more information. Staffan provides additional data on how the brain works and why this method can be effective for feeling, and being, more productive. I found his book in the library and it was a good resource. However, just by following the simple steps I described above, you’ll be able to do the technique and judge for yourself.
The best part of the Pomodoro Technique
The best part has been: feeling that sense of getting my writing DONE. At the end of even a single pomodoro, I feel that rich sense of flow that we all strive for, the sense of having worked with focus and purpose on a task that we enjoy and that gets us closer to a particular goal. Looking back on my rows of check marks at the end of the working session, I feel a tangible sense of accomplishment. If I completed four pomodoros, that is two hours of writing! Six pomodoros = three hours of writing! Even a single pomodoro means I’ve spent almost thirty minutes in close pursuit of a writing achievement. It is a highly rewarding process.
Why do they call it “Pomodoro”?
The inventor, Italian Francesco Cirillo, started setting a timer in college to help him get his coursework tasks done. The timer he used, a kitchen timer, was shaped like a tomato. He called the technique pomodoro after the Italian word for tomato.
Have you heard of the Pomodoro Technique? Do you ever use a timer in your writing? What are your thoughts about drawing your own check-boxes vs. using a form? Keep me posted!