The Pomodoro Technique for Writers
As writers, we have so many ideas and exciting projects that it’s tempting to jump around trying to do them all. But that means one of our main problems is lack of focus and not getting enough of those great projects finished.
And big writing projects, like novels, are huge, difficult tasks too. They can seem endless.
Because we don’t get things finished, we start to feel like we’ll never get to the end. Then we get discouraged and angry with ourselves about lack of progress. That reaction though is counter-productive and we end up doing even less.
To avoid this trap, I’ve been using the Pomodoro Technique for the last few years now and I think it really helps with:
- Motivating yourself to write.
- Limiting distractions.
- Helping to keep track of projects.
- Even reducing back and neck pain!
What is the Pomodoro Technique?
This is the main thing you need:
Yes, it’s a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.
But it’s not any old tomato, I call it the Tomato of Destiny.
How Does the Pomodoro Technique Work?
The Pomodoro Technique is a simple strategy, but sometimes the simplest strategies work best.
This is what you do:
- Make a list of things you need to do.
- Break the tasks up, or group them together, into ones you can do in twenty-five minutes.
- Set the Tomato of Destiny (the timer) to twenty-five minutes.
- Do the task. The timer ticks away, reminding you to stay focussed.
- When the twenty-five minutes of the session are up, the timer rings.
- Mark the task complete, or if you didn’t manage to finish it adjust the plan.
- Now you can have a break for five minutes to stretch, make a cup of tea etc.
- After four sessions, take a longer break, like half an hour, to have something to eat, go for a walk etc.
The Pomodoro Technique: Dealing With Interruptions
One of the most important advantages of the Pomodoro Technique is that it helps you focus. To do that though, you must have tactics to deal with interruptions and distractions.
I discuss some ways of reducing distractions and the temptation to indulge them in How to Stop Procrastinating, but some interruptions are unavoidable, and so we need a strategy to deal with them.
The thing to do is, if you have a distracting thought or idea don’t try to ignore it or get cross with yourself. Instead, channel it back into productive work.
- If you suddenly remember something else you urgently need to do, just write it down.
- If you have a great idea for a new project, write it down.
- If you need to check something, write it down (do you sense a theme here?).
- If anything else tempts you, write it down.
- If someone tries to interrupt you, put them off till the end of the session.
- At the end of the session, review everything you wrote down.
- If any of them still seem urgent, do them in the next session.
- If they still seem like good ideas but aren’t urgent, add them to your to do list.
Some criticisms of the Pomodoro Technique
Isn’t this simple and obvious?
Yes, but that’s the beauty of it. There are lots of more sophisticated productivity systems, but they get so complicated. And the tricky thing is actually sticking to a system – I think simplicity is better for that.
Do I really need a timer ticking to get on with my work?
Well, if you are happy with your productivity and have no problems with lack of focus, perhaps you don’t need the Pomodoro Technique, and that’s fine. But lots of people don’t manage to get everything they want to do done.
The ticking of the timer is really annoying me/other people!
If you find the ticking of the timer annoying, then software that implements the Pomodoro Technique might work better for you.
The apps below are all good and have a free version:
- For iPhone I’ve found Pomodoro Keeper is good.
- For Mac I like Pomodoro Time
- And for PC I like Focus Booster
My agent/spouse/children are going to love it when I tell them I can’t talk!
This is just about being sensible. If a critically important event interrupts you then you just have to abandon the session, obviously. Otherwise though, explaining that you are busy and will get back to them is a matter of negotiation. Your agent is going to appreciate you getting your projects finished, and your family are going to like it when you are in a better mood because your projects are going well!
If you have less than twenty-five minutes, what then? Goof off?
Again this is just a question of being sensible. So you only did a twenty-minute session – so what? Did you get something done? Then you have achieved your goal and it counts.
Once I’m on a roll I don’t want to stop!
OK, a few things:
- One of the main advantages of the Pomodoro technique for writers is that you need to stop staring at the screen and move around – to avoid eye-strain and back/neck pain.
- You don’t have to stop every twenty-five minutes – if you are really on a roll set the timer for a longer period.
- A break isn’t necessarily the same as grinding to a halt – you don’t have to take the full five minutes, just stand up, have a stretch and take a quick walk round the room while continuing to think about the project.
- Remember, your brain might actually need to have a break, even though you don’t feel like it much. In the end you might get more done.
My muse doesn’t work to a schedule!
OK, I agree, this is sometimes a problem – some days we just don’t have any real inspiration for our novel. But there are other things that we can do, such as research, character studies, background reading and writing exercises.
In the end though you are a writer and so you need to write – discipline is kind of important. And actually, just getting going often encourages the elusive muse to appear.
But I don’t wanna!
Well I guess that’s up to you, but I really think you should just try it for a couple of days and see how it goes. Think how you’ll feel if your writing gets back on track.
Pomodoro Technique Tips
- You are a writer, so writing is your top priority. Make sure that’s reflected in the number of sessions you devote to it.
- In your short break, make sure to get up and move around. Do a few small stretching exercises. Walk around the garden or up and down the stairs.
- A bit of cleaning or tidying up is a good use of five minutes.
- Don’t make a cup of tea or coffee every twenty-five minutes!
- Don’t watch TV, look at social media or play a game during your breaks – these activities are too addictive and you might not go back to work. Plus you need to rest your eyes from the screen.
- At the end of the day, review what you achieved and note the good feeling you get.
- Reward yourself for finishing all your day’s sessions.
- Don’t get cross with yourself if you don’t manage to finish all your day’s sessions. Just put it behind you and try again tomorrow. You can do it.
- The official Pomodoro Technique system makes you record how long you thought things would take and how long they really took. I don’t think that’s necessary for writers.
- To start with, aim for eight sessions with a half an hour break in the middle. That’s four hours of focused work, and you will make steady progress if you manage it.
- Twelve sessions with two half hour breaks is six hours of focussed work. You will make good progress towards your goals if you keep that up.
Despite by nature being a professional-level procrastinator, I’ve written two novels, including A Kill in the Morning, which was commercially published, dozens of short stories and all the articles on this website, so I know this technique works!
You can read the first two chapters of A Kill in the Morning here.
If you’d like to discuss any issues related to the Pomodoro Technique please email me. Otherwise, feel free to share the article using the buttons below.