Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Scusami, did you just say ‘the tomato technique?’ Yep, named for the tomato-shaped timer used by Francesco Cirillo, the Pomodoro Technique is a popular time-management tool, and if there’s one resource authors always need more of, it’s time.
If time management isn’t one of your priorities right now, congratulations; you’re the only person on earth who doesn’t need to improve efficiency and output. For everyone else, let’s explore how this simple but rigid technique can help you churn out pages like a broken copy machine.
What you need to get started
- A kitchen timer. The item for which this technique is named. Your timer doesn’t have to be tomato shaped, but try to use something other than your phone. Research published in Social Psychology suggests that having your phone nearby, even when you’re not using it, is distracting. The existence of pomodoro apps, some of which include a timer and an automatic tracker so as to simplify your record-keeping, may be tempting, but you’ll have an easier time if you stay low-tech.
- A journal. Not the one you’re going to write in – you want a journal dedicated to keeping track of your progress. If you’re like me, you may be thinking, “Psh, I don’t need that, I’ll just ______.” Trust the system, at least ’til you’ve tried it. Get a separate journal.
- A pen or pencil.
- Your writing project. Whether you’re a pen-and-paper old-schooler or a laptop-wielding coffee-shopper, get out your writing project and nothing else.
How to use the Pomodoro Technique
You’ll start by creating a task list. Here’s where you have the most freedom, so prioritize well. You can decide if your tasks will be ‘just write,’ ‘try mind-mapping chapter three,’ or ‘finish protagonist’s character profile.’ If you’re planning a full day, include lunch dates, picking up the kids, checking email, and any other priorities you want to slate for today. It might not be a bad idea to start with a couple hours, though, zeroing in on your writing ‘to do’ list.
Insert each task into a 30-minute time slot. Each slot – called a ‘pomodoro’ – includes 25 minutes of uninterrupted work and a 5-minute micro-break. Some tasks may require more than one slot. This time-based task list will serve as your activity inventory.
Start the timer (25 minutes) and start working. If you work for the full 25 minutes, put a check mark on the task list and take five. If you are interrupted during the 25 minutes, do not put a check mark on the task list and take five anyway. If the interruption was a genuine priority, add it to the to-do list. If it was not, make a note of what it was. You’ll probably see patterns start to emerge. There’s no pausing a pomodoro. Whatever happened in that 25-minute session is what happened; if you broke from work, there’s no way to win back the check mark.
There aren’t too many interruptions that can’t wait until the timer dings. Most messages and phone calls can wait, unanswered, until break time. If you have someone in your life – partner, spouse, child, boss, whoever – with whom there is a higher expectation for fast response time, let them know in advance that you’re trying something new and see if they’re willing to support your test run by waiting an extra 15 minutes for your answer. If necessary, let your interrupter know that you are working on something; no need to make a big deal out of it or try to explain, just a quick, ‘Hey, in the middle of something, can I get back to you in 10?’ will do. Use your next break to check in and schedule a longer talk as needed.
If your own brain is distracting you, keep it in check by jotting down your stray thoughts for later. They might be addressed in another time slot, or reserved for another day. They may just need to be written down so you can clear your head space and stay focused. Until that timer rings, though, you are immune to all distractions less urgent than cardiac arrest and house fires.
Take a break
When the timer does ring, you’re taking a break. Don’t feel like it? Take it anyway. Trust the system. Follow the rules. Tweak them later if it’s not working, but first be rigid and allow the technique to give you a new working rhythm. On repetition and routine, Haruki Murakami writes:
The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.– Haruki Murakami in ‘Routine Over Talent: The Interesting Habits Of 11 Famous Writers’, Minutes
About that break… make it a real break. No screens. Stretch, take a walk, step outside, do a short, intense workout, eat a slice of watermelon, play with your kids, dance to some music, or take a cold shower. Real, physical breaks prevent burnout and actually sustain train of thought longer than plowing forward. If you need to keep the train rolling, it’s okay to spend your break thinking about what you were just writing; just get up and move while you do it. Don’t follow any rabbit trails, though. You’re just as committed to the 5-minute cap on this break as you are to the 25-minute marker ending each work session.
Every four pomodoros, take a longer break. Grab lunch, make coffee and listen to a chapter of your current audiobook, take a jog, go for a walk, call your mother, run to the store for bananas and TP, build a fire, or take a power nap. In about 30 minutes, get back to work. Like the mini-break, don’t shirk the big break. As Orson Scott Card reminds us, ‘You may write a bit less for the time spent [walking], but you may find that you write better.’
Track as you go, with specific but short notes. Because your day is already divided into time slots, you’ll know at the end of the day exactly where your time went, distractions included.
Shorter records (a day or a few at a time) will help you identify and deal with distractions. Longer records will give you an exceptional gift: real data. With an ongoing daily record of your specific tasks and how long they take, you no longer have to ballpark how long it will take you to do something. Of course, writing is science and art and muse and chaos. You know not to expect precision. But what science calls ‘fuzzy data’ is still data.
There’s a big difference between ‘I have no idea how many hours it’s going to take me to self-edit a chapter’ and ‘the last three chapter edits I recorded in my pomodoro journal average out to ____ minutes a chapter; I’d better slate ____ pomodoros for this next one.’ At the end of each day, or pomodoro block, review your notes and check marks. Take note of any distractions, be practical about how to move forward, and take some time to dwell on the positives. Relish the feeling of a productive day, and reward yourself. Screens don’t make great rewards, because our brains register screen time as stressful. But I won’t argue if you want to hop online or watch a show. Just don’t binge; you’ll undo the gains of the day.
Try it full-force, no rules bent, for at least seven days – consecutive if you can. If you need convincing, read Cirillo’s book The Pomodoro Technique for the science behind the specifics. For instance, winding the timer is an outward symbol of intention. The ‘ding’ of the timer is an external stimuli, like Pavlov’s bell, gradually becoming a stop-start trigger that can’t be ignored. The tick mark by each completed task is a physical reward that reinforces commitment (we all know how satisfying it is to strike items off a checklist.)
There’s a reason for each element of the technique, so succeeding with it is dependent on consistent application. Above, I suggested starting small: a few hours. The reason for this is that failure is a habit. If you start big and fail, you reinforce a subconscious belief that you don’t follow through or that systems don’t work for you. If you start small and succeed, you begin forming a habit of success.
So that’s it, the Pomodoro Technique in a nutshell. Are you willing to give it a try? If you’re going to take it for a test drive, be sure to come back and tell us all about your experience in the comments. Or, for other techniques that can help your writing, check out ‘Free Writing’ Can Help You Finish Your Book. Here’s How and 7 Ways to Supercharge Your Writing Over NaNoWriMo.