Writing with the Pomodoro Technique

I used to spend a lot of time stressing about my weekly word count on my current WIP because that’s how first drafts get done, right? Cram 10,000 words into a week and you’ll surely finish the book in no time. Ten weeks and it’s a wrap says the math.

My habit was to look at the coming week on Sunday evening, and based on what I had going on with work and family decide what a reasonable word count goal was for the week. I’d often settle on something like 8,000 – 10,000 words.

Then I’d divide up what I’d need to complete per writing day. 2,000 words per day for each of four writing days this week, for example.

Tuesday would roll around, I’d sit down to write, and of course the words wouldn’t come. I’d end up frustrated with only 500 words to show for having forced myself to sit at my keyboard for hours.

After months of writing this way with some weeks going well and other weeks completely stalling out, I realized the issue was my outline. I’d get to a part of the story that wasn’t as thoroughly outlined as was called for but because I was on a word count goal, I felt the need to get words on the page. My thinking was that if I spent a writing day outlining, than on Thursday, when I was supposed to write 2,000 words I would now need to write 4,000 words to stay on track to hit that weekly goal. Then on Thursday, I might get 2,000 words but then stall out because once again what I really needed to do was plan the next few scenes. I kept getting to the end of the week and feeling unaccomplished and oddly guilty for outlining, which is super important and work to be proud of, because it wasn’t a success as defined by the parameters I had set for myself.

So I began shopping around for a new method to make sure I was staying productive. My writing buddy mentioned that he was trying a technique where you write for thirty minutes, take a break for five minutes, and then write for thirty again. I had heard of this model once before from a play-writing teacher who used this method and had some fancy term for it. After Googling about for a while, I had found what was called the Pomodoro technique (which isn’t actually that fancy, It’s just named for a kitchen timer that looks like a pomodoro tomato).

The method as my buddy described it is basically what the structure is in its entirety. There are variations on it but, the main idea is that you start a thirty minute count-down, get as much as possible done, and then take a five minute rest, and repeat. Some variations say after four cycles you should take a longer break, which I think makes sense.

Using this method, I still look at my calendar every Sunday and map out what I expect to get done throughout the week based on how much I think I can get done. But instead of setting a word goal, I schedule my Pomodoro cycles into my Google Calendar. I can usually fit about one thirty minute work period in the morning each day, sometimes more, three or four cycles two evenings during the week and four to six cycles on weekends.

This completely changes my frame of mind when I sit down to write. Before, I would always be writing with some anxiety that it was possible to fail a day’s work simply by not reaching an arbitrary goal which, as I said before, can be especially hampering when working with the first draft and you’re still telling yourself the damn story.

Now, I sit down, start the timer, and work on whatever needs doing. If outlining is what needs doing, great! I’ll work on that for thirty minutes. After a quick break, I can sit down and decide if I should spend the next thirty minutes outlining, or writing in my main draft doc.

And at the end of the week, even if I have been doing a lot of outlining, I find that my word counts are much higher than before. Typically, my word count per half hour falls somewhere between 500 and 900 words. (I wrote the draft of this blog in one half hour session and it’s over 950 words.)

There’s also something about the finite nature of the Pomodoro technique. Working in thirty minute chunks eases my ADD. I find that with Attention Deficit Disorder, it’s really challenging for me to stare down the barrel of four hours of work and get started. I end up procrastinating instead. But for some reason, if I implement the aritificial structure that tells my mind, ‘no, don’t worry it’s only thirty minutes,’ my brain can roll up its brain-sleeves and get focused.

I’ve become so enamored with this technique that I tracked down an actual dedicated Pomodoro technique timer. It works like a speed-chess clock but for focusing. You hit the reset button and the timer on the Play side sets to five minutes and the timer on the work side sets to thirty. There are no other options, this is the only thing the timer is good for but I prefer it to setting a timer on my phone because obvious distractions live there.

There’s also an official Pomodoro website with a neat copyright and lots of new-agey corporate lingo-filled extolling about all the benefits of a work-force that embraces the Pomodoro technique and blah blah blah. I love this technique, but the official literature goes too far. It helps me get work done, and it’s simple. That’s good enough. Doesn’t need to be any deeper than that.

This last week in particular, I’ve actually only got about 1,000 words down but I’ve done so much critical outlining that will make it so much easier to get further in my actual draft that I know next week I’ll get far, far more than that. It felt just as rewarding as any 10,000 word week. It probably won’t work for everyone, but if the word goal structure isn’t working for you, definitely give the Pomodoro technique a look.

Trying Something New: Shoe-boxing

Story tellers are often gifted with a steady drip of new ideas that could become stories. The often discussed issue, of course, is when that drip of ideas starts to become a distraction from our current project.

I love when often my brain fires off a concept that makes me think, ‘oh that’s interesting,’ but I love it less when I’m in the middle of probably the most complex part of the first draft of my current novel. It’s not always easy to put aside the shiny new idea that looks so perfect and full of potential in its undeveloped infancy to push through and finish my current story.

But at the same time, these ideas are valuable to me as possible future projects so I’d also prefer not to banish them so far from thought that I forget all about them.

So how does one preserve these ideas and perhaps even let them incubate in storage while maintaining momentum on their current project?

I think the answer might be a story-building method I learned about at Narrativity (No, I’m not yet done talking about Narrativity, and at this point I’m not sure I’ll ever stop).

I met a writer named Stephen T. Vessels*, who had this sort of desert-sun-soaked version of Leonard-Cohen-coolness about him, and one afternoon I had an opportunity to have a quick craft chat with him. Somehow we got on the subject of how to put a story together.

The way Stephen works (and I think I remember him saying a mentor of his had given him this method, but I unfortunately can’t remember who that was) is to simply let ideas come to him about a given story, write them down on a small card or a slip of paper, and put them in a shoe box dedicated to that story. Then, when you’re ready to start that story properly after accumulating plenty of these idea cards, you pop open the lid, poor out your ideas, and lay them out in front of you. Next, you slide the cards around and try to group them to see what sort of ‘fits.’ These cards can contain concepts for theme, setting, characters, scenes, any of the parts of a story.

Eventually, something resembling a whole will emerge from the different parts. Some cards will get used, others will not. But through this spatial exercise of arranging these small items into a story, one will then be able to start their story or outline.

I really like how open and organic this approach to story development is. Often, when I’m trying to tease out an idea into an actual outline it involves several hours of sitting down in one go, trying to get a rough structure out of just a few concepts. When I outline in this fashion, I usually end up committing to a lot quite early in terms of what I expect the story to become.

This method of saving up ideas in a shoe-box allows a writer to continue to accumulate material while staying away from committing to a specific plot, arc, protagonist, antagonist, whatever. More importantly, it allows the author to not say ‘no’ to anything for quite some time. All ideas are valid and can be dropped in the box. All of those decisions can come later when you’re sitting down to construct something out of all these small parts when you have, ideally, a wealth of ideas to work with.

In her book “A Director Prepares,”** Anne Bogart talks about how every decision an artist makes in the process of creation is one of violence. Her idea is that a commitment to an idea means striking out of existence all the other options that could have been committed to. When outlining via spreadsheet (as I usually do), I’m often writing in only the ideas that seem like reasonable extensions of the preceding beat of the story. And I end up saying ‘no’ to a lot of ideas just because they don’t fit as a natural extension of whatever the last beat I’ve written down is.

My hope, is that if I sit down and start with a whole shoe-box of ideas that have been collected over time, I’ll have all of these interesting ingredients that can be considered fully and might be applied in an interesting way when combined with other concepts.

I write using the Pomodoro Technique*** and in the variation I use; I work on a project for 30 minutes, then take a 5 minute rest, then I repeat. Often times, after a more difficult 30-minute session, I’ll spend 5 minutes day-dreaming about one of those shiny, yet-to-be-troubled-by-the-actual-process-of-writing ideas and come up with a neat characteristic for a person in that story.

I suspect that jotting that idea down on a card and shoe-boxing it to revisit later will be both satisfying in the present and beneficial in the long run.

And it’s that short-term satisfaction that is important in addressing the question of how to effectively give time to new ideas while maintaining focus on the current project. After having shoe-boxed a new thought, I’ll ideally be convinced that I’m doing great work to set my future self up for a fun project and be able to return to the task at hand.

For my own purposes, I’ve decided that no actual shoe-boxes will be involved in this process. Shoe-boxes are pretty big and I like to (try to) keep my work-space uncluttered.

So I’ve decided to use envelopes with the title of the story written on the outside and I’ll be using these blank business cards to write my ideas down on. I’ve picked up this slick little business card holder that I’ll keep in easy reach on my desktop so that when an idea strikes, I can quickly scribble it out and then pack it in its “shoe-box” which will be kept in my drawers for easy access.

I’ve got two stories that I’ll be accumulating cards for in this way. One’s a very short story I’m calling “Husker” right now that I’d like to submit for an upcoming anthology. The other is for the novel I hope to write after I finish my current book.

“Husker” will be unpacked on 8/15 so that I’ve still got a while to write the actual story with. This will be sort of an accelerated test to see how this goes for me. Later this month, I’ll revisit shoe-boxing to talk about how the process felt after collecting more idea cards and attempting to actually build an outline from those cards. I am really, really looking forward to trying this out.


* Stephen T Vessels has some books available that you should absolutely check out. You can find them and his visual art on his website.

** Anne Bogart’s “A Director Prepares” is a collection of seven essays on art that apply to far more than just the theatre. Everyone who likes to make things should read it.

*** The Pomodoro Technique rocks. Find out more about it here.

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