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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s