Writing requires concentration, yet we live in a world with more distractions than ever. Writers need self-discipline but if you’re just starting out it can be incredibly difficult to break unhelpful habits such as checking social media, reading the news, going to grab a biscuit, making a cup of tea, playing a game… That’s why, at least to start with, it makes more sense to find a way to manage those habits alongside your writing, rather than trying to quash them entirely, so that they can co-exist happily. The best approach I’ve found for this is called the pomodoro technique.
The pomodoro technique was put together by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. You can read about it over on Wikipedia, or on the millions of sites that pop up if you Google for it. I don’t want to spend too much time on the process, as it’s more useful to understand how and why it can actually help. So here’s a whistle-stop tour of how it works:
- Decide what you’re about to work on. In this context, it might be the next chapter of your book.
- Start a timer, set to 25 minutes.
- WRITE! Do not do anything else. Stay focused – it’s only 25 minutes, after all.
- When that 25 minutes is up, stop writing and take an enforced 5 minute short break. Do whatever you want. Check your notifications. Do star jumps. Go crazy.
- Choose another task. This might be continuing the chapter, or working on another aspect of the book, such as finessing the plot, or editing a previous chapter.
- Start the 25 minute timer again.
- Work exclusively on the task until the time is up, then take another 5 minute short break.
- Repeat this until you’ve done four 25 minute sessions. Then take a timed 15-30 minute logger break.
- Set the timer to 25 minutes and off you go again.
You get the idea. We’re talking bursts of activity lasting 25 minutes, separated by 5 minute short breaks. After doing four cycles of this, take a longer break.
One thing to bear in mind is that you don’t ever need to finish the task within the 25 minutes. You don’t have to squeeze writing your entire chapter into a single session. It doesn’t matter how much you produce during those 25 minutes, as long as you remain focused on your chosen task.
Why does it work?
Let’s face it: working on a book is a scary, intimidating thing. Books are long. There’s tens or hundreds of thousands of words in them! Whether you’re a new writer or an experienced one, it’s all too easy to convince yourself that you’re no good, or that you’re wasting your time, especially when you have this monolithic project towering before you.
25 minutes of writing, though? That’s easy peasy, right? Forget about the book – your sole goal is putting some words down for 25 minutes. Don’t worry about what comes after that. Breaking big things into smaller chunks is a technique which works in all kinds of contexts, and the pomodoro technique provides a very simple way to do it.
The other aspect is distractions, as mentioned earlier. It’s all very well someone telling you to turn off your notifications, or to stop looking at Facebook, but if those are currently major parts of your everyday routine it’s not going to be easy to break away from them. Going cold turkey isn’t an option for most people, and even if you do manage to resist the temptation to check your phone, your writing is still likely to be affected by the gnawing sensation that you might be missing something.
This is most difficult if you’ve sat down at your keyboard/notepad for an undefined period of writing time. Without a specific time goal, it’s easy to get distracted after only a few minutes. That undefined time looms ahead of you, again taking on a monolithic, intimidating form. If you aim to write for, say, two hours, that can seem like a daunting and impossible prospect. Concentration feels hard, which is immediately discouraging.
The pomodoro technique acknowledges this by keeping its sessions deliberately short. 25 minutes doesn’t feel like very long, does it? It almost feels too short – can you even get anything useful written in just 25 minutes? The trick, though, is that those 25 minutes will be entirely focused and without distraction: it’s easier to resist distraction because you know that you only have to make it through those 25 minutes – and at the end you have a built-in, ready-to-go 5 minute break to scratch your personal itch. Just as breaking your novel into tiny chunks makes it seem more doable, so breaking your writing time into smaller periods makes staying focused during them considerably easier.
In fact, that 5 minute break in-between work sessions becomes the goal and the reward. That’s what you’re charging towards, no matter what. Your monkey brain focuses in on that, knowing that it’s definitely coming, leaving your creative side to get on with the writing. The surprising side-effect is that those focused 25 minutes will probably produce higher quality work than if you’d tortured yourself distractedly over a two hour period.
There are apps on all platforms to help automate the timer process. I tend to use Tomato Timer because it’s simple, basic, free and web-based, which means it works on pretty much anything. In fact, I’ve been using it while writing this article, and it’s currently showing me that I have six minutes left on this session. At about 800 words, this isn’t a long blog post, but without approaching it with the pomodoro technique I’d almost certainly have been tempted to check my messages, emails, etc.
Even though I’ve finished the task, I can use the remaining time to overlearn. What that means will depend on context – in this case, it means I have time to proof-read and edit the post before publishing it.
It’s a technique so simple that it doesn’t seem like it should work but it really does. Give it a whirl – it’s so easy to try that you may as well give it 25 minutes of your time.