If you hang around universities long enough you will learn that academics love to bond over war stories about writing. In Australia we call this kind of conversation “talking shop”. I love talking shop because I reckon it’s one of the best ways to learn how to do academic work of all kinds.

For instance, some years ago, on a plane ride home from a conference, I happened to sit next to a senior academic from my university. This guy is one of those wonderful academics who somehow avoided growing a hard shell over the years and becoming a grumpy old bastard will still display his weaknesses to others. One of the things that he told me was not to worry too much about how stupid your ideas look the first time you put them on paper.

This was news to me – I was doing my masters degree at the time and didn’t realise that everyone writes badly in the first draft. I admitted to this academic that I never rewrote anything as an undergrad and just assumed I was crap at writing academic papers. The charming old guy laughed and said:

“Just remember, there’s no such thing as writing: only rewriting”

This line stuck in my head and has become a little mantra I repeat silently to myself as I write a first draft of anything. It brings the sense of near panic under control as my new ideas limp onto the page.

Of course, this blog is one of the best ways I have found to talk shop. A little while ago I wrote a post called “How to write 1000 words a day (and not go bat shit crazy)” . Subsequently a few people wrote to me pointing out that my intense writing bursts were similar to the ‘pomodoro technique’ and sent me some links. I read up on it and thought it sounded interesting, but it wasn’t until @danya told me about the phone app she used that I tried it out.

I don’t know about most of you, but for me the key difficulty in writing productively is staying ‘on task’ long enough to produce significant amounts of wordage. Inside my screen there are so many potential distractions: Twitter, email, websurfing, chat, other projects… the list goes on. Not to mention the distractions OUTSIDE of the screen; that work/life balance which some people talk about.

The pomodoro technique was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980’s and is meant to be a way to reduce these kinds of distractions. The idea is disarmingly simple: just write using a timer and take regular breaks. According to wikipedia (which I am taking as an authority in this instance) there are 5 steps:

  1. decide on the task to be done
  2. set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
  3. work on the task until the timer rings
  4. take a short break (5 minutes) then do another burst
  5. every four “pomodori” take a longer break (15–20 minutes)

You could use a kitchen timer, but being a techie kind of girl, I took @danya’s advice and downloaded the free ‘pomodroido’ app for my android phone and hoed into a paper which has a fast approaching deadline. Within 2 pomodoros of 25 minutes each I had (extremely roughly) put all my ideas down in Scrivener. Now I am in a position to start the rewriting process and get it Out The Door.

As I did the pomodoros I was struck by the simple brilliance of this technique. The task bar on the pomodroido app advances across the screen and shows you how many minutes you have left. At the end a nice little chime goes off and the phone asks you if you want to take a break or go straight into the next one.  I used the 5 minutes to do a quick check of my Twitter and email, then I’d pick a subheading and dive in again.

I noticed I would be able to write for about 12 minutes straight before I looked at the timer. At that point I was feeling itchy and had a strong urge to leave the Scrivener window, but I could see the progress I had made, which somehow made it easier to stay with the feeling and push a bit longer.

Like doing squats at the gym in bunches of 10, or a set number of laps of the pool, the physical presence of the timer reminded me that there was an end to the pain soon. While goofing off  in between pomodoros I felt more relaxed than usual. I didn’t feel that classic internet emotion which usually sweeps over me while on deadline: a nagging sense of anxiety and guilt undercut with something hard, like desperation.

For those interested in giving it a try who don’t own an Android phone here’s an iphone equivalent, courtesy of @Enniscath who has a great post on apps. Those who don’t own a smart phone could try downloading one of the numerous PC or Mac applications out there, or even use a free web site if you want.

If you visit what I assume is the official pomodoro website there are a few books which build this technique into an overall productivity strategy. But to be honest with you, I think the more complicated a productivity technique becomes the less useful it is. I don’t think I’d be comfortable using it for every kind of task, so it wouldn’t be a holistic solution to my productivity problems.

This suspicion was confirmed by chatting to a few people on Twitter. @bronwynhinz said while she thought it worked for some kinds of writing, it was less good for other research orientated tasks, like reading or data analysis. While @jasondowns is a huge fan and reckons it works for lots of things, like doing transcriptions and ‘mind-dumps’ (getting words on a page). Jason thinks the pomodoro technique is especially good when you find it hard to start and as a way to limit the time spent doing online journal searches (and coffee breaks!).

I think you will have to try the pomodoro for yourself before you will know if it works for you. I’m interested in hearing what you think – or about other similar techniques you have found. Let’s talk shop!

Related Posts

How to write 1000 words a day (and not go batshit crazy)

How to write a lot

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