Another way to write 1000 words a day?

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

55 thoughts on “Another way to write 1000 words a day?

  1. Ben Leong says:

    I find that it works wonders for getting through long batches of transcription… that’s less of a thinking job, and more of a task to grind through.

  2. Jason says:

    Hi TW,

    Thanks for the mention! The pomodoro desktop (free!) app that I use is FocusBooster. Small, neat and does the trick. Don’t install the adobe air version – it constantly asks to update; go for the native install version. The link to the app is here: if anyone want to try it out. I use the Mac version and it works a treat. I’ve never used the windows version – so can’t comment there…


    • tseen says:

      Thanks for that, Jason (+ Inger). I need something like this, partic to remind myself that I need to get up and away from the desk. I wander out of the office at the end of the day with red-rimmed eyes and the realisation that I’ve been creeping closer + closer to my monitor…it’s not pretty.

      • ingermewburn says:

        I sometimes catch sight of my ‘thinking face’ in my screen reflection. Also not pretty. Going to have some interesting wrinkles in 10 years time 🙂

    • Ashley says:

      I use the Windows version of FocusBooster, and I’ve never had any problems with it. I also have the joy of still using the beast that is Windows Vista – I imagine it plays even more nicely with Windows 7.

  3. Antje says:

    I like that technique but sometimes don’t have the motivation not to cheat a little, so I use this program called ‘SelfControl’. It’s great! It’s a free program that you can download onto your computer. You set how much time you want to work and then add any webpages (for me its the internet as distraction to find extra research, check sources, whatever… more than anything else) you want to block. Then they are blocked for the allotted time. There’s no way to turn it off or disable it, so it’s a great helper. ( There are also other programs that actually stop you from using non-web-based materials, but they aren’t free.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m going to try pomodoro next week for a writing workshop (where I will also attempt this 1000 words a day phenom!). The idea of the writing workshop is for students to meet in the am, talk about what they’re going to do, then report back at the end of the day. Should be interesting, it’s organized by our writing department.

      As for focusing, I use a Chrome-based app on my Mac called “StayFocused”… I have found it very useful and it sounds a lot like SelfControl. It’s super simple to install and to set up your time limits and “work hours”. I give myself 10 minutes between 8:45 and 4:30 to spend on my “worst offender” pages and then it shuts off until the next day so I can cruise the internet willy-nilly guilt free.

  4. TokenLefty says:

    A bit of a search found that for people who like to use free software, Ubuntu Linux systems have an applet called “Timer”. It works great, thanks for the tip!

  5. Anthea says:

    Jeez…I cranked out my thesis before all this technology. …old school style’!! No blog…no apps nothing. Just sat down and wrote a draft, and then edited it like crazy.

  6. TokenLefty says:

    Inger, you wrote, “Just remember, here’s no such thing as writing: only rewriting”

    Luckily you can re-write this. 😉

  7. Reile says:

    I learned about the pomodoro technique on the website, where you can chat with PhD students from all over the world. They also use the pomodoro technique (they call it ‘tomatoes’). They check in at x.25 and x.55 and then chat/vent/celebrate/whine/… for 5 minutes.

    It’s great if you need some help getting started. I love the self-control programme, but I noticed social interaction and control work best for me. 🙂

  8. Jonathan O'Donnell says:

    In the “vaguely related” category, I like “Next Meeting” on Google Calender. If you use Google Calender, it will show you the time left before your next meeting. Helps me to stay focused, because it reminds me just how little time I have to actually get stuff done.

    Google Calender users will find it under Options (the thing in the top right hand corner that looks like a daisy or a cog) > Labs > Next meeting.

  9. Ben says:

    Great post, I love the pomodoro technique. I use a free desktop app called Pomodairo which works great for me. I like the sound of the website blocking tools as well. I use Chrome Nanny which block the worst offending websites between certain hours, and there’s one for firefox called Leech Block.

    I think the pomodoro works great for writing because the short periods of time force you to focus on what you need to get done. When you’re reading articles, it’s all to easy to drift off into the literature abyss, but with the time constraints you can pull yourself back and be more focussed, reading only the important things (there will be plenty of time to visit the literature abyss later, just make sure you set a pomodoro time)

  10. osozereposo says:

    I’ve used WriteorDie in the past. It’s popular for folks doing National Novel Writing Month, but it works great for any type of writing. With WriteorDie, you can choose a word count goal, set a timer and set a level of difficulty for yourself–basically how strict you want WriteorDie to be about punishing you for slowing down. If you don’t type fast enough or stop typing for too long, it can deliver a range of punishments from making the screen go red to blasting embarrassing music to moving your sentences around the page. (I’ve never actually experienced this last one, though.) It seems like it would be good to keep a you going during the short bursts of Pomodoro if you find yourself particularly distractable someday. It’s got a free (can be used at the website) and a paid (downloadable for use anytime) version. I think the paid version was pretty cheap too.

  11. Judy Redman says:

    I find the 25 minutes writing/5 minutes break idea of the pomodoro technique really useful. The author recommends a longer break after every 3 or 4 pomodoros, which is also good. I read the book and decided that this was as much of the technique as I was prepared to adopt. The rest was just too rigid – he advocates keeping complex records, which I am sure I could turn into busywork very easily.

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