Writing with the Pomodoro Technique (For Productivity and Health)

Writing is not the hardest thing in the world to do, but the easiest thing to do is not write. A nice thing about being a writer is the freedom to set your own hours, but that freedom can also be a curse. It’s difficult to stay focused and avoid procrastination and distractions, especially today with the internet, when the tool you write with (a computer) is connected to all the information in the world, including email, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit, and other applications designed to waste time.

So many times, I’ll have the whole day free to write, and I sit down at my computer to start, then before I know it, the day is over, and I haven’t written anything. It may begin with research—looking up something related to my story on Wikipedia, then I go down a rabbit hole of links to other, completely unrelated topics. I’d be sitting at my computer all day but wouldn’t get any work done.

Some writers advocate turning off your internet while writing to avoid such distractions, but I prefer being able to look things up on the internet while writing. I’d rather develop the self-control to avoid going down the rabbit hole.

I’ve experimented with writing first thing in the morning, in the afternoon, and the evening, trying to determine which time I’m most productive. I tend to work best in the morning, but what I’ve discovered is the time of day doesn’t really matter so long as when you sit down at your computer, you actually write. To that end, the thing that’s helped my productivity the most is the “Pomodoro Technique.”

Developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s, the pomodoro technique is a time management system where you set a timer for 25 minutes to work, then take a five minute break, and repeat (however many times you can/want). That’s it. It’s sounds simple, but it works.

In the past, I may have had a four-hour block of time to work so I’d try to write straight through it, thinking that would be the most productive method. But, inevitably, I would waste a large portion of that time procrastinating, knowing in the back of my mind that I had plenty of time left to write. But with the pomodoro technique, knowing I only have 25 minutes makes me stay more focused to get as much done in that block of time as possible. 

I use an app (Be Focused) that has the timer right on my desktop, so I feel a constant sense of urgency, knowing exactly how much time I have until my break. It’s a sort of mental trick to keep you focused on the task at hand. Then an alarm sounds, and no matter what, I step away from the computer to take my break. Even if I’m in the middle of something, I know I can come back to it in five minutes.

The idea of taking frequent breaks sounds counter-intuitive, but it actually makes me more productive. Plus, it’s healthier. I developed some health problems from sitting (and/or standing) at my computer for too long. You need to get up and move more often, and the pomodoro technique helps me do that. I go for a walk or do some form of exercise during those five minutes. Then when I step back to my computer, I feel more refreshed and alert and ready to work again. By taking more breaks, I get more work done. Plus, if I do happen to get sucked down an internet research rabbit hole, it’s limited to a maximum of 25 minutes. Then, when I get back from my break, I’m more determined to get back to work and avoid distractions in my next 25-minute block.

I’d first heard of the pomodoro technique several years ago, tried it and found it useful for a while, but for whatever reason I eventually stopped. Recently (because of those health problems), I started doing the pomodoro technique again and it’s helped both my productivity and my health. There are plenty of free pomodoro apps available to download for desktop or mobile, or you can just create your own with a watch or timer. If you experience procrastination (or health) problems related to writing, you might want to give the pomodoro technique a try.

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