Adapting the Pomodoro Technique to work for you

deskforwritingNow that I’ve finally found my editing groove – or at least determined that the best location for my attempts to revise the novel are based firmly at my writing desk – things are progressing if not quite to plan, then at least in a forward direction. I re-dedicated myself to the process of redrafting the novel publicly a couple of weeks ago – see my post Laziness, Complacency & Accountability – and I promised myself that during some recent time off I would catch up with the the tasks my laziness had thus far caused me to neglect.

Well, aside from the fact that my time off coincided (purposefully) with the Huddersfield Literature Festival and I was distracted with numerous authors’ writing rather than my own, my time was also disturbed by a recurrence of my disability: CFS/ME. As a result I’ve spent the last week doing my best to commit to my writing whilst also trying to adhere to the increased amount of rest I require to get back on an even keel. I am still struggling now, but it’s by no means as bad as when I first contracted the condition six years ago.

However, during this time I’ve put into practice a method a technique I’ve heard has worked well for others and one that I’ve tried numerous times when I’ve found it difficult to maintain the motivation of writing a novel.

The Pomodoro Technique
Basically, the idea is to work on a task for a limited time, with scheduled breaks to ensure mental acuity. These break are supposed to be short – no longer than 5 minutes – so as not to interrupt flow. Ideally you work on something for 25 minutes, with four of these slots referred to as a set, meaning you take a longer break. The result is dedicated working time with few distractions and a supposedly higher output.


Ready, set, GO!

Now, I adapt the technique to suit my own needs. So, instead of 25 minutes I usually commit to 15 minutes. And, with writing and editing, I find that if I’m not in the groove by the end of that time then I’m not going to work productively and I take a longer break and try again 30-60 minutes later.

For me, this works because when I’m not feeling my best I can easily convince myself to sit down at my desk for 15 minutes to focus on trying to get some work done. Typically, even when I don’t believe I’m in the frame of mind to write, after the timer goes off I am so far into the scene I’m working on I dismiss the buzzer as a distraction and usually lift my head around 40-60 minutes afterwards and realise I did a lot more than I thought I would.

However – and I think this is the key to this technique working for me – if those original 15 minutes are laborious and I’m fighting with every word on the page I give myself permission to stop when the timer goes off. And I walk away. I don’t feel bad that it hasn’t worked (this time), I don’t force myself to try again (because I cheated and checked Twitter) and I don’t berate myself for not ‘being a writer’ in those moments.

Those 15 minutes either set me up for a ‘session’ or they allow me to realise that I’m not able to do what I expected. They also let me admit that I did try. I haven’t procrastinated my way out of a productive day, I haven’t neglected my dream to write a novel; I sat down and attempted to do it and – sometimes – it’s just not going to work.

There are many reasons why it doesn’t work. Sometimes I am exhausted and my body needs to get switched off (read: take a nap) instead of adhering to my desire to make my dreams a reality. Sometimes I’m far too distracted with other things, be they Literature Festivals or family crises. Sometimes it’s because the part I’m working on is proving difficult and I need more thinking time. Sometimes I really just don’t want to. And I allow myself permission to let that be okay. Because I tried. I can be happy trying and failing. What I can’t be happy with is not trying at all.

Of course, a lot of the times I use this method what happens is that I get lost in the world of my own creation and time flies because I’m having fun. I am occasionally surprised by how deviously this technique works, as there have been moments where I’ve been sure I’ll be packing up my laptop after 15 minutes only to find that I’ve had a spark of an idea I have to see through. On those sessions I suspect it’s laziness that was attempting to seduce me, but the passion I feel for my writing is far stronger a pull.

I’ve found myself using this method for things other than just writing – although, unsurprisingly, it works less often with the housework. But, it certainly works for blog posts, returning emails and organising paperwork. What I’ve also discovered is that it tends to work best when you can reward yourself for the effort made just to try – so that means getting that Caramel Latte or chocolate bar regardless of the outcome.

Which reminds me; I’ve got some coconut bites left in the cupboard….


What techniques do you use to help your muse settle in for a writing session?
Share your top tips in the comments below.


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2 responses to “Adapting the Pomodoro Technique to work for you

  1. I love this technique, Cat, and I especially love the idea of giving yourself permission because you tried. Creatives as a group tend to beat themselves up for a “lack of results,” but as we all know, the work is so often in the parts the outside world doesn’t see. Although I didn’t know there was an actual name for the technique, I’ve been using it since I was a child—I’d make myself spend 30 minutes on math homework (my least favorite) and reward myself with 10 minutes of reading. Those coconut bites sound pretty good, too . . . 😉

  2. I used to work somewhere where all the computers in the building went into standby mode automatically every two hours, for five minutes. I wonder if it ended up saving them time rather than losing all those minutes!! Whirly pictures came on, and a voice encouraging you to do shoulder un-tensing (I’m sure that’s not a word!) exercises. I think you work out what’s right for YOU, don’t you? My sister @ProofreadJulia will never work for more than one and a half hours without a break because her eyes miss thigs, for instance.

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