Smarter Writing? Try a Timer.

Tis the season of awards. Writers everywhere are thinking about what makes for good-better-and-best writing. In a nod to this season of recognizing excellence, I’m borrowing a page from the New York Times’ “Smarter Living” section, but for writers.

My methodology? Things I’ve actually tried. That’s it. This is thoroughly unscientific. The goal of the endeavor is not to revolutionize your writing routine, but rather, to tweak it, to make it just a little bit better.

I’m starting off with a writing hack I use every day: a timer.

When I first read about the Pomodoro Technique many moons ago, I was struggling with how to get all those little things done in a day that somehow always take more time than I thought they would—making appointments for the kids, signing forms, paying bills, managing the family’s schedule, getting birthday gifts sent—nothing earth shattering or difficult, just, well, time consuming. If you’re not familiar with the Pomodoro Technique, it’s a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s based on breaking down work into twenty-five minute intervals of intense focus (or so says Wikipedia). According to lore, the reason Cirillo called it “pomodoro” is because when he came up with the idea, the only timer he had was a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato.

I liked the idea, so I tried it. For me, it was like magic. That laundry list of to-do items that I didn’t want to deal with became manageable. As soon as I started the timer, I just did what was on the list. It was like when I was a kid in a race. 3 –2 –1 and I was off. The timer took my brain out of the equation. Anxiety I had about the number of things I needed to get done or thoughts about how I really didn’t want to deal with a lengthy conversation with my contractor simply evaporated. The moment the seconds started ticking away, I started getting things done. 

I’d found my Holy Grail for dealing with everything that made me want to procrastinate.

The first time I applied the technique to writing was when I hit a rough patch in the middle of a first draft. The storyline was off. Some of the characters blended into each other without purpose. The tone was wrong. I knew all these things, but seemed incapable of fixing them. My computer mocked me every time I opened it. I deleted more words than I wrote. And I felt bad, which, of course, only made everything worse.

I was desperate. I’d been a disciplined write-X-number-of-words-a-day kinda girl for a very long time. I finished my dissertation that way. I finished every lengthy legal document and every academic paper that way. Now, though, I couldn’t get to my word count. It was awful. Looking back, I think the problem has to do with where my focus was. Focusing on the end goal works fine when there’s no struggle with getting words on paper, but when that is the challenge, the focus needs to be on beginnings not endings.

I started with twenty-five minutes. It worked, but it was a little short for me. My timer was going off just when I was getting going. With some experimentation, I found that forty-five minutes is my magic number. My rules are simple: once the timer starts, I write. No checking email. No answering non-emergency phone calls. No straightening my office. The sole exception? I can get more coffee.

When the timer trills, sometimes I immediately restart it, sometimes I take five or ten minutes to check off things on my to do list or to do nothing at all. What still amazes me about this timer method is how much more I’m able to write and how much easier that writing is.

Let me know if you’ve ever tried some variation of the Pomodoro Technique. Did it work for you or not?

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