Productivity: How to Apply the Pomodoro Technique to Your Writing


Productivity and efficiency are two things we all want more of in our lives, especially when it comes to writing. Fitting writing in whenever you can is great. But what about those longer stretches of time when you can actually sit down to practice your craft for thirty minutes, an hour, or more?

Long, uninterrupted stretches of time can be just as intimidating as a blank page, and for the same reason: There are expectations. If you’ve got all this time, you expect to complete—not just add to—that chapter. You expect that more time equals more significant writing. Those expectations can bully you right out of a good writing session, if you’re not careful.

The Pomodoro Technique is one of the best ways to make efficient and productive use of those long, expectations-laden stretches of time. 

Pomodoro: The Basics
This productivity technique is based on the idea that short, scheduled breaks can boost productivity, discipline the brain away from distractions and help you get more done by structuring work/break periods. The work/break periods look like this:

  • 25 minutes: Work
  • 5 minutes: Break (that’s one cycle, or “pomodoro”)
  • 25 minutes: Work
  • 5 minutes: Break (that’s two cycles, or “pomodori”)
  • Every four or five pomodoros (pomodori), take a longer break (15-30 minutes)
  • Repeat until task or workday is done. 

Developed by Francesco Cirillo about 35 years ago, the Pomodoro Technique derives its name from the commonly-seen tomato (“pomodoro” in Italian) timers used in most home kitchens.  Francesco would set the timer to 25 minutes, and commit to working, without interruption or distraction, for exactly 25 minutes. When the stretch of time was over, the timer would sound, and Francesco would set it for five minutes, during which he did not look at his work; instead, he played games, got coffee, went to the bathroom, stared out the window—anything that wasn’t work. After 5 minutes, he would dive into 25 more minutes of uninterrupted work.

Simple, right?

Applying the Pomodoro Technique to writing is a great way to get more done, with a few tweaks to the rules. This is what I do:

Get a timer with adjustable volume. When the Pomodoro Technique is at its best, you’re really in the zone and focused on what you’re doing, and you don’t want a too-loud alarm jolting you out of a really productive thought train. That’s just annoying.

When the Pomodoro alarm signals the end of a 25-minute work period, complete your thought. Twenty-five minutes is not an exact science, so if you’re two-thirds of the way through threading the idea needle, keep going past the alarm for a few more moments. Don’t get up and walk away; or, if you go get up, jot down a shorthand version of the rest of your idea, so you know exactly how to pick up where you’ve left off.

Don’t use Pomodoro breaks to check Facebook. Or Google+. Or Twitter. I’ve found that the best way to take advantage of the break periods within the Pomodoro technique (especially the short five-minute ones) is to give my brain a real break, and walk away from the computer. Even if all I do for five minutes is stare out the window, or doodle on a piece of printer paper, my breaks leave me more refreshed if they’re not related to my work medium, the computer.

Make sure your tasks and goals are clear before you start your Pomodoro session. A huge part of the Pomodoro Technique is ahead-of-time goal setting, and a writer can get flustered with a timer ticking away when his or her only goal is just, “write.” Instead, make a list of what you need to accomplish, and where necessary, break up those larger goals into small chunks that can be tackled in 25 minutes or less.

For a more in-depth look at how you can apply the Pomodoro Technique to other areas of your life, check out this excellent Lifehacker introduction by Kevin Purdy (and be sure to peruse the comments; that’s where most of the real Lifehacker magic happens).

  • Erica

    Love it. This is the only way I can code – otherwise my brain starts to melt and dribble out of my ear. (One can only look for dropped semicolons for so long without a breakdown.)

    • Shanan

      Oh man, I go blind hunting for errant punctuation marks in simple, easy proof reading. With actual words. Having to look for it in code? Especially code I’d written?

      Yeah. I don’t think I could do it!

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