Staying on Track: Writing with the Pomodoro technique

Staying on Track: The Pomodoro Technique

Like many writers, I struggle to stay focused. There are too many books to read, games to play, memes to laugh at… the internet is truly a curse for those of us who need to get work done.

Luckily, some smart people took pity on procrastinating writers like us and came up with ways to get things done regardless of the distractions. One of these techniques that I’ve found, tried, and fallen in love with is the Pomodoro technique.

It gets its name from the Pomodoro kitchen timer, which you might have seen around before. They’re nifty little cooking wind-up timers shaped like tomatoes.

Science says that the human brain can only focus on a task for short periods of time, and taking regular breaks actually helps productivity in the long run. Meaning that even if you manage to work for 4 hours straight, you might actually get more done if you only work 3 hours over a 4-hour period with regular scheduled breaks making up the rest of the time.

The Pomodoro technique uses this schedule:

  • 25 minutes of work
  • 5-minute break
  • 25 minutes of work
  • 5-minute break
  • 25 minutes of work
  • 5-minute break

It looks a bit confusing in a list like that, but you can see the pattern. Work, break, work, break, etc, etc. Repeat as many times as you’d like!

And here’s another cool psychology thing that comes into play. Remember that Pavlov’s Dogs thing? When you follow this technique using a timer that rings, you can condition your brain to work by the bell. Putting clear distinctions between “work time” and “play time” will help your brain be more productive and efficient, since you’ll start associating that bell with a change in mental gears.

So using an actual timer instead of just mentally keeping an eye on the time is definitely the way to go. You can go buy an actual Pomodoro timer, or you can download an app for it. There are SO MANY free apps available.

The app I use (called Focus Keeper) has different dings to signal work vs rest times, and it changes the background color on the screen. It’s a simple app and works great, and of course, it’s free.

In general, I think an app of some kind of the best way to use the Pomodoro technique. It automatically tracks where you are in the schedule and forces you to stay on track. At the same time, you can make manual adjustments if you want. Say, for example, that you’re really in a writing zone and don’t want to break out of your flow. With a click of a button, you can skip your 5-minute break and just keep writing.

Break advice:

It’s tempting to start browsing the internet the second you hear the break bell, but I strongly advise that you take this time to get away from the screen. It gives your eyes and your head an actual break, and gives you a chance to take care of yourself.

(I don’t know if I’m the only one like this, but I’m terrible at self-care when I’m working on something. I get incredibly focused on the thing and don’t realize I’m starving or in desperate need of water until I feel like I’m about to faint)

So, stand up for your break. Walk around. Do something with your hands. These are the things I like to do:

  • Stretches
  • Light exercise (jumping jacks, running in place, etc)
  • Small chores (picking up dirty clothes, washing a dish, etc)
  • Get food or water
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Lie down and rest
  • Chat with a roommate
  • Meditate
  • Go outside (and literally just stand there and look around a bit)

It’s also a good idea to clean off your writing area, too. Don’t let dirty dishes and trash stack up on your desk. Again, it’s a mental thing. A cluttered desk makes it harder to focus, according to science.

That said, your desk doesn’t need to be completely plain and boring. Because science also says that a little bit of clutter improves creativity. It’s probably good to have a balance. Having books or papers on your desk is different than week-old garbage and dishes.

Another random hack: having a plant on your desk or in your working room increases productivity and reduces stress.

Other tips:

  • If the Pomodoro technique doesn’t seem to click with you immediately, don’t give up. Give it an honest try for at least a week. Habits don’t form immediately, and part of what makes the Pomodoro technique so effective is forming that habit of writing by the clock.
  • Feel free to skip breaks if you’ve hit a writing “flow.”
  • At the same time, you can make your other breaks longer if you’re doing a chore that takes more than 5 minutes to complete.
  • If you don’t trust yourself to stay focused during your work chunks, look into a program that will lock your browser for as long as you want to work.

Of course, this is only one focus technique of many. I’ve decided I love the Pomodoro technique, but it’s not for everyone. I only ask that you try it with an open mind, because you won’t know which system is best for you until you’ve tried a couple!

Besides, science seems to be in support of it. I suppose I talked a lot about science for this article, actually. It’s basically a compilation of different studies.

Anyway, I digress. Have you tried the Pomodoro technique? What strategies do you use to stay focused when working or writing? Share with me your thoughts in the comments!

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