Like a lot of writers, I really like having written, and I suspect like a lot of writers, I love the feeling of writing when it’s going well. But I hate trying to write, or starting to write.
Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. — Gene Fowler
So, I’ll tell you one of the keys to writing: you have to give yourself permission to write badly. Then go ahead and write, because you simply can’t write something you like until you have at least written something.
- You decide you need to do something.
- You get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes.
- For that 25 minutes, you do the task you started, and refuse to do anything else. (There will be inevitable distractions and I’ll talk about those momentarily.)
- At the end of 25 minutes, if you’re not done, you take a five minute break.
In a sense, this is the same pattern as a 13 Weeks Experiment, although much quicker: pick something you want to do, pick how to do it, do it for a short interval, then stop and re-evaluate (“pivot or persevere”).
It’s called the Pomodoro technique — Italian for “tomato” — because Francesco Cirillo, the inventor of the method, happened to have a tomato-shaped kitchen timer, and is Italian.
So, here’s how it works. I’m working on my first pomodoro on this article, which I figure will, as usual, take me about 2 pomodori. I set a timer, and start it ticking. Now I look at the blank page.
This is a “drops of blood on the forehead stage” and it’s by far the hardest thing for me. I’ve learned, however, that I can always write something badly, and with only 25 minutes, I can start and if I still hate it at the end of 25 minutes, I can toss it, or mine it for anything I do like. The ticking noise keeps me aware that I’m working on a time limit, and when I get distracted, I just say “I can do that in a few minutes.” After 25 minutes, I’ve accumulated some number of words — I type at about 60 words a minute, so with luck I’ve got 1500 words. A lot of times, though, by that time I’m feeling like I’m rolling, and will keep going until I feel a lagging in my energy; I often will set the timer back to 25 minutes again at that point, basically skipping the break. I never skip two breaks though.
At the break, I get up and do something — get more coffee, go to the bathroom, walk around a little — and go back to work for another 25 minute tomato. Or, more recently, I get up and do a 4 minute Tabata workout, something I’ve talked about in my 13 Weeks column before. I now have a collection of Tabata timing songs on my digital music, so I’ll play one song and do some kind of workout. At the end of the song, I’ve had a break and gotten away a little bit; I come back able to go to work again.