4 Tips So You Don't Organize Yourself to Death

It is a well known but rarely mentioned fact that, having adopted The Pomodoro Technique, dinosaurs scheduled themselves to death.

It is a well known but rarely mentioned fact that, having adopted The Pomodoro Technique, dinosaurs scheduled themselves to death.

Prolific science fiction novelist Sarah Hoyt follows up her “Your Novel in 13 Weeks” PJ Lifestyle series with a new weekly experiment each Saturday to figure out the best way for all creative types working from home to better organize their efforts.

Week Zero, Introduction: Organizing Your Creative Life In 13 Weeks

Week 1/2, Preparation: The Case For Making Lots of Lists

Week One: How to Make Your Mind Like Water

Week Two: What Are the Best Apps For Artists and Writers Desperate To Get Work Done? 

Week Three: The Lone Writer Against The Time Masters

Week Four: How to Tame Your Subconscious

Week Five: How Separating When and Where You Do Tasks Improves Both Productivity and Quality of Work!

Week Six: Organizing your Life is Like Learning to Juggle Eggs and Chainsaws


Death by Penguin is a terrible thing to contemplate.

Or death by tomato. My friend Charlie (Martin) who has also adopted the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done methods, told me this week “the thing is that you can Pomodoro yourself to death. You keep thinking ‘Oh, I’ll do a tomato on that.”

This sounded like something out of Attack of The Killer Tomatoes to the un-initiated but of course it was perfectly sane and a danger I could see myself.

The Pomodoro Technique consists of timing yourself in 25 minute segments, with three five minute breaks, and then a full 20 minute break for each four 25 minute segments. It is in a way a lot like putting yourself back in school, though not the high schools with 50 minute periods.

I use a penguin timer instead of a tomato timer because the penguin amuses me – but the technique is the same.

Some people report it doesn’t work at all for them. For me it works, because 25 minutes is just short enough that I can postpone getting up to do something/clicking on a link to check something for that long.

Say I’m working and my email makes the sound that announces I have mail.

I think in my entire writing career there have been two emails that needed immediate response, and even then it wasn’t so much needed as I wanted to answer as quickly as possible – one of them being an offer to purchase a novel.

Publishers can’t know if you’ll be at the computer when the email hits and in fact, often during the week I’m not – I tend to go off to a remote and isolated location during the day when I can. It wasn’t really available much of the summer, which led to my going almost insane, but it is back now. While I can check email from this location, it involves going downstairs to the internet café, and so it only happens during breaks.

So if I’m doing a tomato, even if I’m at home and at my desk when the message hits, I tell myself that it can always wait twenty five minutes. This is okay. Telling myself it can wait an hour is something else entirely as, half the time, the email will be from a kid who forgot something or from a husband who needs something done in his home office. But twenty five minutes is manageable.

As with a car trunk, or a suitcase, eventually you find out there's only so much you can space in a day.

As with a car trunk, or a suitcase, eventually you find out there’s only so much you can space in a day.

And twenty five minutes is very long. One of the things I’ve learned about myself by using the Pomodoro technique is that I’m the working mind equivalent of a grazer. You know those people who snack a little all through the day? Well, I usually do things in about three minute chunks, interrupted as the idea to check the news/read email/what was that cool new song I heard last week? – internet search hits.

This method of working, also known as Internet-Induced ADHD doesn’t in fact work very well for novels, which is why a lot of my work in getting novels done involves chasing myself around the house (trust me) and forcing myself to sit down and write. Usually it involves extreme discipline, and I write my novels very fast because I can’t stand to stay in that strict discipline that long.

It also involves a form of emotional splitting — where I’m both the person forcing myself to sit down and the person sitting down to work — that is not often very easy.

So the Pomodoro technique allows me to control the wild fidgets, because even my inner two year old can always wait another five minutes.

After a few weeks, I’m settling into it, and yes, the temptation to say “I’ll do a tomato on that” is very great, particularly as some tasks don’t need – and shouldn’t get – a full tomato.

I guess it’s like anything that works. You start fancying yourself invincible and taking on more and more work, because you can always tomato/penguin one more task into your schedule if you just do it right.

This week, I’ve found there is a limit to how much you can fit in your day, penguin or no penguin.

I learned this by making a to-do list (brought out my little note cards) for the first day of the week which didn’t get completed until yesterday. This tells you just how insane my perception of my free time is. Even with full penguin control, working the schedule properly, it’s impossible to do as much in a day as I’d planned. It takes in fact a full four days of good control of your time and working very hard.

Now, mind you, this week’s prolonged extension of to-do tasks also had to do with other things including a genuine act of G-d – the fact that my basement flooded in the recent rains. I’m still finishing the clean up on that, since – because the basement is my laundry room – the stuff waiting in baskets on the floor all got soaked through making their washing a priority regardless of whether they were a priority before or not.

You don't want the penguin to kill you.  For one, while it's okay to have a merry wake, do you really want all your friends to spend the rest of THEIR lives laughing at you?

You don’t want the penguin to kill you. For one, while it’s okay to have a merry wake, do you really want all your friends to spend the rest of THEIR lives laughing at you?

And yes, it was entirely predictable. We have a cover on the basement door, it had gotten broken and I hadn’t fixed it. But the winter snows and rains failed to flood the basement, and I intended to do it for the Fall. Which means that penguins or tomatoes also aren’t a proof against cocky stupidity and unwarranted trust in the weather. You’ve been warned.

But I suspect without the flooded basement and assorted other “nibbling ducks” (when my day gets eaten by stupid little tasks I call it being nibbled to death by ducks) I would still not have finished that Monday to-do list till Wednesday. Which is to say, I suspect that I had overloaded the list by three times.

So, as you get organized and find out the limits of what you can do, here’s some hard-earned advice:

1-      If you’ve overloaded your list, don’t think you’re married to it.

Sometimes there’s only so many tasks you can do in a day. You’re only human. (Yes, I know, it annoys me too.) If it’s midnight and you’re a third of the way through your list, go to bed ALREADY.

2-      This relates to the above The Penguin (or tomato, but that sounds weirder) is not the boss of you.

If a kid screams down the hall, or the water main ruptures in front of your door, you’re allowed to interrupt your pomodoro and run to the rescue. Really. You have my permission.

3-      Try not to overload your schedule to begin with.

You know the thing about “if you want something done, ask a busy person”? There is a reason for it. A busy person is busy because he/she has demonstrated an ability to get things done, and so more was piled on. While those who do nothing get stuff taken away from them. HOWEVER it’s up to the busy person to self-preserve. I don’t care if the person who asks has big eyes and the cutest smile on Earth, if you’re already writing for a publisher and doing indie publishing, there is no room on your schedule to also edit a magazine. No. It will break you, and that will mean a long time with nothing done.

4-      Now and then, just to keep in practice, disobey the penguin.

I take an hour-long walk everyday mid-day, even though there is no provision for an hour long break in the Pomodoro. However, it keeps me what passes as sane around these parts.

Living by the penguin is dying by the penguin. In other words, control your schedule, but don’t let it control you.


images courtesy shutterstock /  Marques / federicofoto /Four Oaks