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The Tomato on My Desk Is Ticking


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.

Well, as Sarah has told you, I've become a fan of the Pomodoro technique. It's really quite simple.

  1. You decide you need to do something.
  2. You get a kitchen timer and set it for 25 minutes.
  3. 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.)
  4. 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.


Of course, I've got three columns a week, so those take up a fair part of this. I find a column usually takes me about two pomodori to write. Then I'm working on a book and have some assigned articles to write, so there's always plenty to do, and sometimes, especially on weekends, I'll find myself doing more tomatoes, or coming back after lunch to do another two or four tomatoes on some project.

If I get distracted for a short time, I treat it like a stray thought while meditating: I observe that it happened, and remind myself I'm not doing that thing right now. I may write a quick note to remind myself of the thought later, which helps me keep the intruding thought at bay.

This works well at my day job too, although I don't use a mechanical clock there because I have an open cubicle and the ringing causes people to leap from their seats three cubes over. Instead, I'll use a timer on my iPod or Kindle that I can hear through headphones.

(Okay 13 seconds left. I'm going to go take a spin.)

The full-blown Pomodoro technique adds some parts to this. First, you track how many Pomodoros you're done in a day -- for example, I've concluded that I want to write for three tomatoes ("pomodori") every morning, and add two tomatoes on weekend mornings. One of those pomodori always goes to Morning Pages, which is a ritual I'll describe another time. (It comes from Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, which I recommend to anyone who feels as if their creativity is blocked.) For the others, I take something from my list of things I want to write and attack them.

Cirillo recommends some other things, for example keeping a piece of paper at hand so that every time you're distracted, you can check off that you're distracted and why. This I generally don't bother with, because once I've gotten started on something it's hard to distract me -- it's that slow "OMG what should I write" part at the beginning that's hard. With those things, if I'm distracted, I may well go do whatever is on my mind, and come back. Then I reset the timer for the full 25 minutes.

That's really (almost) all of it. I'd recommend if you're interested either reading the original Pomodoro book, which you can buy from Amazon or download for free from the author's web site, or buy this book, which I just found a few days ago. Amazon has a million kitchen timers. I have probably 6 real live tomato timers scattered about the house in places where I Do Things, but any kitchen timer will do.

(Two tomatoes exactly. I think I'll go to Wal Mart now.)