Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Tick-Tock: Productive Writing, Pomodoro Style

I'm a big believer in the magic of three. You know — the three little pigs, the three Musketeers, the three Stooges. There's something ineffable but magical about a list of three. So, when I had three unrelated people forward me a Wall Street Journal article on the Pomodoro technique in less than a week, well, I took it as a sign. This was something I needed to investigate!

The Pomodoro technique is a time management system. Yes, I confess, I'm obsessed with time. I work hard. I have my own business. I'm a parent of triplet teenagers. Oh, and we're getting ready to move back into our rebuilt house right now, so I'm busy. Really busy.

The Pomodoro technique, which was developed by an Italian, is based on using a kitchen timer. There are apparently timers shaped exactly like tomatoes although I've never seen one except in pictures. (Tomato is pomodoro in Italian.) Instead of simply working whenever you feel like it or when you can squeeze it in, you work in 25-minute bursts.

Set your timer for 25 minutes and then give the work your total concentration. By the way, when I say work, I mean writing, but of course the technique is effective with any task you could care to name. Don't answer the phone. Don't check email. Don't do anything except your work. As soon as the timer "dings," take a regulated five-minute break and then start on another Pomodoro.

I've long been a fan of using a kitchen timer to motivate myself but the Pomodoro technique, which is more carefully developed than any practice of mine, proves to offer more substantial results. One of the things I like best about it is its focus on taking prescribed breaks. During my five-minute breathers I've taken to doing my back stretches (no way I'd do them every 25 minutes otherwise!) I've even persuaded a friend of mine to give it a try and she reports similar results.

My friend's timer is not a Pomodoro — it's a little red hen. She initially complained about the ticking (I break the rules by using a digital timer) but now she likes it and describes it as a "comforting wall of sound." She also appreciates the developer's optimistic, open-minded approach. "The next Pomodoro will go better," inventor Francesco Cirillo says in his book.

Oh, and did I mention his book describing the technique is free? You can pay if you'd like a printed copy but if you're prepared to print it off yourself or read it online you can do so without spending a nickel. Check it out on the Pomodoro website. The book is a mere 45 pages and an easy read.

Or, if you're too busy for that, read Staffan Noteberg's blog first, to save time.

I suggest you scan the article in the five-minute break between your own writing Pomodoros!


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 8th 2010, 6:04 AM
Comment by: Lynn W. (Virginia Beach, VA)
This sounds like a really good technique to teach adolescents who are having difficulty getting their homework done. I'm a teacher and this could work for me while grading a mountain of papers.
Monday March 8th 2010, 8:09 AM
Comment by: Meggin M.
Daphne, this is a winner!! I hope you'll share about this in your upcoming teleseminar ( http://meggin.com/WritersBlock.php). I am going to post this idea to my blog and share it with others. I love how you described it and the other resources your recommended are excellent, of course! Thanks!
Monday March 8th 2010, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Keith (Fort Lauderdale, FL)
Good article - good technique. There is also a free app for the iPhone: "Pomodoro Time Management Lite." These is also an upgrade available that adds a few bells and whistles. It's $.99 !
Monday March 8th 2010, 2:17 PM
Comment by: Leslie Y. (Alderson, WV)
Sounds neat. Will look at the website. But what's the connection to "magic of three?"
Monday March 8th 2010, 4:32 PM
Comment by: Scott S. (Grand Rapids, MI)
I like the concept; it sounds beneficent. I am a stroke survivor in my mid 30's, and am alarmingly slow at many tasks. I also have the benefit of having an egg timer as I prepare for Grad School. I suppose the triplet teenagers are the connection to three's?
Monday March 8th 2010, 6:55 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for the comments, all. Leslie, I'm sorry I wasn't more clear about the "three". I was simply remarking that THREE (unrelated, unconnected) people told me about the Pomodoro technique in less than a week!

Thanks for putting this on your blog, Meggin. I was trying to figure out why I sold so many of my books today -- now I know! Lynn, yes, this is a great technique for students, and, indeed for ANYONE who is doing something they're not crazy about.

Keith, I appreciate the reference to an iPhone ap. I LOVE my iphone and it's great to know that it will do even more for me. Scott, I'm a two-time stroke survivor myself -- both due to carotid artery dissections. The second one hit my speech centre (rather unfair for a writer, don't you think?) but I'm lucky it hasn't affected me in any other ways. Pomodoros are excellent motivators!
Tuesday March 9th 2010, 6:05 PM
Comment by: paulette W. (Auburn, CA)
This is a good idea also in the fact that when studying, it is beneficial to take that break and meditate on what you are learning. Helps to remember what you learn.
Wednesday March 10th 2010, 6:03 PM
Comment by: Dan C. (Ballwin, MO)
I read through the Pomodoro Technique and I am utilizing it. For the first time, when coworkers come to my desk with something that would interrupt what I am doing I am saying, let me get back to you in 10 minutes. On day one, I'm getting good results. I'm going to stick with it.
Monday April 5th 2010, 6:03 AM
Comment by: Ojiugo U. (Santa Ana Costa Rica)
Thanks so much, and it is indeed true that this can be used in just about any field and area. I am a student with finals in less than a month, and am going to start using it for my studying plan. Besides, our attention span isn't so high, so indeed, WHY NOT 25 minutes of absolute concentration?!!
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 2:28 PM
Comment by: InspectorJaget (NY, NY)
I'm going to share this with my daughter attending college. Time management was always a topic for discussion between us.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 11:48 AM
Comment by: Carol V. (Pleasant Hill, IA)
This might be a wonderful technique as eBooks find their way to digital devices. Your time management plan would help teen minds focus on reading the eBook and not stray away to social networking and gaming sites! I shall suggest this study technique to students.
Thursday July 14th 2011, 4:26 PM
Comment by: Carol P. (Roanoke, VA)
This is a Fabulous find for me. I needed to find away to utilize my time better. I too am going back to school, and being 45 and a Lupus patient, it will help me focus and prioritize. Thanks so much for sharing this with your followers. I know many people that this will help. I am especially excited to share this with my 16 year old who is ADHD. I think this will be great for him to assist him in making it through high school.

As far as the 3's, Old Wives Tales is that things happen in three's. I hate to be morbid, but usually, death comes in threes. In my life, I've taken notice of this Old Wives Tale and it's been true throughout my whole life. If it had been me who got those three calls or emails, I would of felt the same way.

I just signed up for your newsletter list and I am so excited.

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