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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 Your Happy First Draft. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.