How to write with a tomato

Do you do Pomodoro? Yes, it’s Italian for tomato, but also it’s biz-speak for a productivity-increasing method. We writers like to think we can use methods like this to crank out the words faster. (Or do we?)

Pomodoro for writers

It’s named after a timer that looks like a tomato. Not exactly romantic, but it has caught on.

So we asked business admin expert Jean Weir to give us the skinny on how this technique works. And then we asked some other writers what they think about writing with tomato …

Over to Jean… Sz 

What is the Pomodoro technique from a writer’s point of view?

The Pomodoro technique is a time management system that encourages you to work with the time you have, rather than against it. The method was developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.  The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short 5-minute breaks. Each interval is known as a pomodoro, (from the Italian word for ‘tomato‘ as we know.)

This strategy works because you completely focus on one task (like writing) without shifting focus or multitasking. When the clock is ticking, you ignore the urge to check email, scroll Facebook, reply to text messages or do any other distracting activity. You are completely focused.

This means you should finish each day with a sense of achievement by following this technique.

So why the tomato?

Cirillo came up with the name pomodoro, from the Italian word for ‘tomato‘, after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer he used as a university student to manage his time. So we are looking at a technique named after a humble tomato shaped kitchen timer.

The writing tools required

The great thing about the Pomodoro technique is you don’t need any fancy tools to get started. The only thing you need is a kitchen timer or possibly an app.

Cirillo encourages a low-tech approach, using a mechanical timer, paper, and pencil. The physical act of winding the timer confirms the user’s commitment and determination to start the task; and the ‘ticking’ sound of the timer itself externalises desire to complete the task. It gives a sense of urgency, and ringing announces a break.

However, the technique has been widely popularised by dozens of apps and websites providing timers and instructions. At the time of writing, there are apps available such as:-

  • FocusKeeper
  • FocusBooster
  • Flat Tomato
  • Pomello (for Trello users)
  • Toggl
  • Pomodoro Tracker
  • Clockwork Tomato

The list goes on, so if you think using a kitchen timer is a bit ‘old hat’ then you should probably look at a few of these and see which one might suit you best (not all available on both iOS and Android).

The steps involved

There are six steps in the original technique:

  1. Decide on the task to do. It can be anything: what matters is that it deserves your full attention – not so much the size of the task.
  2. Set the pomodoro timer (traditionally to 25 minutes) and avoid all distractions, email, telephone, social media and urges to multi-task.
  3. Work on the task until the pomodoro rings. If during that time you think of something else you should be doing, note it down on a piece of paper and continue on the task in hand.
  4. End work when the timer rings and put a tally mark on a piece of paper, to count that your first pomodoro is complete.
  5. If you have fewer than four tally marks, take a short break (3–5 minutes), then go back to step 2. Stand up, go for a comfort break, grab a cuppa, clear your mind: do something to relax you.
  6. After four pomodoros, take a longer break (20–30 minutes) and come back refreshed: reset your tally, then return to step 1. Your brain will use this time to assimilate information and rest before the next round of pomodoros.

Don’t waste time on distractions when you’re working to the Pomodoro technique…

How does it work?

The idea behind the technique is that the timer instils a sense of urgency. Rather than feeling like you have endless time in the workday to get things done and then potentially squandering those precious work hours on distractions, you know you only have 25 minutes to make as much progress on a task as possible.

Sometimes when faced with a large task it is hard to get started. So by breaking the task into chunks that are followed by short breaks, the task becomes more manageable.

In addition, the forced breaks help to cure that frazzled feeling most of us experience towards the end of the day. It’s impossible to spend hours in front of your computer without even realising it when following this technique, because the ticking timer reminds you to get up and take a walk and a breather. Otherwise as we all know hours can pass quite easily.

If you’ve heard of Parkinson’s Law, it states that work expands to fill the time available, and you’ll know that you can spend ages on something that in many cases won’t be any better than it would have been had you left it as it was last week. Some people say that to combat Parkinson’s Law you have to set strict deadlines and literally have a ticking clock in the background as you work on each task, resulting in you ‘getting more time’ to spend on the fun stuff. So that’s where the Pomodoro technique comes in.

So what do our author friends on social media think?

Amrita Chowdhury from Plano, Texas, USA: I use nothing but. Mostly because it’s been a fruitful habit since school. My grandmother (had a PhD) was usually the one overseeing our STEM subject studies and she made us study for 30 minutes and then take a break for 5. I don’t think a name for the technique existed, or even if it did, we weren’t aware. And I carried that to college where I learnt about the Pomodoro and reduxed study time to 20 minutes and then 5 minutes for break. Especially during exam time. And now it’s seeped into my worklife and writing life as well.

Nina Klakovich from Orange County, California, USA: I’ve been doing the Pomodoro technique without even realizing it because of the recommendation to get up and move every 30 minutes if you’re sitting all day. Sometimes I wonder if it stops me from getting as much done, but I find that during that 5 min of stretching and walking, my mind works on the current project and new ideas pop up.

Rayne Hall, Book author & publishing consultant, Bulgaria: Pomodoro – or any other ‘short spurt’ writing pattern – works because it feels doable and achievable, thus cuts through the dithering phase. Also, it creates the slight pressure that stimulates creativity.

Courtney Angel Thorne: I actually use these techniques when studying for my masters degree, and it works very well to maintain attention without getting over tired.

Angela Petch Author, Italian translator and tutor, West Sussex, UK: I tried it but it’s too frenetic for me. I need to stop and think about what I’m writing. I tried joining in with a group of writers using this technique and the clatter of keypads was soooooo distracting. It’s good to set yourself goals but not in this frenetic manner imho

Nellie Neves, Author, baker, USA: I hadn’t even heard of it. I had to look it up. I don’t set a timer but I do long sprints like this and do huge word counts on work days. But no tomatoes.

Trisha J. Kelly Award-winning author, UK:  No. Because that would make writing like ‘work’ which it isn’t for me and I could never write to a timed session. Performing on demand! When I write, I go on and on and on; I start and finish when I choose, that’s the beauty

Will it work for you?
Pomodoro technique for writers

The Pomodoro technique is great if you have a long list of things to-do.

This technique is easy for anyone to use.
I think the Pomodoro technique is great if you have a long list of things to-do; you have a mix of tasks to complete throughout the day, and often go to bed asking yourself: ‘What did I actually achieve today?’ Also, if you work on larger projects that seem to be never-ending, or don’t have any natural segmentation, sometimes breaking it up will help you make progress.

I really like the Pomodoro technique, and believe me it does make me more focused and productive. In fact, I used it to write this article.

It took me a few pomodoros over a few days to complete it. I used the first one to do my research and plan out the sections, then another to write the introduction and details of how the process worked, and built it up like that, in amongst other tasks I had to complete in the same time period.

A tip for tasks that take less than 25 minutes to complete: you could group them together, or batch them up. For instance, social media might be a grouping, and you spend 5-10 minutes each day on varying different platforms but set aside one pomodoro to achieve the lot. And of course, anything that takes longer than the 25 minutes just needs more pomodoros to complete it  – but still taking that 5-minute breather after completing each 25-minute pomodoro.

The Pomodoro technique is good for anyone who wonders where time goes and feels they have nothing to show for it, or is easily distracted and finds days disappearing, or lacks focus and feels as though all you do is fight fires … and never completes the things you intended. Or, you simply feel burned out with too much to do.

Punchline:
With the Pomodoro technique, you can quickly get and stay focused and do your best work in the most efficient manner. Some entrepreneurs have been heard to say it is their secret in achieving work-life balance. When the clock is ticking, you’re working hard and when it stops, you get to do fun things in life. 

What experience do you have in using the Pomodoro technique in your writing?

Please share! And do you agree with Jean that Pomodoro can give you back quality time? Or is writing itself your fun and quality time? 

Jean Weir

Jean Weir from Oyster Flame

Jean Weir is a business admin expert working as a virtual assistant heading up her organisation Oyster Flame, in the UK.

For further information on how Jean can help you and your business go Oyster Flame.

 

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