Forcing yourself to be honest…and realistic

Since I’ve been working on my novel full time, the first draft has grown from 0 to 33,000 words. Not bad! But that took two months, and I feel like I can do better (especially since this is the first draft and I’m working from a pretty good outline).

I’ve been keeping track of how many words I write each day and taking notes about what else came up that might have inhibited my productivity, but I didn’t see anything obvious (other than “work more” or “start earlier in the day,” a tried-and-true principle from The ONE Thing).

Tomato timerThen, my friend and fellow writer Amy told me about the Pomodoro Technique, after the Italian word for tomato, which is apparently also a common shape for kitchen timers. In brief, you set a timer for 25 minutes, during which you focus solely on the task at hand, writing down but ignoring or postponing any interruptions or distractions. After each time segment (called a “pomodoro”), you write a checkmark on a piece of paper and take a short break. After each set of 4 pomodoros, you take a longer break.

Besides helping you focus, the technique allows you to figure out roughly how long a common task takes, because you keep track of how many 25-minute chunks of time it takes you to finish a task (on average).

It also, importantly, had the effect of showing me just how much time I wasn’t spending on intentional tasks. I started recording how long I lasted while writing before I checked the timer (I’m using my phone timer instead of an actual ticking tomato), and I usually lasted nearly 25 minutes. After a few days, even when I set a stopwatch (to see how long I can go) instead of a timer, I hit 25-30 minutes almost every time. Writing for 25 minutes clearly wasn’t the problem.

But breaks… The 5-minute timer would go off and I’d just ignore it. So I started timing my breaks as well, and the average amount of time before I was “done” with reading email, going through Facebook or Twitter, and reading some of the interesting links I found while doing it, was 15-20 minutes! Basically, I was spending a “whole pomodoro” on a break.

Now, social media is important to building a career as a writer. Reading blog posts, following authors or agents on Twitter, and making meaningful posts to my author page all deserve to happen, but then I should be doing them on purpose. They deserve their own, directed pomodoro, so that I can do them intentionally. Now I just have to figure out how to take better breaks. Maybe that means not even starting social media on a short break, or maybe it means switching up pomodoros so that tasks I need to do feel like breaks. But at least now I have the numbers staring me in the face, which will help me be honest about my productivity and realistic about how much I can improve.

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