5 minutes a day. 2000 words a day. 3 pages a day.
There are many different philosophies regarding the best way to force yourself to write. Everyone needs to figure this out for themselves. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. However, whatever technique is used, the object is always the same: to create a habit of writing. Practice, practice, practice.
I feel like there should be something profound to say about developing a habit of writing, but I really do not think there is. The ugly truth is that it happens through the sheer force of will. You have to compel yourself to write sometimes,…many times. It feels very difficult, but we do it because it is more painful to not give voice to the thoughts and characters running around in our head than it is to force them out. At least, this is what seems true from my perspective at this particular moment.
There were times during the process of writing my dissertation when I thought I would literally explode if I did not get up from the computer. I never did, but perhaps this is because in those moments I usually did get up out of my chair. However, most of the time my writing ranged from awesome flow to bearable drudge, but either way I do not think I could have gotten through it without my tomatoes. Tomatoes? you ask. I’ll explain in a moment.
The year and a half that preceded the actual writing of the dissertation was filled with moments when I thought I was working, but at the end of the day, it turned out that I had gotten very little accomplished. This was not always true, but it certainly felt like I was not making much progress. When January rolled around, I knew if I did not buckle down and just write the damn thing that I may never finish.
But, how in the world do you take that first step? You know the one, when it feels like there is something physically preventing you from just writing, for goodness’ sake. Well, I am not entirely sure, but at some point I came across the Pomodoro Technique, which is a time management system developed in the 1980s. I honestly do not know much about it, but essentially it involves a timer.
This sounds too simple, but I think the trick comes in the recording of your progress…or maybe it just is that simple. There are sheets and charts that accompany this technique (see the official website), which I started off using, but in the end I was just using the timer (the version I use can be found here). (Both the Pomodoro Technique e-book and the online timer are free to download and use, by the way.) I would write for a “tomato” (or in layman’s terms, 25 minutes), then I would take a 5 minute break, then I would write for another “tomato,” et cetera and so forth.
For some reason, writing in measurements of tomatoes did not feel as overwhelming as in measurements of hours. Instead of committing to 4 hours of writing I would commit to 8 tomatoes, which always passed more quickly than I would have imagined. (Counting in tomatoes also helped me compete with myself to see how many tomatoes I could finish in one session.) I would set a goal for myself – “I will spend 3 tomatoes reading, then 3 more tomatoes writing,” for example. This helped keep my research (or re-reading as was usually the case) from getting out of hand, and the actual writing part became bearable.
I would write for a tomato and the objective was not necessarily to write something good, but just to make sure that I did not do anything but write while that timer was running. If I thought of something I absolutely HAD to look up, such as the current skinny on Brangelina’s relationship, I would make a note of it and save it for my break. As long as that timer was running I had to be sitting down in front of the computer typing. If it started to get unbearable I would check the time: “Ugh, 8 more minutes?” *sigh* “Okay, 8 more minutes…” Note: this isn’t exactly the same as free-writing where you MUST be typing every second. If you need to stop and think, or re-read the last paragraph, that’s cool. The point is that the 25 minutes of the tomato is to be used solely to get your designated goal accomplished and not for anything superfluous.
The technique also gives you a clear sense of what you can reasonably accomplish in a certain time period. So, if you create a goal for yourself: 2000 words every hour, but after 3 tomatoes you realize that you are really only writing 500 words for every tomato. This allows you to adjust your goals to ones that you can actually accomplish and then know that in 2 hours, you will be able to write 2000 words. This keeps you from getting frustrated by continuously falling short of your goal.
One of the nice things about the “mytomatoes” timer is that the website keeps track of all your tomatoes, so you can visually see how much you’ve accomplished in a day. You can also “squash” a tomato while it is running, but then you do not get credit for it.
Over time, the particulars of the process became less important for me, but whenever I felt myself slipping or feeling like I was not getting as much accomplished as I wanted to, I would go back to my tomatoes, evaluate my progress and set fresh, realistic goals. It still amazes me how helpful this was.
I wonder how useful this system would be for creative writing? Currently, when I do sit down to do some creative writing, it seems like I write a couple of paragraphs, then get up to distract myself and lose steam. I am hoping that by using the pomodoro system, I may be able to force myself into a habit of writing: by committing to 3 tomatoes a day, for example. In the beginning my goals for those tomatoes will not really matter. I will simply write for 3 tomatoes. After a couple of days a pattern should emerge and I will able to determine how to proceed.
Unfortunately I am still working on the last of my dissertation, which will probably take another two weeks to finish, so I am not ready to commit to a creative writing schedule, but I think when I do, I will start by setting a tomato-goal for myself.
In the meantime, (if you’ve made it all the way through to the end of this post – sorry, it turned out to be much longer than I intended) if you are in a rut and think it could help, check out the pomodoro technique and let me know what you think.