So how do you focus your mind, turn down the background noise of emails and social media, and actually create the mental space you need to get the words out? One technique I’ve been using successfully for over a decade that helped me finish six books, is the Pomodoro Technique by Francesco Cirillo.

The technique is deceptively simple: take a timer (traditionally a red tomato kitchen timer or more realistically one of the gazillion apps available on your phone), and turn off email, social, company and personal notifications. Put your phone in airplane mode. Now set the timer for 25 minutes and do whatever requires your undivided attention. Then take a five minute break. Repeat 4 times, then take a 30 minute break.

What’s going on?

Simply put, you are thinking. You are hunting for the words you need for your story with the steely-eyed focus of one of your evolutionary ancestors hunting by the well-visited waterhole. Given how many vendors, corporations, internet friends and “thought leaders” want to monetize slices of our attention like a Turkish doner kabob, the Pomodoro Technique is one of the very few ways left to us of gluing enough of those attention slices together to be able to accomplish something inherently hard: writing something worth some other person’s reading time

In fact, the Pomodoro Technique is so powerful a writing aid that often people who try it for the first time will be amazed at how productive they become and how easily the words flow from their fingertips to their screens, that they will fall for two common traps: trying to do longer pomodoros and trying to do too many of them in a single day.

Stick to the Pomodoro choreography.

The first temptation is if 25 minutes is good for a pomodoro, then 30 minutes must be better and more productive. And 40, 60, and 90 minutes at a time must be even better. If you were a robot assembling other robots, that kind of thinking might pay off, but (presumably on my part), you are not a robot. It doesn’t work that way – you, that all too human you – doesn’t work that way. Stick to 25 minute pomodoros for at least a month, then you can fiddle with duration if you really want to.

The second temptation is more insidious: you’ve hit your stride, gotten into the flow, and are going great guns and don’t want to turn off the faucet even for a short break. Part of this is excitement of being really in the flow of your writing; part of it can be fear that if you stop you may break the magic.

Take the break. For a full five minutes. And the longer break of around 30 minutes every four pomodoros. Your mind needs a quick recharge like a good cordless vacuum. Don’t shortchange yourself. If you’re really worried that you won’t get back into flow, write a quick note to yourself of exactly what you are going to write when you return from your break.

If you’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique in the past and it didn’t work out for you, try incorporating it into your writing ritual. A ritual according to Google is “a religious or solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order.” For me, it’s a repeated series of steps that calm my rambunctious mind, cuing it to what I want to do: write well.

The silence can be deafening

With the Pomodoro Technique, what you are doing is literally grabbing back your attention, your concentration, your focus so you can create your words instead of consuming the words of others. If your brain is used to a steady diet of email checking, social media alerts and all the other distractions, it may feel strange to actually stick with one thing – your writing – for a whole 25 minutes. But you will quickly notice that your writing is easier, that the words spilling out during a pomodoro are better words, and that you’re finding yourself speeding along, able to see better the twists and turns your story is going to take. Give it a try – it will only take 25 minutes!


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