Last time I blogged, I wrote about the Nine of Wands, the card for writers needing discipline (meaning me!). Wands are the suit of creativity, and the Nine of Wands is about disciplining that creativity over a long period. It’s the finish your shit card. That post was my dedication to discipline, my promise to write something—no matter how small—on my novel regularly.
Whereas Wands are about creativity, Pentacles are the suit of earthly concerns—time, wealth, housing, physicality, all that material stuff. Today I’m talking about timing and writing using the Eight of Pentacles as my focus card. When I look at the Eight of Pentacles, I see a man focused on his craft, using his time well. He moves from one task to the next, taking each pentacle one at a time, ending up with eight finished pentacles. One keyword for this card is craftsmanship. It’s about being focused, knowledgeable, driven, and just doing the work.
But noticed how it’s broken up into smaller pieces? This is the key to craftsmanship, this card tells us, taking things one task at a time. The Pomodoro Technique helps us do that, too, which is why I like to think of those pentacles he’s carving as Pomodoros.
If the Nine of Wands helps me find the inner drive to write regularly, it’s the Eight of Pentacles and the focus of the Pomodoro that helps me carry out my plan.
I first heard about Pomodoros a few years back when I was telling one of my best friends how I was trying madly to finish a long piece of fiction before the semester started, and she said, “Oh, are you writing in Pomodoros?” Now this friend is one of these amazing people who can, in the course of a semester, bust out reams of academic articles, teach three classes a week, cook delicious vegan food every day, win dozens of roller derby bouts as the team’s star jammer, and preach feminist theory while standing on her head—all without breaking a sweat (except during derby). She is my personal role model of somebody who HAS HER SHIT TOGETHER.
So when she said to me, “Oh, are you writing in Pomodoros?”
I perked up and replied, “No. What is this thing you call Pomodoros? If you’re doing it, it must be genius.”
And I haven’t looked back ever since.
Here’s the Pomodoro recipe:
1. Sit at your computer.
2. Set a timer for twenty-five minutes.
3. Write. As long as that timer’s going, do not tab out of your document, do not check your Twitter feed, do not open email. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
4. When the timer goes off, stop. (Okay finish the sentence if necessary, but no more!)
5. Next, set your timer for five minutes.
6. Stand up and leave your computer.
7. When your timer goes off, return to your computer.
That, my friend, is one full Pomodoro. Repeat steps 1–7 as necessary. Obviously other variations include writing in a notebook, on lined paper or an antique parchment for twenty-five minutes. It doesn’t have to be a computer.
What you do for that five-minute break is your choice, it just has to be a break from what you were doing (do yoga, make tea, eat a power bar, take the dog out to pee, practice your best pop-and-lock moves). It’s best to include standing in the break. Okay if you want to check your Twitter feed during the break, fine. But make a conscious decision about how you’re going to use your break, don’t just fall into habits. And make sure you at least stand up and stretch before you do anything else on the computer. Even better, leave the desk completely for the whole five minutes.
Also another key to the Pomodoro Recipe is that you cannot rinse and repeat more than four times (two hours) at once. After two hours of Pomodoro-ing on the same thing, take a full thirty-minute break from your work. This is a good time to eat, phone your mom, go for a brief run (but wait until your next long break before showering unless you can run and shower in thirty minutes). After thirty minutes, go back to Pomodoro-ing.
Notice how the Eight of Pentacles has finished eight Pomodoros? That’s two two-hour chunks of Pomodoros. A good day’s work.
There’s supposedly some scientific theory behind all this, I think, about how twenty-five minutes is the best time span in which we can hold focus. That’s great and all, but that’s not why I do them. Here are the reasons I like them:
Short time chunks: Often we say to ourselves, “Oh, twenty-five minutes isn’t enough to get work done on my novel.”
Not true!! In fact, one very popular book for dissertating grad students is called Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. It’s popular for a reason. Often we think we don’t have enough time to do things, but you know what?
That mindset is flat-out wrong. Time is all in your mind, bitches! It’s just a matter of perception, so get rid of the idea that you need FIVE HOURS in a row to make progress. A lot of that five-hour chunk is actually spent picking your nose, checking Facebook, sifting through books, deciding where to start and what color pen to write in.
Small chunks add up to more efficiency in the long run. Plus, the small chunk of time is great for those who write before leaving for work in the morning. Write a novel by adding one Pomodoro to your morning routine every weekday. If you adjust your daily routine by setting that alarm clock just twenty-five minutes earlier, you can get shit done. A powerful thought, isn’t it?
Long time chunks: The Pomodoro Technique gives you stamina, too. Its flexible technique adapts well to that five-hour chunk or even a ten-hour chunk. You know why? Those little breaks.
I once finished 10,000 words of a short story in a single day. I had a deadline, so I woke up and pomodoro-ed that shit out all day. The five minutes off and the longer thirty-minute breaks paced me to make it through the day and also ensured I ate food. The twenty-five-minute timer kept me on task.
The key to this pacing is using those five minutes as breaks. Make sure you stand up and leave your computer! Otherwise I might have pounded away at the keyboard for four hours straight and then fallen down dead, like that dude who ran the first marathon.
Awareness of your own state: The more used to Pomodoros you get, the more they can help you become aware of your own mental state. Brace yourselves for the woo-woo part of the posting. It’s like meditating.
In Zen meditation, they tell you to cup your left hand in your right with your thumbs resting against lightly each other. As you practice, you realize it’s hard to rest your thumbs lightly against each other. Sometimes in the middle of meditating, you realize that you’re using the force of your whole arms to drive your thumbprints into each other (you’re probably clenching your teeth, too). This means you’re worked up, your body’s holding your stress for you. Other times, you realize your thumbs are waving in the wind nowhere close to each other like flags in a windy used-car lot. This usually means you’re spaced out, close to sleep; you’ve lost your focus.
In the Pomodoro Technique, the timer functions like your thumbs in Zen meditation. You might find yourself tabbing out of your manuscript to check your timer every few minutes or so. I take this as a sign of distraction, lack of focus. When this happens, I just tab right back to my manuscript and tell myself something like: Okay, I know your brain’s distracted right now, but it’s only twenty-five minutes. You can do it, you can get through this. After I finish that Pomodoro, I’ll make sure to do something active during the break (crunches! dancing!). If I’m still distracted during the next Pomodoro, unable to focus, then I take it as a sign to do something else for awhile. Maybe you really need lunch early, or maybe it’s time for that catnap. Shake it up and come back to it. It’s not worth torturing yourself.
Alternately, you might write, write, write and not even notice when that timer goes off because you are so in the fucking zone. Take note of this, too, and ask yourself what it was that helped get you in the zone. The second cup of coffee? The Yanni playlist you listened to while writing? (Don’t hate on Yanni, man, his music is epic for writing and houaw cleaning.)
Other ways you can use the Pomodoro Technique, or Yes, it may be a cult, but that’s okay.
When my amazing role model of a friend told me about the Pomodoro Technique, I googled it and thought its main website looked just a little bit cult-like. The website (or maybe it’s in the free E-Book they offer) tells you that to become an advanced Pomodoro Practitioner TM, you have to know exactly how many Pomodoros you’re going to need to get things done, in fact, you can do anything in Pomodoros, it insists! Live your whole life in twenty-five-minute segments. I threw my hands in the air and said, “Woah, that’s a cult. I’ll just use it for writing, thanks guys.”
Something’s changed since then, though. Maybe I’ve just been drinking the Kool-Aid too long, but now I get through my workday in Pomodoros. I spend twenty-five minutes on work email, take a break, then spend twenty-five minutes on a work project for a different company. Here are the two reasons I divide my work day into Pomodoros:
1) Most of my work takes place in front of a computer. I’m not the kind of person out there laying down pavement or speed-biking through the city delivering documents. Like many people in the twenty-first century, my work is sedentary. But sitting for too long is bad for our bodies and minds. Pomodoros force you to stand up every twenty-five minutes.
2) I find the Pomodoro Technique helpful for multi-tasking or, as I like to call it, mini-tasking. Because the truth is, despite what the job ads tell you—(We’re looking for a multi-tasking genius who’s a creative problem-solver and knowledgeable about these five programming languages and can dance the cha-cha while tweeting and organizing projects and answering phones. Also we have a league-winning interoffice ping-pong team, so competitive ping-pongers are always a plus!!!!)—multi-tasking doesn’t really work. If I’m trying to write while email notifications are floating across my screen, guess what suffers? My writing.
But I will tell anyone who asks that I am a skilled multi-tasker. What I mean by that, however, is that I’m a skilled mini-tasker or task-jumper. I am always juggling. We all are. Many days, heck, many weeks, I feel on the “Ahhhhh fuck!” end of the feeling-in-control spectrum. But what always helps bring me back is just a teensy bit of order through the Pomodoro. The secret to juggling—to “multi-tasking”—is to “mini-task,” to spend a small chunk of time on one task and then switch to the next.
“But that’s hard! I’m not happy until I’m finished with the whole project.”
Just no. Nope that’s not how it works. Do an experiment, don’t be a perfectionist and just let it go. Spend two to four Pomodoros on one thing that needs your attention and then move on to the next; you’ll come back to the first thing eventually, and at the end of the day, you’ll find you’ve made progress on all seven fronts you had to.
I actually find the structure of the Pomodoro freeing. I know that I only have to do what I can in the next twenty-five minutes. If I’m in the middle of an email to a consultant who’s making me crazy or in the middle of a five-line-long sentence that seriously needs editing, once that timer goes off, I’m allowed to walk away for five minutes and breakdance around the kitchen (if only I could breakdance). Chances are, when I come back, it’ll be much easier to handle.
Maybe the reason the Pomodoro Technique is powerful for me is that it forces me to set my intention. The Pomodoro is a shortcut for saying to yourself, “Now I will focus on this and only this. And I only have to do that for twenty-five minutes.” I further set the intention by closing all unrelated programs (turning off Skype so I can copyedit, closing my Outlook and opening Scrivener). When she approaches me with a question, my wife’s come to respect the request “I’m Pomodoring, can we talk in eleven minutes?” Just as I respect the request “I’m in a boss battle, can we talk about cleaning up the kitchen when I’m done?”
Eight of Pentacles from Steampunk Tarot. Love the mug of coffee at her workstation!
Basically, the act of setting your intention and of knowing that you only have a limited amount of time allows you to work quickly and efficiently. The promise of the break allows you to step away, to return to yourself, to disengage for a moment, which actually strengthens your focus when you come back to work.
To go back to the Eight of Pentacles, the card of Pomodoros, here’s another version from the Steampunk Tarot deck. I love this card because it shows that these little tomatoes (Pomodoro means tomato in Italian, it’s also the guy’s name who invented the technique) add up to something impressive, daunting even. She’s doing the work, and she’s proud of it. Focus on each pentacle at a time—each Pomodoro at a time—and you’ll find you’ve built an amazing tower of work.
© Mia Fitzroy | 2014