Writer Wednesday: Making Time Productive

From the McManus Gallery
From the McManus Gallery in Dundee

Okay, if you’ve been following along on the How to Keep Writing When it’s Not Your Full Time Job or whatever I called it last time, then you have carved out some time to use for your writing. Now those minutes stare you in the face demanding that you be creative RIGHT NOW!

How do you get the most out of your limited time?

One thing that I have long found essential to managing writing tasks — particularly ones that have become onerous (usually that means an academic piece that has gone from a great fun conference paper to a revised essay that an editor [or four] would like substantially revised to fit into an entirely different context) — is the Pomodoro Technique. Originally it was developed to help music students make better use of their practice time. It’s the motivation of the ticking clock in short bursts. While some people like the rush of things like Write or Die, I prefer this method as it works on discipline rather than anxiety. As Wikipedia has it:

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.[1] The technique uses a timer to break down periods of work into 25-minute intervals called ‘Pomodori’ (from the Italian word for ‘tomatoes’) separated by breaks.

There are five basic steps to implementing the technique:

  1. decide on the task to be done
  2. set the pomodoro (timer) to 25 minutes
  3. work on the task until the timer rings; record with an x
  4. take a short break (3-5 minutes)
  5. every four “pomodori” take a longer break (15–30 minutes)

You can get fancy and buy a special timer or take courses — or download free apps — but you need some kind of a timer and a plan. The plan can be simply the project you need to work on: have a goal for X number of words, or working out a particular section. Say you have an hour: that’s two pomodoros and a break between. Get everything ready (your pad of paper or your laptop or whatever), write out your goal (500 words) set your timer and go!

Write until the timer goes off. Take your break however you want — go check out Facebook, make a cuppa, run laps, whatever. When the timer dings to say your break is over, sit back down, write your second goal (even if it’s the same) and go again. Don’t stop until the timer rings.

You will probably be more productive in that hour than you have been in a week. Don’t worry if you struggle at first. Remember Octavia Butler’s wise words: you’re building a habit. You may not want to think of yourself as a Pavlovian dog, but the more you build the habit of being productive with your limited time, the better you will feel. You will see the results as your words add up. Better yet, you are creating habits of productivity that will sustain your writing. Discipline is good.

Pat yourself on the back — then go do another pomodoro!


Whether your genius comes from the faeries, the daemons, your subconscious or the gods, you will doubtless find Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk on managing your elusive genius interesting. I sent my writing students off on spring break with these words.

See all the Writer Wednesday pieces here.


  1. Kay Hafner says:

    Jurgen Wolff, in his book Your Writing Coach, advocates something similar he calls Time Pods–Write down what you plan to accomplish in your hour (or 45 min, or whatever period). Do it. Take 15 min break, 5 min of which includes physical activity. Grab some water (important to stay hydrated). Repeat if you can. For a full day if possible. His Massive Action Days are based on this. massiveactionday.com

    1. katelaity says:

      Good stuff! The physical activity is particularly important. You need to move around!

  2. Widdershins says:

    Loved the Octavia Butler quote … one of my favourite authors.

    1. katelaity says:

      She was an amazing writer.

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