Writing Against The Clock

Do you find yourself getting distracted a lot while trying to get in your word count for the day?

This is something I’ve struggled with a lot.

Distractions can come in many forms, and they always start out innocently enough.

  • I’m waiting for an email, so I check the inbox so often. But rather than ignore all the email that’s not the one or two I’m waiting for, I go through them all. Then I’ll see one I should really respond to. And suddenly, it’s 20 minutes later, and I’m still answering email which totally kills writing momentum.
  • I’ll go to the Web to research something for our book. It starts off innocent enough, but suddenly I’m 15 Websites away from the one I started on, chasing a different rabbit down an entirely different hole, and whoa, where did the hour go? … Speaking of rabbits, someone just sent me a funny YouTube clip of a rabbit chasing a goat or something, and hey, look at these related funny animal videos… I bet my friend would love this one, I better send an email while I’m thinking of it … and hey, I got that email I’ve been waiting for, and so on and so forth…

Sound familiar?

I never really gave much thought to how much time I actually waste while “working.”

But recently, I’ve been more attentive to where my time is going, and was shocked to see how easily the wasteful patterns form and repeat.

One could argue that I’m not wasting time (YouTube videos aside), if I’m learning stuff in the process of research. It’s not like I’m playing video games all day or watching TV. But, little diversions add up and take away from productive writing time.

And here’s the thing … I don’t miss publication deadlines. There are times we’ve moved stories back, which is a different story, and less to do with writing than just the scope of the project being larger than anticipated. But generally speaking, I hit the deadlines we set to get our books to you.

But often that requires me playing catch-up, pulling marathon writing sessions that keep me up for 24 hours at a time.

And that’s just crazy!

And it burns me out.

So, in efforts to work smarter, not harder, I took some advice Sean gave me a while ago, and which I recently read about in a book on habits. I’m trying to change a few bad habits, but this is the one I figure would be of interest to readers here.

So, here’s the thing that has made a world of difference …

Break my time up into chunks.

Pomodoro-appThere’s a specific technique called the Pomodoro technique. You may have even heard of it, it’s been around forever. But I’ve somehow never given it much thought.

Simply put, you work on something for a set period of time, like 25 minutes, and then take a five minute break. The idea is that you work better with these breaks. After a few work/mini break sessions, you then give yourself a longer break, like 25 minutes.

It’s too early to tell if I’m responding to the work/break/work/break thing like I should, especially since I sometimes skip the breaks.

The breaks aren’t what is motivating me.

No, it’s the clock!

Like I said before, I respect deadlines.

However, when you have deadlines far away, such as days, weeks, or months away, it can be difficult to stay on task all the time. Kind of like a diet is hard to stick to because you figure, “Well, I’ll just eat better tomorrow. I’ll go ahead and indulge in some cookies n’ cream right now.”

Well, it’s just as easy to say, “I’ll just check this email.”

And suddenly, those email minutes add up just like empty calories.

But there’s something about the immediacy of a ticking clock which pushes me to write through and ignore the urge to break from my tasks. It’s an immediate deadline, but not a scary one. It’s a manageable one. Write for 25 minutes.

Shit, I can do that!

Everyone should be able to commit to writing for at least 25 minutes, right?

It’s not nearly as intimidating as saying, “OK, I screwed around all week, and now I have to work 20 hours straight so our book gets to the editor on time.”

Far better to endure shorter bursts of more intense work, right?

I downloaded the Pomodoro app for the Mac in the Apple app store for $1.99, though there’s plenty of other similar apps out there (for most of the major computers and tablets) which will do the job. And you don’t need to spend a lot, though there are some fancier ones with a shitload of options.

But this cheap, no bells and whistles one is all I need at the moment.

The simpler I keep it, the easier it is to stick to the plan!

It’s a simple icon that sits in your top menu bar with a countdown clock next to it. Small, and not at all intrusive. You set the timer for how long you want to write, how long you want your break to be, and then press “start Pomodoro” and it begins ticking down. When the time is up, a pop-up box will show up on your screen telling you it’s break time. You can also program it to make a sound and also speak a message to you.

I love this app!

Funny thing is, once I get into a zone, I’m often ignoring the timer telling me to take a break, and just keep plowing through. It might be against the spirit of the technique of taking regular breaks so I don’t burn out, but it’s working for me, and that’s what counts.

I’ll be using this technique more this month as I begin the rough drafts for ForNevermore: Season Two. I’ll update you with how the technique is working later in the month.

How about you? What things keep you from being more prolific? Or, if you’ve found techniques that work for you, feel free to share them below.

Thank you for reading,


10 thoughts on “Writing Against The Clock

Add yours

  1. I’m just getting started, grinding on my first project. Things that help:
    – Keep a writing journal, within the project file, and check and update it every day as to word count and thoughts. Oh crap, haven’t written anything since last week. I’m the problem! Not marketing or gatekeepers… Me! Which leads to…
    – Write every day… Or at least five days out of every week. It builds momentum and a writing state of mind. Let a few days go by and it’s back to reboot/restart city. Write most every day, even a little, and the world is a happier shinier place.
    – Write/use an outline so you have some sense of where you are going next and you aren’t facing the blank page. Use the outline and actual story as a check and balance on each other, with both being subject to change.
    – On a day when have trouble getting started, allow/seek a daydream state of mind about the story, give it a few minutes and then start writing, even if you think it’s crap. It will get you going, turn out better than you anticipated, and can be dealt with later.

    Things that don’t help:
    – Checking writers forums and getting emotionally involved with/ticked off by the latest sky-is-falling or rage-against-the-evil-fill-in-the-blank pseudo crisis.
    – Computer games
    – News media
    – TV in general

    1. Right with you on all that. I see writing kind of like I see walking. The biggest hurdle is just lacing up the shoes and getting started. Once you’re on the road, you can keep going. But with writing, it’s putting your ass in the seat and turning off the distractions. Once you get going, though, look out!

  2. Or, you could identify the things that act as distractions and seek to eliminate them. Probably the easiest solution, based on what time sinks you have listed, is to disconnect from the Internet for a set period of time during the day.
    Also, a 30-minute walk before work where you spend time sorting out what needs to be done that day goes a long way.

    1. Thanks for the suggestions. I’m not disconnecting from the web, simply because I often stream music (which helps me write) or I need to look up definitions or synonyms. I find that the clock is really good at keeping me loyal to the work, though.

      I have a feeling if I turned the internet off, I’d only be thinking about it more. I’m like a fat kid trying to ignore the cookies.

      Love the walk idea. I sooooooo need to start walking again. I find it fills me with tons of ideas when I get out and get some fresh air/exercise.

  3. I’m afraid that all the same things you mentioned keep me from staying on track but the number one thing is interruptions. We are working in closer quarters now so I tend to get a lot of “listen to this”, “how do I …?” and “where is …?”. It usually takes me seconds to “handle” whatever, but it takes a lot longer to get back on track where my train of thought was. This is a new situation due to a move but I need to get a handle on it quickly.
    I do like this Pomodoro technique and it could possibly be the answer for the new problem as well. If the clock is ticking perhaps the interruptions will wait for the 5 minute break.

    1. Yeah, dealing with other people is difficult. When I worked as a journalist, I’d put on headphones and listen to music, or a meeting I was supposed to be listening to, and people would generally not interrupt because they knew I couldn’t be interrupted if listening to a live meeting 🙂

      I’d suggest getting a GIANT CLOCK that says, “DO NOT BOTHER ME UNTIL …” and have it count down.

  4. Totally relate. I just finished my 100K word novel and sent it to the editor. There were many times over the past 4 months where I had that dilemma where time seemed to evaporate. I found going to Crossfit in the morning helped, because I was physically tired, but mentally energized. Also, getting into the routine of putting on my headphones and hitting the same playlist each morning. Sort of conditioned my brain that, ‘oh, right, this is writing time’. Of course I got sick of the first few songs, but by then I was on my way and could switch music without losing focus.

  5. Hi David

    Are you still using this and have you found you stuck to it?

    I have been logging my words per hour and have found that working in 20 – 40 minute bursts pushes my word count right up. I just worry that the quality could suffer (I don’t read anything until the rough draft is finished… is that bad?)

    Anyway, keep up the great work.

    1. Hi Genna,

      Sorry I didn’t see your comment earlier. Yes, I still use it (though sometimes I forget). As for when to edit, I feel it’s a personal decision as to what works best with you. Personally, I think I’m able to focus more when I’m NOT checking as I go. So I try not to edit as I go.

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