Peruse almost any book about writing and it’ll tell you to just get on with it. That’s easy said than done, of course. Most of us find there’s something desperately important that has to be done first: checking email, talking to the cat, or cleaning the oven. Although I’ve never resorted to procrastinatory1I’ve checked, and this is actually a word housework, one attendee at my recent workshop on academic writing admitted that she couldn’t possibly pick up her pen until the kitchen was gleaming. When I invite researchers to share their guilty timewasting secrets, faffing about on the internet is usually at the top of the list. Technology is certainly the enemy of productivity, but in this post I’ll show you how it can also offer a solution through a range of handy online tools.
The trouble with the internet is that 5 minutes on Twitter actually equates to an hour in the Real World. And often we have no idea how much time we’re devoting to aimless web browsing. RescueTime tracks how long you’re spending on the internet and allows you to set goals. For example, you might want to restrict emailing to 1 hour per day, permit yourself just 30 minutes on Facebook, or block all online activity in the mornings. It’ll expose all your bad habits, too. I discovered I was checking the BBC news website every 15 minutes, as though there was likely to be some international catastrophe that required my personal intervention (there never was).
There are a few other blockers, too. Freedom is probably the most famous and is favoured by many top writers. For $10 it’ll deny you access to the internet for up to 8 hours; the only way to get back online is to reboot your computer. If you need to be online for your research, Anti-Social is a better solution, as you can choose to block only social media websites that steal your time.
I studied part-time for my PhD and found it really difficult to make efficient use of my limited spare hours. It took a while to realise that simply being perched in front of the computer wasn’t enough – my activity had to be directed and measurable. The Pomodoro Technique proved revelatory. Named after those novelty tomato-shaped timers (pomodoro is Italian for tomato), this time management technique improves focus and productivity by breaking your tasks down into 25-minute sessions.
Here’s what you do:
1) Make a list of your tasks
2) Choose a task to be accomplished
3) Set a timer to 25 minutes
4) Work on the task until the timer sounds (don’t do anything else!)
5) Give yourself a big tick and then take a 5-minute break
6) Start again, giving yourself a longer break for every 4 pomodoros (or pomodori, for pedants) completed
You can use any sort of timer – you probably have one on your phone or watch – but I like mytomatoes.com. This simple website acts as a timer and also allows me to log my tasks. It’s very pleasing to see the list of finished tomatoes at the end of a hard day of hammering at the keyboard.
If I was struggling with a particularly tricky piece of writing, I’d persuade myself to tackle just one ‘tomato’. Most times, I’d actually end up writing quite a lot and then want to carry on. This can be a good way of gently motivating yourself without applying too much pressure.
Be as specific as possible with your tasks: eg “Write concluding paragraph to chapter one” or “check references for introduction” rather than “write thesis”. This gets easier after a couple of days and you’ll become much more accomplished at estimating how long certain tasks take, and breaking your work down into manageable chunks.
The key part is to keep focused on your task during the 25 minutes: don’t be tempted to fiddle about on Facebook. If something urgent suddenly pops into your head, quickly write it down and return to the task. Use your 5-minute breaks for having a stretch and pootling about on social media.
Even if the Pomodoro Technique doesn’t work for you, measuring your time and boosting your focus in some way is still going to help. E.ggtimer is a online tool that lets you decide how long you want to spend on a task.
Write or Die
Some writers swear by Write or Die, an alarmingly-named app that encourages productivity by dispensing virtual punishments, such as emitting ear-piercing screeches or deleting everything you’ve written. If this is too masochistic, it’ll also run in ‘reward’ mode, giving you encouragement on reaching certain milestones. Using it all the time would probably drive you mad, but it could be an effective virtual bootcamp for meeting a deadline.
For a gentler approach, try Written? Kitten! Here you’re rewarded with an adorable kitten when you reach your goal. Other quadrupeds are available, too.
As with most activities, they become much easier with habit. Yes, even writing. If you can persuade yourself to write just 500 words every day, that’ll add up to 10,000 words each month. And you’ll get lots of kittens.
Please do let me know if you have any tips or tricks.