Tuesday, 28 February 2012


Warning. This personal reflection contains Product Placement but unfortunately with no Financial Reward.

I’ve just come back from a weekend conference in Peterborough among some of the lovely people in the Scattered Authors Society, including Jacob Sager Weinstein and his amazing ticking red tomato.

The Conference was crammed with interesting sessions, including a talk by Uber-Librarian Joy Court. However, Jacob’s talk on “Increasing your Productivity” received some surprisingly alert attention.

This might be because it was the first item on Sunday morning after a late Saturday, when one has hopes of the week ahead. Or perhaps because we were far away from our over-loaded desks, Lists of Things to Do (now being broken down into small manageable tasks) it was possible to luxuriate in the fantasy that we might end up in control of our time, dreams and life.

Jacob is a young man and co-parent who, in desperation, studied how to Get Everything Done. I am not sure if he read Mark Fosters’ book of same name but he brought us a variety of useful time management techniques.

Jacob charmed us with tales of “tickler files”, set up for days, weeks or even months so we kenw when everythingh ad to be done by. I noted that he did not suggest tickler files for years or decades, which made me think he does not truly appreciate my personal level of procrastination.

He spoke of the need to break overwhelming tasks down into smaller manageable tasks. This is sometimes known as the“How Do you Eat an Elephant? One Bite at a Time!” concept although this is not a very vegetarian or ecologically sound image.

Jacob also addressed the problem of Procrastination by Proxy – that brief “five minutes” glancing at emails & FB & Twitter & blogs & websites & media . . . and on . . and on . . that begins around 9am and ends around 12..25, which is lunchtime, virtually and truly, and half the day gone.

Jacob suggested using the “Read Later” tool, which seemed as useful button to click (once I’ve found it) as well as various computer programmes that switched things off or hid them from sight and made lots of sense. I may not venture there. With my shallow IT knowledge, I could barricade my information highway forever.

Hmm. Was that my email pinging? Think there was something about silencing such sounds too. Oh. Emails. Emails about FB. Oh. Yes.

Now, where was I?

The moment of definite buzz when Jacob showed his Pomodoro slide, that's where. For those who don’t know, the Pomodoro is a bright red plastic tomato-replica timer. As the big red fruit appeared on the screen came choral mutterings of “Where can you buy one?”

Wisely, Jacob ignored them but explained further. The Pomodoro is a simple but effective procrastination-beating tool, especially when used by for writers.

Briefly, writer decides on the task, sets the Pomodoro for a shortish time such as 25 mins. Writer works fixedly for that time, resets the Pomodoro to give a 5 mins break for coffee, attending to the hungry cat, dressing and so on. Writer resets the Pomodoro for another 25 mins, and so the day goes on.

Jacob suggested that the round scarlet item had gained cult status and was beloved by the NANOWRIMO sect. I can believe that. I’ve used this timer technique and found it useful and am (thank you, Jacob) about to bring it back into action and I know at least one excellent writer who recommends it as a way of getting back into a book.

However, what makes the Pomodoro strategy work is not the cheery red tomato but its root in another anti-procrastination tip, one I’d almost forgotten.

What some – ahem - procrastinators and busy people have problems with is settling the mind on to the task. Especially if one works from home, it is so easy to get into the habit of idling along, half-ready to be interrupted, often for the kindest of reason or the hungriest of voices. So the brain gets into the habit of not fully committing to or attending to the task.

The Ticking Tomato technique is not actually about “writing to the timer”, as it superficially seems. No, what the big tomato does is give permission for you, Poor Procrastinator, to concentrate your entire attention on the task for twenty-five minutes.

Studies, as they say, have shown that if you give your undivided attention to something for 15 minutes (or 25 minutes) often the problem is resolved, the ideas begin or the words start to come again.


Jacob was big on habits, and for something to become a habit, the activity needs to be repeated. So if you are currently finding yourself stuck – not that this happens to readers of this blog - do find a timer and spare some part of a day to try out the ticking thing.

With World Book Day Week ahead, a short story deadline and a particularly trick tome, I’m very glad to have been reminded. Thank you, Jacob, and Useful Writing Times to you all.

Finally, please follow Jacob, who gave me permission to write this post, on Twitter : @jacobsw.

Penny Dolan

Note 1: Other timers and fruits are available.
Note 2. Placing the timer on a cushion softens the ticking but not the final ring
Note 3. Get your own office timer.
Note 4. The breaking down of large tasks into smaller tasks is known, in time management terms, as Batching. It will take you more than 5 mins but less then 25 mins to look it up.

Jacob Sager Weinstein’s book for younger readers “The Government Manual For New Pirates” is out now and his forthcoming book for adults on childcare is called “How Not To Kill Your Baby.”


Anne Cassidy said...

I very much doubt that other fruit timers are available!

catdownunder said...

You could knit a cover for an ordinary one though - ah, the thought of more procrastination! (Okay, I admit it the recent procrastination has been brought on by the fear that it might no be good enough but as the wisely Crabbit One among you would tell me that is no excuse. Back to it.)

Susan Price said...

I'm sure I've seen an apple timer!
Wish I'd been at the conference, Penny - but glad you enjoyed it.
My own current timer is a chicken. I am often seen prowling round the house, demanding, "Where's the chook?" - because I tend to leave it wherever I last used it, and forget where.
Anne - I learned the timer trick from you, and now pass it on to fraught blocked students at DMU, who come back delightedly, reporting that it worked!

adele said...

Terrific post. Am about to follow Jacob on twitter to see what he gets up to, how often he tweets etc. And might even try the tomato....can't hurt!

Nicola Morgan said...

My comment was eaten, probably by the tomato. Anyway, what I was trying to say was: I have a ticking chicken timer, which i would oever want to use for this purpose because a) it ticks LOUDLY and b) when it goes off it screeches at me VERY LOUDLY. However, I have downloaded the pomodoro app for my Mac and am thus writing this in my compulsory 5 minute break.

Oops, there it goes! Break over - goodbye!

Savita Kalhan said...

So wish I could have been there this weekend! Nice to hear you all had fun. Being an occasional procrastinator, oh okay, perhaps it's a bit more frequent than that, I love this post, and in my five minute break I checked up in different timers and I was surprised. There's whole array, including rabbits, penguins, cats, dogs, chickens, and peppers, garlic, and pears too. There was even a moomin! I might order one in my next break...

Paeony Lewis said...

Everyone's enthusiasm for the tomato is infectious (though no red blotches on the skin). When I find a good digital timer and have got over Book Week, I'll try it. And Penny, today I bought a loose-leaf folder for school visits (as you suggested at Peterborough).

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Great advice Penny and I totally agree about your brain getting out of the habit. Jacob's book about pirates is hilarious and when I finally get round to tweeting I will follow him - if that isn't yet more procrastination.

Emma Barnes said...

I've got a dog timer. I know that if I don't get the writing done in the next hour, he will be bugging me to take him on a walk.

He is very effective - better than the kitchen timer I tried before!

I also find that thinking of something I want to do even less than the writing - eg filing bank statements - works wonders.

Book Maven said...

I have an onion timer! But funnily enough have only ever used it for timing what I'm cooking.

What have I been thinking?