Andromeda: Saved by the Tomato

For over ten years, like nearly every writer on the planet
except for Jonathan Franzen (who jammed a screwdriver into his laptop to
disable the wireless) I’ve been distracted by the internet–and just about everything else.
My brain’s reaction to
typing the period at the end of any promising sentence, or feeling the glimmer
of a new scene threatening to form is to suddenly crave not just a refill of
coffee, but a fresh pot, and maybe a snack to go with it, followed perhaps by a
walk or its opposite, the carb-triggered nap. I’ve always found it perverse
that writer’s flow seems to invite distraction as much as writer’s block. When
things are going well, even for twenty minutes, I’m tempted to leave my desk
and celebrate.
About 9 months ago, I discovered a new tool and was so
excited about it, I wanted to blog immediately, but I cautioned myself: Maybe
this was working only because it was new. Maybe it was working only because I
was editing rather than drafting new material. But now I’ve tried it with all
kinds of work: editing technical writing, reading student work, drafting or
redrafting my own novel-in-progress. In all cases, I’m finding work life easier
and more efficient with this new method, and the only thing I’ve had to give up
is guilt.
By now it sounds like I’m trying to promote a thigh-thinning
machine or some kind of Ponzi scheme, so I’d better explain: my new favorite
tool is the simple “Pomodoro” method, and at most it involves a free app. The
key is breaking your workday into small, manageable chunks, establishing a goal
and setting a timer (for 25 minutes, most often) and taking regular short
breaks (5 minutes) inbetween the pomodori, or “tomatoes” as the units of time
are called—in honor of the simple tomato-shaped kitchen timer that an Italian
named Francesco Cirillo first used when he developed the technique in the1980s. (Today, there are online apps that show the countdown in the corner of
your screen; some, like KeepFocused, also keep a notepad in which each day’s
pomodori and associated incremental tasks can be logged.)
A longer break is usually taken after four pomodori. When I
was doing all-day editing, especially of others’ work, the longer break was
perfect for making lunch or doing some quick exercise. Most of the time when
I’m doing my own creative writing, I only sit still for two or three (rarely
four) pomodori, accomplishing in 55-115 focused minutes, with greater
consistency, what I used to accomplish in three to four hours interrupted by
emailing, random internet wanderings, searches for online music, and long trips
to the kitchen that turned into phone calls or household chores.
What has surprised me about the Pomodoro method is that by
focusing only 25 minutes at a time, which seemed like a ridiculously short time
when I first tried it, I’m not even tempted to go on the Internet—or even to
stand up and refill  my cup of coffee or
go grab a snack. For me, there’s something magical about that short interval.
The moment I sit down to work, I simply have to click on the timer to start my
work session. Since the commitment seems small enough, I’ve rarely put off
clicking. (In fact, the process of heading to my work desk, sitting down, clicking
instantly on a pre-established music playlist and then clicking the timer as soon
as I can has become a ritual.) Once I see the minutes actually ticking
down – which they do with astonishing speed – I feel no compulsion to lose 5 or
7 minutes going online or goofing off. Since a break of 5 minutes is always
right around the corner – and yes, I have used that break to check email, or to
simply stand, stretch, or go to the bathroom—I don’t start thinking about it
prematurely. Nor do I berate myself for needing lots of breaks. (The greater
temptation is often to skip them, and I occasionally do.) My personal discovery,
which may be applicable to others, is that having an allowed short break is
proving less distracting in the long run than having either endless breaks or
no pre-established break at all.  The
enforced work-and-break scheme has given my own internal dynamics just enough
of a pressure release.
In addition to breaking work into manageable chunks and
allowing for breaks, my second favorite thing about the Pomodoro method is its
intentionality. The timer app I use – KeepFocused—allows me to quickly jot
what I plan to accomplish before I start the countdown. Just the act of typing
“P1, 300 words” or “P1 re-read yesterday’s, get started 100 words” has helped me to accomplish the stated goal more often than
not. Curiously, re-committing each time to 100-300 words per 25 minutes every
time a new pomodoro completes and a new notepad pops up has yielded more
writing than a more generic “1000 words today” or “3000 words this week,” for
Anne LaMott gave us the great advice to attack a writing
assignment “bird by bird.” I’m finding it even easier to attack it “pomodoro by
P.S. Do you “Pomo” or use any other kind of planned-break, small-chunk writing method? Share here.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow and The Detour, as well as a forthcoming novel, Behave. She is a co-founder of 49 Writers and teaches in the UAA MFA low-residency creative writing program. She is also a book coach with a special interest in revision, narrative structure, and the lifelong development of the writer. Contact her at for more info on her book coaching services.

2 thoughts on “Andromeda: Saved by the Tomato”

  1. Your second paragraph gives me such comfort, Andromeda! With every writer who admits to similarly getting in their own way, I feel less guilty, less like it's my personal shame and private failing, and more that self-sabotage is simply a hazard of our work and calls for some harm reduction practices.

    I've been using Self Control to block the internet, and keep a log book at my desk to track the time I put in, what I'm working on, how well it goes. Looking forward to trying the tomato! Thank you for this.

  2. I have an informal pomo system, started to make sure I don't keep my body in the same position for too long. I turn on a timer and write for 30 minutes, then take a break to get up and move around the room (or get more tea, etc.). It works for me, unless I'm so far into the zone I turn the timer off and keep writing– which I guess isn't a bad thing as long as I don't do that too often and mess up my carpal tunnels.

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