I Do What the Tomato Tells Me

Chapter 5 of my dissertation is now just over 6,300 words (of an estimated 10,000—I’m getting closer!). Some of those words are (I think) pretty good ones; others I already know I will want to sweep into the dustbin before this whole thing is over. The vast majority of them I have written while half-aware that on the computer screen behind my word processing window, a clock is counting down from 25 minutes. Blogs for dissertators have a hundred and one tips for writing chapters effectively, but so far I’ve only found one that really works for me: get super-caffeinated and then start a series of pomodoros.

Tomato Timer

The Pomodoro Technique is simple: work for 25 minutes (a “pomodoro”), take a five-minute break, work for another 25 minutes, rinse and repeat. Every so often, you get a ten-minute break instead of five minutes (this is supposed to be every fourth break, but I usually need it after three, if I do that many in one sitting). The name comes from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that the Italian inventor of the technique used; now there are any number of pomodoro apps out there with tomato-based names that will count off time in 25-minute intervals. I use a basic free one, the web-based Tomato Timer.

I’m not sure if many people outside of academia employs the Pomodoro Technique in their work, but I’ve met lots of other grad students who swear by it. I’m a recent adopter—“recent” being since I started working on this chapter in earnest about six weeks ago. It turns out that 25 minutes is just about the perfect chunk of time to focus on a small amount of dissertation writing, and I like the feeling of racing the clock to finish an idea or footnote before the buzzer sounds.

I never used to worry about how much time I spent writing something—“It takes as long as it takes! Can’t rush inspiration!” was my previous perspective—but I realized pretty quickly after starting Chapter 5 that a project this big was going to require some adjustments to my writing process. I’ve been very good about setting my daily word count goals at reasonable levels (200-300 words on a regular day, 500-700 when I really want to make some progress), and I’ve generally found that I can reach those targets with between two and five pomodoros. So some days, like today, my dissertation-writing time totals less than an hour and ends before 10am, and now I have the rest of the day to work on other things.

One reason the Pomodoro Technique has helped me so much is that I am a terrible procrastinator. A few weeks ago, I saw a comic about “The 12 Types of Procrastinators” and realized that I am every single type. Every. Single. One. Well, maybe not “The Delegator,” since I work alone, but we can replace that with “The Pacer.” (I’m not really “The Panicker,” either, but I am definitely “The Knitter.”) If there’s a way to avoid working on something before the deadline, I will find it. But that really isn’t feasible when the project at hand is a complex, lengthy dissertation chapter. Without setting limits on my time, it is entirely possible that I would spend most of the day chipping away at those fairly modest word-count goals, frequently interrupting myself to get a glass of water or wander over to the window to watch the cats that hang out on the roof below my apartment.

Pomodoros help me alleviate my tendency toward procrastination by giving me a small, reasonable target. Twenty-five minutes. All I have to do is sit down and work for 25 minutes at a time. I regularly watch television shows twice that length, and I can sit still for them. It’s amazing how quickly 25 minutes passes when I really get going, and I often wind up typing for another minute or so I can finish a thought before walking away for a break.

Do I feel like a four-year-old, being told to sit in a chair and work for just 25 minutes? A little. But I was also shocked at how difficult it was at first: I would write a sentence and then feel the urge to jump up and walk a few circuits around my apartment before moving on to the next one. It’s not nearly as tough to stick it out now, and I’m often so immersed in what I’m writing that the ring of the buzzer ending my pomodoro surprises me. I was really chagrined to realize how much trouble I had focusing on things, and that I had never considered this a problem before.

There are other things that I do to help me zero in on the writing—I close my email, quit TweetDeck, ignore Facebook, etc.—but so far the most helpful technique has been to work until the tomato tells me to stop.

2 thoughts on “I Do What the Tomato Tells Me

    1. I have tried Scrivener, and DevonThink to organize materials, but never got comfortable with either of them. I just use Word for writing now and it seems to be working fine. I know lots of people who absolutely love Scrivener for the first draft—to each his own, I guess!

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