Timing It Right
Some thoughts on the temporal rhythm of a creative workflow—and a fantastic new software tool for creating timelines.
A few days ago, I was having lunch with two friends, both of whom are working on long-form writing projects (using Scrivener naturally, thanks to my evangelism.) It came up in conversation that they were trying to organize their writing time using the Pomodoro Technique: working in timed, 25-minute intervals, followed by short breaks of five minutes. (The name comes from a tomato-shaped timer the technique’s creator, Francesco Cirillo, happened upon in college.) I’ve never used the technique myself, though I have gravitated to a similar practice organically over the years, working in shorter, finite bursts, followed by periods where I let my brain kick back a little. It occurred to me as I drove home from the lunch that the rhythm of creative work has been mostly neglected so far in this ongoing conversation about workflows. I’ve devoted most of the posts so far to various software applications, and to a range of practices for capturing and revisiting ideas. But a creative workflow is as much about timing as it is about tools.
For many years, I organized my writing rhythms around an arbitrary limit not unlike the 25 minutes of the Pomodoro Technique. I tried to keep to a goal of writing 500 words a day. Some days, when you know where you’re going and your mind is free, you can write 500 good words in less than an hour. Some days it’s more of a struggle. But it’s never an insurmountable task. It’s three or four paragraphs — how hard can that be? (I mean, I wager I wrote a few 500-word sentences back in grad school.) As I’ve written about elsewhere, I try not to do a lot of re-writing when I’m in first draft mode, so those 500 words are purely additive to the overall project I’m working on. And the thing about writing 500 words a day is that if you stick with it, by the end of six months or so, you’ll have enough words to make a book. Will they be the right words? Absolutely not. But you’ll have a draft of a book, and having a draft changes everything.
Over time, though, I have drifted away from the 500 words goal and gravitated towards a slightly different approach, one that has semi-unconsciously borrowed a few tricks from the agile and GTD worlds.