#atozchallenge P is for Pomodoro (and Butt Out of Chair) for Writers

Most writers know of the acronym – BICFOK: Butt in chair, fingers on keyboard. It leverages off the maxim: Writer’s Write.

Within reason, I say. Because now I’m going to propose a new acronym, BOOCWAW – Butt Out of Chair, Walk around Writing.

And the Pomodoro system for time management will allow us to get the most of both our BICFOC time and BOOCWAW.

If you want a time management system, try Pomodoro or the Ultradian Rhythm

tomato_timer1_thumb.jpgTry a Pomodoro, and not just because it’s kind of a cool name.

The Pomodoro technique is a time management method created by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. The method focuses on working in smaller chunks with regular but well-managed breaks.

The name is based on the Italian for tomato, hence the tomato timer as an icon. However, there are many other timers available for timing your work and break activities. See below for a few links.

A Pomodoro

A pomodoro is a short activity – 25 minutes. The system works by setting out an inventory of activities or tasks, then doing a pomodoro of one task chunk for 25 minutes, putting a cross onto the inventory sheet, and taking a short break of 3-5 minutes. Then returning to another 25 minute pomodoro. Every fourth pomodoro, you take a longer break of about 15-30 minutes.

Writers' Forum Time to Write page, Edition 138
Writers’ Forum Time to Write page, Edition 138

There are some rules, however – the first being that a pomodoro is indivisible. This rule, in my opinion, makes it difficult to work pomodoros into the everyday when there are meetings etc set for specific times, as you can’t utilise the spare fifteen minutes you have beforehand. However, the rule does force you to chunk out larger tasks into the 25 minute slot, and take breaks!

The Pomodoro Technique website has three downloadable resources to help – A Cheat Sheet which explains the technique, a ToDo today sheet, and an activity inventory sheet. The cheat sheet also deals with ways to document interruptions.

The small activity chunks principle in the Pomodoro Technique are very compatible with the principles of kaizen and kanban featured a few days ago.

If you don’t want to do Pomodoros, take a leaf from some writers featured in the May edition of the UK writing magazine Writers’ ForumLynne Hackles labels her version ‘Red Tomato Writing’ while Sue Johnson uses 45 minute bursts she calls ‘The Beef Tomato.’

The Ultradian Rhythm – 90 Minutes Activity, 20 minutes break.

Ultradian_rhythm_thumb.jpg“The basic idea is that every hour and a half or so you need to take a rest break – if you don’t you may be well on your way to the Ultradian Stress Syndrome: you get tired and lose your mental focus, you tend to make mistakes, get irritable and have accidents” – Ernest Lawrence Rossi.

90 minutesNote1. That’s the activity time that allows us the peak of human focus, before we need a break.

Research suggests 90 minutes is the optimal human limit for focusing intensely on any given task. This “ultradian rhythm”Note2, sleep researcher Peretz Lavie and others have found, governs our energy levels. Ernest Rossi, Ph.D. wrote a book called “The 20 Minute Break” discussing this rhythm. Both researchers suggest the 20 minutes break is well used as a power nap time.


Note1 There seems to be a little leeway here – some suggest 90-120 minutes.

Note2 The Ultradian Rhythm simply sums up the natural body rhythm throughout the 24 hours, although the 90-120 minute cycle is more relevant to sleep patterns.

This 90 minute pattern sits better with me personally than the 25 minute Pomodoro. I find that when I’m deep in the flow of writing a new scene (or this blog post), interrupting it for a short break can be hazardous.

It takes practice, however, to confine tasks within that peak flow time, or shorter, and to recognize the symptoms for over-tiredness (or ultradian stress), and I’m still learning it.


BOOCWAW-Button_thumb.pngThis is why I’m proposing that as core habits writers must now not sit down and write in huge passages of time:

  • Research has found that having a desk job leads to a significantly shorter lifespan. Science Daily article.
  • Sitting down all day doubles the risk of diabetes, heart disease and death. Daily Mail online article.
  • The results were independent of any individual physical exercise undertaken – even if an individual meets the physical activity guidelines, their health may still be at risk if they sit for long periods of time during the day.
  • On average an adult spends 50-70% of their time sitting down. Writers spend more.

“Prof Biddle said it was not possible from the study to say how much time spent sitting is too long.

But he pointed out: ‘As a rule of thumb, if you can break up sitting time by at least five minutes every half hour we think that will benefit you.

‘What we’re seeing is these negative effects that are independent from the physical activity we do, and that’s really crucial. So you can go for a 30 minute run every day but if you’re sitting around for the rest of the day you’re not doing yourself any favours.'” Source.

So that’s why I’m saying that, despite being a marathon runner, cross-training diva or god, despite exercising everyday, if you’re a writer – you need to get up from sitting and take a regular break from the writing task. Butt out of chair!

There are other ways, of course. The writer who embraces digital voice recorders, for instance, and paces around the room while recording their work. And those who stand up at high work stations. But then again, there are writers who do most of their writing while lying down in bed. Presumably with these health research findings, lying down on the job is not a recommended approach.

Putting it All Together – The Writer’s Core Habit Pack for Task Time Management and Health

  1. Break your writing activities up into very small chunks of tasks – the Pomodoro Technique (and Professor Biddle in the Research on sitting, above) suggest task chunks of 25 minutes only.
  2. After the task time is up, take a short break.
  3. Use a timer to remind you of the necessity of taking that break, if you need to.
  4. In your break – get up from your desk, and walk, exercise. Move your body.
  5. For longer work activities, try to fit them into the 90 minute Ultradian body rhythm, with a longer break.
    • In fact, three Promodoros (with breaks) will fit into a 90 minute major task allocation, and the two five minute breaks through this cycle are short enough to retain your brain in ticking over on the writing work, and get your body moving at the same time.
    • Warning – those five minutes go really fast!

BOOCWAW-Button_thumb.pngNote: This blog post was written – with the help of a timer – in four Pomodoroes, with a half hour break after the third, spent outside with the dogs. The Pomodoro tasks were – 1. writing about Pomodoro, 2. writing about the rest, 3. research and image selection, and 4. administration tasks. BOOCWAW!

Timers and Apps

  • Pomodroido app for android allows promodoro and break times to be customised to suit. The website also lists some ToDo and Get-it-Done Timers.
  • More Android Pomodoro apps on Google Play.
  • The Chrome browser has several Pomodoro extensions.
  • Pomodoro software for the PC, and Mac (and PC version also).
  • List of iPad Pomodoro apps.

Further Reading:

The Pomodoro Technique
The Twenty Minute Break: Reduce Stress, Maximize Performance, Improve Health and Emotional Well-Being Using the New Science of Ultradian Rhythms

AtoZ2013 _thumb

A-to-Z-Core-Habits3-_thumb.jpgThis blog post participated in April 2013’s Blogging from A to Z Challenge, along with many other blogs on subjects as diverse as writing, foodie blogs or mummy blogs.

This blog post is part of a themed series or pack on Writer’s Core Habits. I acronym this as WCH or WCHP © . Do a search for these tags, and you will find more in the series.

No affiliate links are used in these posts.

7 thoughts on “#atozchallenge P is for Pomodoro (and Butt Out of Chair) for Writers

    1. That’s the quote of the week I think. I, too, need to be disciplined to be disciplined.

      Sometimes the timing methods work for me, sometimes my dog gets sick on the carpet (not something you really want to leave lying around for 15 minutes) or my daughter interrupts. I need to put them onto the tomato system also.

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