Have you ever sat down to make progress on your current project and promptly wasted the next two hours looking at recipes for vegan mac and cheese (when you’re not even vegan)?
Lauren Graham knows that feeling. In her book, Talking as Fast as I Can, she devoted a chapter to the writing strategy that helped her finish the project. She shares a familiar story of distraction and procrastination that I think all writers can relate to, before offering one of the most promising writing strategies I’ve ever heard: the Kitchen Timer method.
Graham heard this strategy from screenwriter Don Roos, from one writer to another, but it could improve productivity on all kinds of projects. You could use this strategy for creative writing, any kind of art, creating a website, editing photos, studying for the GRE or LSAT – any pursuit you wish you were spending more time on.
Graham writes, “It’s his variation on the Pomodoro technique, called Kitchen Timer, and it’s transformed the way I write—I now spend fewer hours being way more productive. It gave me a structure where there was none. It has changed my life as a writer, and I hope it changes yours too. I love it so much that it makes me want to touch my fingertips together in that wonderful symbol we just invented in the last decade.”
Without further ado, the Kitchen Timer method:
“The principle of Kitchen Timer is that every writer deserves a definite and doable way of being and feeling successful every day,” Dan wrote to Lorelai Lauren. “To do this, we learn to judge ourselves on behavior rather than content. We set up a goal for ourselves as writers that is easy, measurable, free of anxiety, and, above all, fail-proof, because everyone can sit, and an hour will always pass.”
Here are the steps:
1. Decide how much time you want to spend working or creating the next day. “When in doubt or under pressure or self-attack, we choose fewer hours rather than more,” advises Roos. If you know tomorrow will be a busy day, maybe choose only 30 minutes. If you know you’re going to have some extra time, maybe choose an hour and a half, or even two hours. The most important thing is to choose an amount of time you will be able to achieve. Consider putting an appointment on your calendar or setting a reminder on your phone.
- When your pre-scheduled appointment time arrives, sit down to work with whatever materials your project requires. Turn off your phone or put it on silent. One writer I know recommends putting your phone in the freezer (although I don’t really recommend that, because I’m not sure how well smartphones respond to extreme temperatures). I like the idea of putting it completely out of reach and out of sight, as research has shown that the mere presence of a smartphone can be distracting.
If the idea of making yourself inaccessible gives you pause, Roos has an answer to that – “It is our life; we are entitled to one hour without interruption, particularly from loved ones. We ask for their support. ‘I was on an hour’ is something they learn to understand. But they won’t respect it unless we do first.”
Roos says, “No Internet, absolutely,” but, personally, I don’t love this rule. If I’m working on an article, for example, and I need to quickly look up the study I read about how the presence of smartphones can be distracting, I need the Internet for that. But plenty of projects don’t require the Internet, and if yours doesn’t, turn the WiFi off on your computer (or, even better, turn off your router). You can also leave place markers showing where you will need to go back and look something up online (i.e., INSERT LINK TO DISTRACTION STUDY HERE). You know yourself best, and you know whether or not WiFi connection will present a problem for you.
Music, reading, and straightening up are all forbidden. White noise or music in a foreign language are allowed.
- Now that you’ve sat down in an environment ideally suited to maximize your productivity, set a timer for 60 minutes, or whatever your goal amount of time might be for that day. Roos recommends a kitchen timer, hence the name of this strategy. You can also set a timer on your phone, so long as you turn the volume up loud enough you’ll be able to hear it from the other room.
Here’s where this method gets truly magical:
- When you sit down to work and set your timer, you open two documents on your computer: your current project and a journal. If you don’t have a current project, just open your journal. This part works best if you’re a writer, but you can substitute a different activity in place of a journal – perhaps a sketchbook, a coloring book, or blank pages for doodles. Choose anything that feels like free play, with zero pressure, and which won’t absorb you for too long.
- Let an hour pass. That’s it. If you keep your appointment, you’ve succeeded, even if you don’t actually make any progress on your current project. Don says, “We don’t have to write at all if we are happy to stare at the screen or the page. Nor do we have to write a single word on our current project; we may spend the entire hour writing in our journal. Anything we write in our journal is fine; ideas for future projects, complaints about loved ones, what we ate for dinner, even ‘I hate writing’ typed four hundred times. When we wish or if we wish, we pop over to the current project document and write for as long as we like. When we get tired or want a break, we pop back to the journal. The point is, when disgust or fatigue with the current project arises, we don’t take a break by getting up from our desk. We take a break by returning to the comforting arms of our journal until that, in turn, bores us. Then we are ready to write on our project again, and so on. We use our boredom in this way.”
Then you start the whole process over with step 1 and decide how long you want to spend on your project the following day. If you were unable to keep your appointment, don’t try to catch up or punish yourself by setting a longer appointment for the next day. Instead, do the opposite. If an hour was too much time for you to focus or find in your schedule, scale it back to 30-45 minutes instead. Dedicate as much time as you can whenever you can, but don’t be harsh with yourself. Be realistic and be positive. Judge yourself on behavior rather than output.
That’s what I love so much about this method. To me, it’s a way to break the shame cycle, wherein we tell ourselves we should be writing/reading/coding/studying/painting more, and then when we fail to do so, we feel guilty and ashamed, thereby developing a negative relationship with our creative projects. With the Kitchen Timer method, you can set achievable goals. Keeping your writing appointments will make you feel proud and accomplished, encouraging you to set and keep more appointments.
And, of course, sitting down for an hour or so every day will automatically produce more progress along the way.
Photo credits: Penguin books, Unsplash