6 Top Tips to Build Writing Focus with Pavlov and Pomodoros

    build writing focus

    Editor’s note: If you want to be a successful writer, you need to build writing focus. But how? Well, maybe donuts, dogs and tomatoes can provide the answer…

    Mmm. The smell of a freshly baked donut. It almost makes you drool just thinking about it.

    Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist from the late 1800’s, was interested in studying this drool phenomenon, in order to see how digestion works in mammals. He began studying dogs to see what triggers them to salivate. Pavlov had lab assistants, who wore identical lab coats, feed dogs, and noticed that the dogs soon began to salivate when they saw lab coats. He later reproduced this by ringing a bell each time the dogs were fed—the dogs started salivating after hearing the bell.

    The sound of the bell followed by food led the dogs to associate the two, through what Pavlov called conditioning. As a writer, I wondered, how could I use conditioning to help me build writing focus?

    An Italian university student had an answer for me.


    Pavlov’s bell for writers

    Wouldn’t it be great if you could condition yourself to be in a flow state on cue? Writers, researchers, students, and programmers could stay focused on their work and free themselves from distractions.

    I imagine that Francesco Cirillo was thinking along these lines when he developed the Pomodoro Technique. As a university student in Italy, Cirillo was looking for a way to get more studying done. Cirillo had a tomato-shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro means tomato in Italian) which he used to fully focus on studying. He’d wind the timer to 25 minutes (which is equal to 1 “Pomodoro”), and after the bell rang, take a 5-minute break.

    Like Pavlov’s dogs, as a writer using this technique, you’ll begin associating the ticking of the tomato timer as focus time. The bell at the end cues your break. (Good doggy, you get a treat.)


    The science behind the Pomodoro Technique

    Besides its connection to Pavlovian theory, the Pomodoro Technique is research-backed as being helpful with memory and attention. Research published in Cognition shows that taking short breaks can significantly improve your ability to focus on a task for long periods. These short breaks also help prevent work burnout.

    The short breaks give your mind a chance to assimilate what you just wrote and your body a chance to do something healthy, like getting up and taking a short walk. The key to using the technique effectively is to actually take the break. When you hear the timer go off, stop your writing, allow your mind to wander, and your body to move.

    The exact 25 minutes focus followed by 5 minutes break that the Pomodoro Technique prescribes is not set in stone. It’s best to find what works for you, based on your attention span and constraints.


    Will one pomodoro a day get your writing project anywhere?

    This technique may work for university students crunching for their next exam, but can a writer really use it to complete a book project? What about a busy writer that can only allot time for one pomodoro per day?

    Kat Loterzo used the Pomodoro Technique to draft her book on the subject of insomnia in just three weeks. She drafted six chapters, simply by focusing for 25 minutes per day.


    Using the Pomodoro Technique effectively

    Every morning, I sit at my desk and focus totally on what I’m writing. I don’t see anything else, I don’t think about anything else. -Haruki Murakami

    Like Murakami, you’ll need to concentrate completely on your writing task, uninterrupted, until your timer alerts you.

    Here are tips for achieving that:

    1. Predictable schedule? Set boundaries around your pomodoros: Let loved ones know about your writing time. Create a shared calendar with recurring notifications so that everyone gets alerted before your session. If you have a dedicated writing space, put a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. (For many writers, early morning sessions tend to work best due to less distractions.)
    2. Unpredictable schedule? Plan pomodoros for the upcoming week:  When planning the upcoming week, look for free blocks of 30-90 minutes, and schedule them for writing time. For some writers, this may be less effective than having a set schedule, as it’s not always easy to “flip the switch” to writing mode. That being said, it may be your only option if your schedule varies week-to-week.
    3. Upgrade your headphones: Get high-end noise cancelling headphones (e.g. Bose) if your writing space gets noisy. You’ll be amazed at how this improves your ability to focus while writing.
    4. Turn off phone notifications: Most phones have a Do not Disturb mode. Turn it on during your writing time. Some phones even allow you to schedule it (e.g. iPhone), so if you know you’ll be writing from 6:00 – 7:00 AM every weekday, you can set your phone to automatically go into Do not Disturb.
    5. Listen to focus music: The Pomodoro Technique prescribes listening to a kitchen timer ticking for 25 minutes, but some writers get more focus when listening to music, especially music chosen for this task. Mary Jaksch uses music to improve her concentration when writing.
    6. Use a focus app: If you don’t want to use a kitchen timer, here are the best apps I’ve found to increase focus. The benefit of using an app versus a kitchen timer is that you can use it with headphones. (So when you decide to start your writing session at 5 AM, and the bell goes off, you don’t wake up your loved ones).
    • Focus Keeper is based on the Pomodoro Technique. It sets 25-minute focus boxes, followed by 5-minute breaks. You can adjust the bell tone, as well as timer and break length.
    • Forest is not specific to the Pomodoro Technique, but provides a similar way to gamify your focus time. Set a focus goal in terms of minutes (e.g. 25 minutes). As long as you keep the app open during your focus time, a tree will grow. If you close the app and break your goal, your tree will die.

    What makes you tick?

    Like Pavlov, you’ll want to conduct your own experiments, and you may uncover strange results. See what makes your bell ring—maybe your pomodoros will be 58 minutes long, and your breaks will be 9 minutes.

    My writing practice has me completing four 25-minute pomodoros every morning. To get my blood flowing, I do a set of ten push-ups during my five minute breaks.

    How do you stay focused? Please share in the comments.

    About the author

      Derek Ralston

      Derek Ralston blogs about productivity for writers at DerekRalston.Com. Grab his FREE Daily Writing Habit Printable to try the Jerry Seinfeld technique for building a writing habit. Derek has published 5 nonfiction books, 1 of which became top in its category on Amazon.

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    • Laszlo Anthony Voros says:

      While I was working on a short story I had to get in the mood as it was a horror story. So I found Halloween movie music (as it was Halloween) and I listened to Halloween One and Two, Scream, The Exorcist, The Shining, Psycho etc. I wrote from 11:00 PM to 2:00 PM the next day. I was focused like a laser dot on a target. I have to try and do that more often.

      • Derek Ralston says:

        Great idea, themed music to put you in the mood. Reminds me of Stephen King, he mentioned jamming out to stuff like Metallica or Anthrax while writing his horror novels.

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    • Two of my friends recommended Pomodoro technique to me, but I don’t want to be bound by some timer when I write my content.

      I do take some breaks, every 30-60 minutes, but they are not forced, rather natural.

      To achieve the uninterrupted work I prefer to work at night when my girlfriend and the entire city is sleeping. Music acts disturbing to me, so I find it better to work when everything is silent.

      • Derek Ralston says:

        @Milan: Thanks for sharing your approach. If you can intuitively feel when you need a break and take it then, vs. having a rule-based approach like Pomodoro, that’s great. Sounds like you are a night owl, agreed quiet time helps a lot with focus.

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