Moving Off of Square One (Part 1 of 2)

by Erin on February 6, 2012

in Musings, Writer Support

Hello, dear neglected blog. How are you?

Way back when (about a month ago), I mentioned that I am rather fond of techniques for motivating oneself and increasing productivity.  And so, as we start a brand-new week, I thought I’d share a couple that I use myself in hopes that you might find something to add to your arsenal—and that you might share other such things for me to add to mine.


The Draw-Out List (or Roll the Dice)—This technique came to me from Susan Vaught.  It is nothing like rocket science, nor is it a real game plan. It simply removes all rationalization and avoidance from the process as you get started on a day, as long as you respect the sanctity of the random choice.

You take a to-do list—or an editorial letter—and number the items on it. Then you use a randomizer to pick which one you do first. You can write numbers on little pieces of paper and pick them out of a hat, get out the ol’ D&D dice and roll (not that I, erm, know anything about that…), or let your iPhone choose (that was no endorsement, by the way; I found it by Googling and that is the extent of my knowledge of it). I prefer the little-pieces-of-paper method, because I can leave out the piece I just drew instead of “accidentally” losing track of the number.


The Pomodoro—I learned this from Audrey Vernick, who was introduced to it by by a wise, prolific, bestselling author friend. It is called the Pomodoro, which is Italian for tomato, which was the shape of the egg timer owned by the man who invented the technique. It’s intended to be much more of a big lifestyle sort of thing—an entire organizational system—but that’s not how I use it. It was not written with authors in mind, but Audrey’s friend wisely saw the potential in it, especially for getting first drafts done.

The basic concept, as it was explained to me, is that you can do just about anything for 25 minutes, even if you hate it. You take an egg timer, and you set it for 25 minutes. You remove all distractions (I recommend Freedom to turn off the Internet). You have a blank piece of paper on hand (and something to write with) and then whatever you need to do your task. You hit the egg timer, and off you go.

You work in obligatory—and I do mean obligatory—25-minute chunks, followed by 5-minute obligatory breaks. If you think about anything you need to research online, add to your to-do list, ask a friend about, or anything else, you write it on that blank sheet of paper and go back to your task at hand. You do not let yourself stray from that task no matter what, because if you do, you don’t get to count that Pomodoro. And after you try this, you end up setting goals for yourself in terms of how many Pomodoros you’re going to get done this morning, or this day, or this week. If you really commit, you get a longer break for every four Pomodoros you finish. There’s a much more complicated thing about logging the Pomodoros, but I don’t get as into that. Your mileage may vary.

I’ve heard the old idea that if you are avoiding doing something, just commit to doing it for fifteen minutes and then you can stop—but by the end of fifteen minutes, you usually are fine to keep on going with it and finish it up. The Pomodoro Technique takes that idea and pushes it just a bit further—not just ten minutes further, but more-solid-commitment further. It’s also a pretty effective motivational technique, I find, and works well in concert with the Draw-Out List.

I have one more to share, which I’ll post next week. Meantime, how about you? What techniques do you have to share?

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Jackee February 7, 2012 at 9:31 am

I use the Pomodoro technique but have never used the dice/paper one. Will have to try it! Thanks!


Erin February 7, 2012 at 10:30 am

Jackee, do you use the full-on Pomodoro technique, to the degree they have in the book and training? If so, have I missed the spirit of it with my abbreviated understanding of it?


Cynthia Levinson February 7, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Anything that works for Audrey is something I want to do, too. Pomodoro, here I come. This was a fascinating and very helpful post. Thank you!


Tricia February 7, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I use Vitamin-R (a Mac app), which is a fancy egg timer, essentially. It shuts off the programs you choose and has a countdown timer.

I concur with Audrey and Erin that time slices are the key.

When I’m in the mood, that is. Ha!


Rachael Harrie February 7, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Wow, this technique sounds awesome, Erin! I’ve already ordered myself an egg timer – managed NOT to get a cupcake timer, otherwise I would have been dreaming of you-know-whats the whole time :) Off to give it a try (and thanks for sharing, can’t wait for the next post!).



Lynda February 13, 2012 at 8:50 pm

As you know, I love little legal pads and Sharpies to make my to-do lists. Don’t think I could give those up. However, after reading this, I found an app called “Spin the Bottle.” You can easily set the pie for any number. So, I set the pie for the amount of items on my list and spin the bottle to choose which one to do. I like it; it appeals to my large childish side. :-)


Sue Heavenrich February 23, 2012 at 2:59 pm

I have a set of polyhedral dice (aka D&D dice) on my desk – I love ‘em. Never thought to use them quite this way… And I love the fill-in-the-squares idea (oops, maybe that’s from the next post).


Maryanne Fantalis February 27, 2012 at 10:50 am

OMG I love your sparkly dice! I have the same set in blue!


Once upon a time, I was a fastidious, in control attorney with a neat and tidy desk, paper clips, time sheets and yes, Sharpies and legal pads. (Lynda and I are kindred spirits). The biggest challenge to me in shifting to life as an at-home mom/writer has been the absolute lack of structure in those dual careers. Nap-time? Once you think you have it settled, it shifts, and then you have a second baby… So now that my kids are in school full-time, I have lost all of my good habits. I’ve been thinking about using a timer but felt foolish; I had no idea that it was an actual METHOD. You’ve all inspired me to give it a try. Thank you! :)


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