Here’s a confession:
I rarely did my homework in school.
I did it so rarely that I remember the times I did it. Not just specific incidences of particularly hard, particularly interesting, or particularly ‘important’. The four or five times I did it, I remember those times.
It didn’t appeal.
My school performance was slightly to the right of mediocre. I never ‘excelled’. But that didn’t really concern me. Still doesn’t.
I tell this story as a prelude to another story:
Picture the scene. This used to happen to me all the time when I was in school. Mum would come past while I was playing a computer game and make some comment about homework. When I was in school, this was true. Most of my time was spent playing computer games. I could do well enough to satisfy myself, and my teachers (mostly). (In retrospect, they were probably as frustrated with then-me as I am with now-me, but that’s in the past.) My lack of a work ethic in school meant that when my mum made those comments, I just had a guilty conscience, because I knew I wasn’t working.
“When I look over at you, it seems like you’re always working. But when I come over here, you’re just playing games all the time.” When someone said this to me the other day, I was able to confidently say: ‘False’. Although I was, at that moment, watching a YouTube video of someone playing a video game, I was in a five minute down-block. When that five minutes was up, I was back to work for a twenty five minute up-block.
During the up-block I was BICHOK. I wrote about BICHOK last time. BICHOK stands for “butt in chair, hands on keyboard.” It’s a writing technique that’s helped me no end in my quest to turn pro.
BICHOK is part of a new two-pronged approach to productivity I’m trying. It combines two methods I’ve wanted to ‘implement’ for a while. BICHOK is one of them. The second is loosely based on the Pomodoro method.
BICHOK and the Golden Tomato
The Pomodoro method uses a kitchen timer to keep you focused. You choose how long you want to work on a project (twenty five minutes is standard). And then you take a short break (five minutes). That’s one pomodoro. After four pomodori, you take a longer break. Rinse and repeat.
It’s great, in theory. I think it’s based on the (shaky) idea that you can only focus for about 20 minutes at a time. And it’s very close to how I structure my writing time now. But…
When I used the Pomodoro software, I wasn’t successful. The real deal is a small piece of software that counts time. Twenty five minutes on, five minutes off, four times, then a longer break. Relentlessly. Tick, tock, tick, tock. (It actually makes the noise, though I’m sure you can turn it off.)
Once you set it running, it keeps going all day. Twenty five minutes on, five minutes off, twenty five minutes on, five minutes off, twenty five minutes on, five minutes off. All day. (And probably all night if you left it running.) It felt oppressive to me. So much pressure to be working all the time.
My system is (almost) exactly the same as the Pomodoro method. But I use e.ggtimer to track my up- and down-blocks. I set it for twenty five minutes, and I write (or read productively) for that time. Then I set it for five minutes, and do something that’s not neurally intensive. This setup helps sustain my willpower.
The act of manually setting the clock each time resets my brain (or something). It’s part of my creative ritual. Ritual is important to the majority of creatives. Doing the same things in the same order every day before you start work helps your brain ready itself for the labours you’re about to ask of it. I’m a creature of habit, I guess. (Just ask my fingernails!)
So, that’s why I use e.ggtimer to give me twenty-five minutes to work. Then I take five minutes, measured by e.ggtimer, to do something not work related, but not necessarily AFK.1 I’ve been watching Etho play Minecraft.
This pattern means that I work fifty minutes out of each hour. I set my day up like this because I am prone to procrastination. Who knows how many days I’ve lost to Procrasto. Recently, though, I read something recently that confirmed my biases about procrastination in a most delightful way.
It started with a post at LifeHacker, featuring Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, talking about procrastination and distraction. His suggestion: you should build time into your day to be distracted. Duhigg suggests five minutes each hour to check Facebook, or just to tool around the interwebs.
This was a ‘lightbulb moment’ for me. It’s such a great idea! (It’s so great that I didn’t even question it when I read this comment on Lifehacker: “Seriously? ‘Beat Procrastination and Distractions By Scheduling Time for Them’? This seems about as intelligent and useful as saying, ‘Beat alcoholism by only drinking in moderation!’ Sounds good on paper, utterly meaningless in practice.”)
I used to spend days (three or four hours at a time) playing Minecraft, watching videos about Minecraft, looking up crafting recipes for Minecraft on the internet. (Minecraft wasn’t my only vice, I just liked the cadence.) All the time, I was thinking, how am I creating value? How is this helping me become a ‘writer’ (self-employed, freelance (or otherwise))? How is this helping me, other than adding to my self-loathing? But I would do it all the same. So now, I give myself five minutes every twenty five to watch Etho create amazing things in Minecraft.
Sometimes, I use the first few minutes of each twenty five to answer calls of nature or make coffee. I think it’s important for me to do it that way, rather than using the five minutes I donate to Procrasto. I have to get the procrastination out of my system. I am strict(ish) with it.2 It works like a charm!
The two-pronged strategy worked well in this instance. I wrote 700 words in the first twenty five minute session. How many of them will stick around for the publication party is another matter. But the point is, I wrote that much. In twenty five minutes, without my fingers leaving the keyboard. I used the first half of the next twenty five to find some links to put in the post. In this twenty five minutes, I added about 300 more words. Soon it will be time to start taking them out. (The beauty of non-linear writing is that I now have no idea how many of those words survived. But I wrote them. And that’s the ‘hardest’ part.)
As I get more experienced with this system, I anticipate moving up to thirty, forty, forty five minute up-blocks. It will be trial and error. I’ll have to find a new sweet spot every time, but that will be part of the adventure.
Lifehacker has another take on this method, called the 30/30 method. I think, for me, thirty minutes off would be enough to make me completely lose focus on working and collapse into a shame spiral. (Diff’rent folks, diff’rent strokes.)
What keeps you out of shame spirals?
- The example sentence when I went to Urban Dictionary for the link was “*joe is afk”. ↩
- Sometimes I forget to set the timer at the start of the five minute block. But when I do that, and I realise part way through (which happens occasionally, pobody’s nerfect), I usually go straight back to writing. ↩