20-Minute Chunks

No one can tell you how long you should write for. You need to decide that for yourself. But what we will suggest is, if you want to write consistently, try breaking your writing time down into chunks. 

We tend to work in 20-minute chunks in our workshops. This doesn’t sound like much, but it is remarkable how much you can write in 20 minutes. Our participants are consistently amazed by how much they get done in just the first hour of a daylong retreat, as are we each time we use the method. When you are prepared, when you commit to writing, and when you separate drafting from crafting, it is even more effective. 

The key is to have a defined start and end to each period of writing. If you just sit and go until you get hungry, have to pee, get an urgent email, feel like checking the news, get a knock on your office door, or have to run to a meeting, you don’t have a clear sense of starting and stopping. Writing bleeds into the rest of your day, and it often feels more like treading water than swimming laps.

Some people resist this suggestion. Often, it is because they are convinced that the way they currently work is fine, it’s just their schedule that gets in the way. They have to deal with other commitments first, before they can really sit down a write. Others say it takes them 20 minutes just to get into their writing; they’d barely have started when it would be time to stop.

In response, we invite you to be honest with yourself. Will you always have other commitments that compete with your writing for your attention? Would you like to find a way to make regular progress on your writing projects in spite of them? Do you think it might be possible that if you checked in with your writing projects regularly for short periods, it would become easier to quickly pick up where you left off?

If you tell yourself you can’t possibly get started until you’ve cleared several uninterrupted hours of your day, you will be constantly searching for pearls in oysters, hoping that next week, next month, next summer you’ll finally find one.

If, instead, you commit to making short writing bursts a defined part of your routine, your projects can start to feel less like wild beasts needing to be tamed and more like friendly pets eager to greet you. You step in, make some progress, and move on. Day after day, this adds up.

The reason we do 20 minutes at a time in workshops is because we’re writing all day and we want to pace folks so they don’t lose their energy too quickly. Sometimes we might do an hour of writing in three 20-minute chunks with some short breaks in-between. You will likely find with some experimentation that you can keep focus for longer than 20 minutes at a stretch. The effective Pomodoro method uses 25-minute blocks. Laura now uses 30-minute chunks, mostly because she found a 30-minute hourglass timer which she prefers to listening to a ticking kitchen timer or keeping her phone on her desk (it’s usually on silent in a different room during writing time). 

If you have two hours set aside for writing, for example, you could pace it as four 25-minute blocks with five-minute breaks in between. If you have more than two hours available for writing – perhaps while writing-up a PhD or during a sabbatical – then you might work with a two-hour period of dedicated writing time in a day, with the rest of the day used to revise and prepare. Will knew someone who started his day writing for two hours, had a break, printed out his work, read over it and marked comments for one hour, and put it in a ‘to edit’ pile. After a lunch break, he then started gathering materials (literature, data) for writing the next morning.  Someone else Will knows described how each day at some point in the day they’d find time to write two sides of A4 paper by hand and would begin each day by typing up yesterday’s work.  You can develop your own cocktail of preparing, writing, and editing by keeping clear on which you are doing when. 

If you have less time, why not try just twenty minute? Really, just twenty minutes a day. We are supposed to tell you to do this as soon as you get to your desk. Ideally, we would all do it this way, but we are not ideal people living in perfect worlds. So if telling yourself you’re not going to check your email/texts/social first and then doing it anyway leaves you starting your day with a fail, make a different rule. Maybe you allow ten minutes for online stuff before unplugging and setting your twenty-minute timer. You can make your own rules.

The bottom line is, consider this an invitation to experiment with short, timed writing bursts. What do you have to lose?

NEXT: Commitment, Mood & Energy