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Back in 2013, I wrote a blog post on 500 Words a Day, Academic Writing. Noting that its not something many academics admit – but writing is hard, not for all, there are some academics who simply flow words but for many its a challenge. There is nothing worse than the blank page of a Word/LaTeX document, knowing you have 10,000 words to go and only a title or abstract in place. It also depends on your stage in an academic career. Researchers generally have more time during the day to, as the job title suggests, to research and therefore write, lecturers less time (increasingly so) and so on. That said, the ability to do anything else than write the paper/masters thesis/PhD chapter is strong, many academics are excellent in justifying just one more bit of research before they start writing.

If you go through a period of not writing, be it weeks or months, then the guilt as an academic starts to build up, we are meant to write papers as those around will often be only too keen to chip in during conversations. I see it across the board, from professors through to starting out researchers and students leaving the course essay until the last possible minute.  There is a need to not only get over the fear of starting a new paper but to also form a pattern to take away the worry that can all too easily build up.

I stated that “It turns out the answer is easy, and thanks go to Sir Alan Wilson of CASA who i found sitting typing early one morning, turns out he always aims for: Write 500 words a day”.

I was wrong, its not easy at all, but i found out how to solve it.

Jump forward to 2023, I am mid book writing with 23,000 words now in place over the last 8 weeks, and most suprising to me, I’ve enjoyed it. The dread of the blank page of A4 has gone and i think i’ve finally learnt how to break the fear, the writers block and not only get it done but to actually miss it if i have a day when i cant write.

There are many books out there that will, over the course of 30,000 words or so, generally tell you the same thing on how to be productive, how to write academically, how to write your first novel etc. In essense it comes down to two simple points and if you can follow these you will, within two weeks, get into a pattern which might just change the way you write and with it your output and perhaps even your path in life:

1) ) Use the Pomodoro Technique – The “Pomodoro Technique” is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The name comes from the Italian word “pomodoro” (tomato) because Cirillo used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer when he first implemented the method. The technique is designed to improve productivity and focus by breaking work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes long, separated by short breaks.

Here’s how you can implement it:

      • Decide on what you are going to write today – for example, my task today was 500 words on ‘Avatars in a Future Metaverse’ (its a working title for a section of the book.
      • Use a timer (it doesn’t have to be tomato-shaped – although i use the excellent extension for Chrome – which is Tomato shaped, and free – Marinara: Pomodoro® Assistant) to set a 25-minute countdown. This 25-minute work period is known as one “pomodoro.”
      • Start researching, writing, in short work on the task in hand. Focus on the task for the entire 25 minutes. If a distraction pops into your head, write it down on a piece of paper and get back to the writing.
      • When the timer goes off after 25 minutes, stop working. Marinara in Chrome can be set to make a pleasant ‘chiming sound’, marking the end of 25 minutes.
      • Take a Short Break Relax for a 5-minute break. Stretch, walk around, or do something you enjoy for a few minutes, tbh i normally use the 5 minutes to check my open tabs in Chrome – Twitter (i cant call it ‘X’ yet) etc.
      • Repeat – the technique statrs that after four pomodoros (i.e., after completing four 25-minute work sessions and taking three 5-minute breaks) you then take a longer break, around 15-30 minutes. This longer break allows you to relax and recharge before diving into another set of pomodoros. To be honest i often do it after 3 sessions as thats the point where my brain is beginning to drift. If all has gone well however i may well be nearing the 500 words at this point, some days the 500 words are easily won, some days much less so. If its proving more challenging then i repeat the process until done.

The primary benefits of the Pomodoro Technique i have found are:

  • An Enhanced Focus: By dedicating short periods to a single task, it becomes easier to stay engaged and focused. Its amazing how rare a focused 25 minutes actually is without using the technique.
  • Regular Breaks: These prevent burnout and keep your mind fresh, they are also often enough not to allow sneaking checking of Chrome tabs.
  • Tracking Productivity: By counting pomodoros, you can gauge how much effort tasks require and better estimate future tasks. This also goes for word count, if you track your word count as you go, I have a running total i update each day on Slack, then it does start to take the pressure off.

You can adjust the timings to suit your needs. Some people prefer longer or shorter work intervals, but the key is to maintain a consistent pattern of focused work followed by a break.

2) Get into a Pattern – a Habit of Writing. The Pomodoro Technique will automatically do that, a habit is often portrayed as a bad thing but it can also be good and it trains your brain to be ready to write at a set time. Personally i use 9.30am to 12.30pm, so a three hour slot each day. This is a time i would often have meetings, so i have blocked out the diary going forward and have moved meetings to the afternoon. At that point my writing is done and im not distracted by an article i should be writing.

Writing 500 words a day gives you 2,500 a week  – 10,000 a month which is easily a PhD chapter, two working papers, one journal paper or a 1/4 of a short novel.

It may seem obvious, but it is all too easy to complete a long day with it filled with meetings – often meetings you have put in the diary youself and ending up at the end of the day without having any words on paper.

I’ve been doing it for just over two months and have 22, 652 words written, if you are reading this then do try the technique and let us know in the comments how you get on.

The book? – The working title is: Cities in the Metaverse: Digital Twins, Spatial Computing, Society, Avatars and Economics on the New Frontier  with Dr Valerio Signorelli,and Professor Duncan Wilson of CASA.

This blog post? – 1,991 words, or three Pomodoros….

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