Some of us are good at making up imaginary reasons why we can’t seem to get going. Maybe it’s writers block or lack of inspiration. We imagine that the people who are in the habit of getting things done have some mysterious motivation, some innate passion, and whatever it is, they’ve got it and we don’t.
But it just ain’t so. It’s neither a complete joy or a romantic struggle. It’s just work. And even those of us in the habit of getting it done don’t always do so with the relish we’re supposed to or that others imagine we have. It is not uncommon for me to stare at my drawing table with dread. Not always, but more often than I’d like. But like any work, it’s got to get done one way or another.
Often I don’t want to start. But whether I want to or not, the timer begins, and so do I.
I’ve found that routine is critical to getting over this hump. I typically get up around 5:30 or 6am. I get ready for the day. Part of this is time spent screwing around on the internet and eating breakfast and walking the dog. Around 7:30 I do my writing. Writing comes more easily to me than drawing. Not that writing is easy, but I find it easier to jump right into it, and maybe it’s because I don’t spend as much time doing it as I do making pictures. I write until about 9:30. On a typical work day, if I’m not teaching or house cleaning, 9:30 is when I start making pictures. One strategy I have to keep me going is audiobooks. I love audiobooks.
But my other secret, my most important secret of all, is the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a time management system that a guy named Francesco Cirillo came up with, named after those old tomato-shaped egg timers that have a 25-minute limit. It’s very simple: work 25 minutes then take a five-minute break. After four 25-minute periods or Pomodoros, you take a 15-minute break. That’s 25 minutes of no screwing around, no excuses concentrated work time.
The hardest thing I do is drawing. For me, adding color or ink to a drawing requires less concentrated and disciplined effort. It’s in my drawings that all the major problems are resolved and the image is fleshed out. And often I don’t want to start. But whether I want to or not, the timer begins, and so do I.
The first 25 minutes is the worst. It feels like I’ll never get going. I can’t wait till the alarm goes off and I can take my break. I spend a lot of my break time on Facebook, because, to be honest, I don’t have much of a social life and Facebook allows me to keep in touch with other artists and see what they’re up to. It can also be a nice mindless way to screw off, and it’s tempting to spend just a little longer looking at webcomics or a Daily Show segment (got to wait for the 15-minute break for those), but then the clock goes off and I have to start again.
The second 25 minutes is a little easier, but around the fourth Pomodoro, something switches in my brain. I don’t even realize it’s happening. I start to build momentum, I start to get invested. I start to enjoy. And this is key. If you get no joy from your work, you might as well be doing something else that actually pays real money. But that joy doesn’t always come easy. You often have to work to get there, and if you aren’t willing to get over that hump, if you aren’t willing to push yourself, you never will.
There will be days when it doesn’t come—when you’re spinning your wheels and nothing seems to work. There’s nothing romantic about this. It’s the same kind of struggle that everyone experiences when they work, and artists are no exception. But I find that after a day like this, the next day is that much easier for the effort.
I often hear artists talk about how they work “14-hour days.” It’s a typical artist’s brag.
If I absolutely can’t seem to get anything off the ground or I run out of gas, I’ll try to do something that requires less discipline, like scanning artwork, or searching for reference images, or cutting paper, all things I need to do, though there’s only so much of this I can do until I’ve got to dive back into the hard stuff. But on the good days or good hours or good Pomodoros, when everything is humming, it’s still important that I take those breaks, even when my momentum is in full swing. In fact, it might be even more important. Because the idea of getting back to work is that much more compelling. Stopping mid-swing is the best way for me to keep up the desire to come back. I want to finish the sentence or the brushstroke and deliberately delaying that gratification makes me want it all the more; taking those breaks helps me to sustain that feeling.
Aside from my writing, which I don’t time, I do 12 Pomodoros, or 25-minute periods, a day. Twelve Pomodoros is my typical limit. Sometimes I’ll work more, but it has to be at least 12. If I have a pressing deadline, I’ll work longer. On weekends I try to do a half day if I don’t have anything else going on. I know a lot of artists work more than that. But I also like to live a life that is as healthy and enjoyable as possible. And I don’t always keep this schedule. Sometimes I teach. Sometimes I go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, or the hardware store to buy light bulbs. Oh, and sometimes I just take the day off.
My work day ends around 5:30 to 6:30pm. That’s about the same time my wife is done with her day. I like that our schedules are coordinated. When the day’s over, there’s no lingering feeling that I didn’t spend my time as I should have, that I didn’t use my time wisely, and I can spend and enjoy my time with her.
A lot of artists exaggerate how much they actually work, or don’t realize how much time they’re wasting. I often hear artists talk about how they work “14-hour days.” It’s a typical artist’s brag. But how much of that is spent truly working? And if they do work 14-hour work days, every day, either someone else does their groceries and laundry, they don’t sleep (or sleep very little), or have very poor overall hygiene and exercise habits. And considering how much time many of them spend on Facebook, I’m guessing most of them aren’t telling the whole truth.
Working constantly isn’t healthy, and the rest of us have lives to maintain, so it’s important not only to have a routine, but to have a sustainable, realistic one. The Pomodoro Technique keeps me honest, plus it helps me to maximize the time I do have to work while still preparing meals, going for a bike ride or to the gym, cleaning my house, walking my dog, spending time with my wife or occasionally seeing another human being.
The Pomodoro Technique might not work for you, but I find it does for me. The breaks help me to maintain my work stamina. The timer lets me know how much I’ve spent genuinely working; each 25-minute period is a focused, concentrated effort that I know is time well spent. And while I know a lot of people prefer to power through, or feel that the breaks take away from their momentum, I know a number of artists who swear by it. No matter how much or how little you have to spend, even if it’s only an hour or two a day, the Pomodoro Technique could help you make those hours count.
Photo taken from the Wikipedia page.