Alternative title: ten-minute chunks, or how to write every day when you haven't managed to complete a single pomodoro session.
I have things to do, dammit
"I only write when inspiration strikes. Fortunately, it strikes at nine every morning." - William Faulkner, being unnecessarily smug about his creative process.
This is a blog about trying to be a comedian and writer while having a day job. So I should probably cover the first, most obvious problem: finding time to write.
I've read the advice that you should 'write every day' about a hundred million times, but that never felt like advice for me. Same with 'floss regularly'. I just put those aside as things I'd do someday, when I was a professional writer – not today, when I'm a full-time software engineer with stand-up gigs to perform and a home to clean and all those episodes of Doctor Who to watch. For now, I'd just have to make do with a dedicated writing/flossing session every weekend.
It's a solid plan, except for the fact that it almost never happens.
I wake up on Saturday mornings with the best of intentions, but it takes less than ten minutes for my enthusiasm to be totally crushed by the weight of expectation. The problem: I remember that my entire week's productivity hinges on that one session, and so the pressure to drop a comic masterpiece is way too much to handle. (I don't know about you, but having a voice in my head constantly repeating the phrase THIS BETTER BE FUNNY does not make me funny.) The next thing I know, it's Sunday evening – I haven't written a single joke, and yet I have somehow sorted through all my email and watched that Dinner Party episode of The Office for the 47th time.
So maybe writing every day wouldn't be such a bad idea. But how?
Break it down, now
Thankfully, I found a solution in Pilar Alessandra's The Coffee Break Screenwriter – a wonderful screenwriting book which breaks down the process of writing an entire movie into ten-minute exercises. I know this seems like heresy when we're supposed to focus and do lots of deep work, but it's actually a great solution to an annoying problem: humans are terrible at estimating what we can achieve with a little bit of progress every single day. (For example: write just one page of your screenplay every evening, and you can finish a complete draft in just three months.) I didn't finish my movie (of course)1, but that way of thinking about creativity has stuck with me ever since.
So now, when I get home from work and I'm feeling really drained, I don't aim for a Super Productive Writing Session – because there's no way I'm going to prioritise that over e.g. getting silently angry at people on Twitter. Instead, I aim to write for just ten minutes. It's a simple shift, but it's somehow a lot more inviting than setting a pomodoro timer for 25 minutes and then spending almost every minute after the fifteenth one checking how much time I've got left.
And it works, at least for me. I started working on this blog post at 9:30pm, when I could've easily resigned myself to bed. It's now 9:40pm, and I've managed to write a complete first draft – which means this day is now infinitely more productive than it would've been otherwise.2
1 The excuse I tell myself is that my writing isn't good enough to 'realise my vision' and I'll get to it one day.
2 This is literally true, as 10 minutes / 0 minutes = infinity. Isn't maths great?
Set a ridiculously low target. If ten minutes still seems too daunting, aim really low. Forget timers – this is the number one thing that helps me power through a difficult writing session. If I'm struggling with a blog post, I'll aim for some free writing instead of something polished or even comprehensible. If I'm struggling with a new stand-up routine, I'll just explore an idea instead of writing something that could actually be performed on stage. Sometimes, I'll explicitly decide not to be funny at all.3 Note that this works best if you do write frequently. If you only write once a month, it's hard to convince yourself that it doesn't matter if what you write is shit.
Leave more than ten minutes of time. Yeah, I know I said that I struggled with the pomodoro technique less than three paragraphs ago. And yet: a lot of the time, once I start writing, I find it really difficult to stop writing. Even now, I just popped into a coffee shop for ten minutes to polish a draft of this post before work, and now I don't want to leave.4 My brain is an idiot.
Don't start a blog. I mean, seriously – if you're struggling to find time to write, it's probably not a good idea to take on even more writing projects. Choose your creative projects wisely.
3 Just like my 2017 show, am I right!? Yes, according to a handful of professional critics.
4 This is probably an indicator that I'm in the wrong job/career. But as I mentioned, this is a blog about 'trying to be a comedian and writer while having a day job' – so I have to stick with it lest you consider me some kind of fraud.
So go on, then
So what are you waiting for? I know you’ve got ten minutes because you’re reading this. Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate it and everything, but there’s no way it’s adding any more value to your life than actually working on the things that you want to work on...
I’m still not flossing, though.