Creativity/productivity: Improving creative workflow

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how the Pomodoro Technique helped me to overcome writer’s block. But half the battle with any sort of creative work – not least composition – is not the starting or the ending, but the continuing. It’s the bit where every day you go back to your work, pick up where you left off, and keep going in a consistent manner. Today I’m going to write about how the Pomodoro Technique helps with this too – via a neat little productivity trick called the Hemingway Hack.

Ernest Hemingway’s working habit was “always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next”. Don’t finish your thought, don’t even finish the sentence or the phrase – keep it for next time. And in between now and then, try not to think about it.

It seems like madness – if you’ve got a great idea, why wouldn’t you put it in place? Why would you run the risk of it evaporating between the end of one session and the beginning of another?

The answer is that by not putting everything down, by not finishing the phrase, the brain has something to quietly work on behind the scenes, ready for the next session. It doesn’t have to stress about thinking up shiny new ideas because it already has one that’s quietly maturing and spawning new ideas without you really being involved. And even better, when you make yourself abandon your work before you’re finished, it provides its own incentive to get back to it.

The Pomodoro Technique, with its structure of 25-minute blocks of uninterrupted productivity, separated by 5-10 minute breaks, is a perfect ready-made framework for testing out the Hemingway Hack because it works on two different levels. It applies between work sessions (so long as they’re not too far apart), but it also works in miniature between the individual pomodori of a single session.

My work session can be determined by how many pomodori I want to spend on my project rather than just working until the ideas run out. I’m more likely to feel great about the work I’ve done, rather than depleted and worried about whether I can come up with something tomorrow. And the best bit? I don’t need to decide “this is the bit I’m going to leave unfinished” – I stop when the timer says I should stop. And then I stop thinking about it.1

I find this a great technique for keeping work on a composition moving along. It’s very easy to implement, and works brilliantly if you’re trying to get into the habit of doing your work every day. Give it a go and let me know in the comments how you get on!


1. This bit is the hard part 🙂 Hemingway used to read work by contemporary writers after he’d finished writing. He says “If you kept thinking about it, you would lose the thing that you were writing before you could go on with it the next day… To keep my mind off writing sometimes after I had worked I would read writers who were writing then” Hemingway on Writing, pp. 42-43