Guest Blog by Tamara Girardi
The camaraderie of sprints such as #1k1hr on Twitter (which encourages you to write 1,000 words in an hour while other writers on Twitter do the same) has always appealed to me, but staying committed for the full hour proved difficult. I wanted a drink. One of my kids needed a snack, a diaper change, a fill-in-the-blank. Or I simply lost focus and momentum on my work-in-progress.
Recently when I signed on to participate in NaNoWriMo, I decided I would sprint a bit with #1k1hr, but then something even better happened. A writer friend of mine and I started sprinting on our own - for twenty minute spurts. Twenty minutes work so much better for my brain (and my hectic environment) than hour-long intervals.
Science just might explain why.
Productivity blogger J.D. Meier promotes 20-minute intervals as “very useful slice[s] of time” noting the “productive possibilities are endless, if you can sustain your focus. The key is to know that sustained thinking takes energy, and it burns out.”
In other words, the goal is to write nonstop and really push your mind (and your fingertips/pencil and paper) for 20 minutes. Then, the next piece of science comes in.
To address the burn out, J.D. Meier says to “take breaks to recharge and renew. Five-minute breaks are a great way to stay focused.”
Research supports J.D. Meier’s advocacy for frequent breaks.
University of Illinois psychology professor Alejandro Lleras references his research, suggesting, “when faced with long tasks, it is best to impose brief breaks on yourself. Brief mental breaks will actually help you stay focused on your task!”
One hour might not seem like a long task, but for me, writing nonstop for one hour, is unnecessarily challenging. My one-hour sprints tend to yield around 1,000 words (as the #1k1hr hashtag suggests), but when I sprinted for three 20-minute sprints with five-minute breaks in between, I wrote 1,943 words!
That was a particularly productive session. They don’t all go that well, but it certainly went better with shorter sprints and brief breaks than it would have with one hour of solid writing.
For me, anyway.
Of course, this does not suggest you shouldn’t participate in #1k1hr. Just don’t feel badly if you have to stop after 20 or 25 minutes for a 5-minute break.
Additional research supports the value frequent breaks by categorizing our brain modes as “focused mode” and “diffuse mode.” According to research, diffuse mode is that time when our minds are daydreaming and wandering, and studies show that “activity in many brain regions increases when our minds wander.”
Some scientists argue that the brain solves problems in diffuse mode, which could explain why writers are able to progress through their manuscripts more quickly with small breaks. Perhaps the brain works out manuscript challenges during the diffuse time, so that when we return to our focused time (in this instance, another 20-minute sprint), the brain can be even more productive than if the break never occurred.
Perhaps 20-minute sprints aren’t your key time interval. Maybe you work best in 15 minutes. Or 30 minutes. In any case, try to determine what your most productive intervals are. Take quick breaks in between. Get up from your desk to grab a drink, throw the laundry into the dryer, watch the kids play. Transition your mind from focused mode to diffuse mode for just a few minutes before diving back in for another sprint.
NaNoWriMo participants or not, we can all use a little boost in productivity, right?
What is your sprinting style? How often do you like to take breaks? Share your experiences with “focused” and “diffuse” modes in the comments below.
Sites I refer to if you want to link to them:
An English instructor for Harrisburg Area Community College’s Virtual Learning program, Tamara Girardi holds a PhD in English from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a Master of Letters in Creative Writing from the University of St. Andrews. Her YA fantasy DREAMSEER won the 2013 PennWriters Novel Beginnings Contest and is on submission with agents. Tamara is a member of Backspace, Sisters in Crime, and PennWriters. Follow her (and challenge her to a writing sprint!) on Twitter @TamaraGirardi.