Want to supercharge your writing productivity but feel like you struggle to concentrate when you sit down to write?
It can be hard for us writers to find time to write in the first place, but when we finally do manage to carve out those precious hours, it is very frustrating when we can’t stay focused on our writing.
Enter Anthony Trollope.
One of the most successful novelists of the Victorian era, Trollope figured out a daily writing routine that had him churning out books with astounding speed. Over the course of 35 years, he wrote 47 novels as well as many short stories, nonfiction books, and plays.
Even more impressive, he did all this while working a demanding job as a post office inspector. His job required him to travel often and keep a busy schedule.
That meant that when he sat down to write, he needed to make sure he met his daily word count goal.
So how did he do it? Read on to discover Trollope’s unique strategy.
Trollope’s Daily Writing Routine
First, Trollope had to find several hours of free time that he could devote to writing. Because of the long hours his job demanded, he realized that he would only be able to find time to write before he headed off to work.
The Trollope Society reports, “Trollope wrote for three hours every morning from 5am – 8am, and then went to work. He paid a servant £5 extra a year to wake him up with a cup of coffee.”
In his autobiography, Trollope observed that the servant was “never once late with the coffee…I do not know that I ought not to feel that I owe more to him than to anyone else for the success I have had. By beginning at that hour I could complete my literary work before I dressed for breakfast.”
Many writers swear by waking up early in the morning and getting to their writing first thing before anything else on their schedules. This may not work for everyone, but what Trollope did next is something that any writer can adopt into his or her daily routine.
The Timed Writing Strategy
Trollope wanted to make sure that none of those three precious hours was wasted. He wanted to ensure that he would be writing continuously so that he wouldn’t be spending time “nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas.”
A pocket watch.
First, he would read over his manuscript for half an hour. Then, he explained,
It had at this time become my custom,—and it still is my custom, though of late I have become a little lenient to myself, —to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour.
I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went…
Ultimately, Trollope’s timed writing sessions were the key to his prolific output.
This division of time allowed me to produce over ten pages of an ordinary novel volume a day, and if kept up through ten months, would have given as its results three novels of three volumes each in the year.
Why Trollope’s Timed Writing Strategy Works
Trollope’s timed writing strategy was so amazingly effective because he committed to turning off all distractions during that time period. He forced himself to concentrate on only the ticking of the stopwatch.
This meant absolutely no multitasking.
In today’s world, multitasking has become such an acceptable part of our daily life that it’s a tough habit to break. As we write, we might stop every few minutes or so to check a text on our phone or a notification from Facebook or Instagram.
However, our brains can’t focus on a handful of tasks all at the same time. Instead, the brain has to scramble to switch its focus every time we start doing something different.
And when we’re multitasking while working on an article or any kind of writing project, that means that our brains only have a matter of seconds to jump back and forth as we check Facebook, then write a few lines, then quickly check our email, write a few more lines, then check our text messages, then return to our writing project.
According to this Wall Street Journal article, “It takes more than 25 minutes on average to resume a task after being interrupted.”
Even worse, “It takes an additional 15 minutes to regain the same intense focus or flow as before the interruption.”
That’s forty entire minutes, and that doesn’t even take into consideration multiple interruptions.
Check out this fascinating interview with Clifford Nass, a researcher at Stanford, who conducted a study on the detrimental effects of multitasking.
Of course, Trollope did not have to contend with social media and cell phones, but no doubt there were similar temptations in his day that could easily distract him from his writing tasks.
However, by putting his watch before him, he challenged himself not to break the intense flow of his work.
How We Can Implement Timed Writing: The Pomodoro Technique
Not all of us will have three hours of our day that we can devote to writing, nor will all of us be able to set apart time in the morning to write.
However, timed writing is a simple and easy technique that can be used by any writer.
On those days when I notice I am having difficulty focusing on my writing, I use a similar approach to Trollope’s called the Pomodoro technique.
An Italian college student named Francesco Cirillo invented the technique in the 1980s. Constantly distracted during his study time, he was looking for something to help him focus.
Cirillo discovered a 25-minute kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato, and the Pomodoro technique was born (Pomodoro is the Italian word for tomato).
Here’s how it works:
- Decide on a task to be completed.
- Set the timer to 25 minutes.
- Work on the task until the timer rings (record the ‘pomodoro’ with an x on a piece of paper).
- Take a short break (3-5 minutes).
- Every four “pomodori” take a longer break (15–30 minutes) until the task is completed.
Here’s why it works:
Like Trollope’s watch, the physical countdown of the timer helps you stay focused and accountable. You can only record an “x” if you worked diligently for the entire 25-minutes (that means no checking Facebook or email or getting a snack or texting).
25 minutes is the perfect amount of time to spend writing. It’s neither too short nor too long. Then you get a few minutes to check your Facebook or email or to take a break from the computer and grab a snack.
Those breaks allow your brain a little bit of time to reenergize but still keep you in the flow.
I find that a single session of four straight pomodori (that’s about two hours including breaks) seems to be the perfect amount of time to devote to long, complex tasks. Those two hours really allow me to dig deep into the project I am working on, and with the Pomodoro technique, the time really does seem to fly by.
However, all of that time is being put to good use, and I find that I am now completing my writing projects faster than ever before.
Whenever I implement timed writing, my productivity skyrockets, and my written output increases tremendously.
If you would like to try out the Pomodoro technique, you can buy a physical timer or use a free Pomodoro app online. I recommend this one.
Whether you use the Pomodoro technique or a less structured method like Trollope’s, timed writing is one of the best ways to beat procrastination, end multitasking, and reach your daily word count goal.
Trollope understood that he only had a limited amount of time to devote to writing. His hours were precious, and he needed to use them wisely.
Timed writing helps us use our hours as productively as possible and establish a daily writing routine.
As Trollope observed, “A small daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.”
Do you implement timed writing sessions during your daily writing routine? If you enjoyed this post, be sure to leave a comment and share with someone you would like to inspire.