December: How To Stay Focused Amid Holiday Insanity

You know what? I love the month of December. Next to Halloween, Christmas is my favorite time of the year. But you know what else? Unlike the month of October, December can cripple my motivation and destroy my willpower. Writing is hard. Writing in December? Oh god.

It goes a little something like this: you sit down at your computer with all good intentions. You’re going to hit your word count, and then you’re going to figure out how to solve world hunger while going on a sugar cookie binge. But as soon as you’re sitting at your computer you think, “oh damn, I still have to buy a present for X.” Three hours later you’re still on Amazon, you haven’t bought anything, and you’ve just blown an entire evening looking at fuzzy socks and ugly pajama sets instead of working on your novel (which you promised yourself last New Years Eve you’d finish before the end of this year. Or did you forget about that little resolution?) Oh, and then there’s all the decorating to do. You need to put the houselights up, and good lord, we’re already over a week into December and you haven’t even found a tree. Wait, was that cookie exchange at work this Monday? And when is the office party again? Speaking of parties, you have three to attend before Christmas actually arrives.

The point is: December is awesome, and December also sucks. I tend to consider myself pretty militant when it comes to getting stuff done, especially when word count is involved. But the fact of the matter is that even I find myself having a hell of a time managing my time during the holiday season. Sometimes, all I want to do is bake friggin’ cookies and watch A Christmas Story on repeat until I can’t stand Ralphie anymore. (That will never happen.) But I can’t allow it. I have work to do; work that, if I don’t get done, will make me feel like a terrible slacking loser and probably make me hate all over everything. All work and no play may turn Jack into a dull boy, but no work around the holidays turns me into a veritable self-loathing Grinch.

So how do you balance it all out? How do you get past the temptation to do the millions of other things you could be doing and do what you should be doing? It’s actually not that hard.

If you’ve heard of the Pomodoro Technique, great. If you haven’t, now you have. The Pomodoro Technique is called such because it utilizes a cute little tomato-shaped timer, but I don’t have time for cutsie timers. I have a phone like a real live person, and that’s what I use.

Here’s the equation: 25 minutes of work = 5 minutes of free time.

That’s it. You set your alarm for 25 minutes from now, start working, and when your time is up, you Facebook or Twitter or text the ever-living crap out of the next five minutes. That’s your reward for being productive. Five minutes later, you have another twenty-five minute stint of pure focus. You’re not allowed distraction. No phone, no internet, no getting up to get coffee. If you really want coffee, you can get it in twenty-five, when you take five. The thing about this technique is that the twenty-five minutes you set aside to work goes by ridiculously fast, and by the time your alarm is going off you’re thinking “woah, wait, already?” Do this twice in an hour and you’ve dedicated fifty minutes of sixty to pure creative focus.

I don’t know what it is about this twenty-five minute thing, but it’s sort of magical. During one run, I nearly wrote a thousand words in half an hour… possibly because I was really into it, or possibly because in the back of my mind I knew my break was coming up, and I wanted to get out as many words as possible before mucking it up by checking my email.

I’m not saying that this 25/5 technique will work for everyone, but so far this month it’s been the thing that’s saved me. If you’re having a hell of at time this December, give it a go. Who knows, you may even ask for an egg timer this year.

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