Don’t Make Me Read Anything Longer Than 280 Characters
March 31, 2023 § 19 Comments
By Erin Hill
An open “Grades” tab on the computer balanced precariously on my lap. An open student reflection one tab over. Word Feud game with a friend on the iPad to my left. Indiana basketball on the TV in my sightline. Group chat on the phone to my right about our team’s poor shooting and lack of effort on defense.
And I wonder what my problem is.
I blame my atrophied focus and my mental fatigue on lots of reasonable things—my relentless schedule, my students’ needs, perimenopause, pizza for the third meal in a row. But a gnawing knowing: I’m contributing to the problem. My five-tasks-at-once lifestyle (see above) is counterproductive: I can’t concentrate on any paragraph that exceeds 280 characters. I can’t process anything other than memes. I’ve got no juice for paying attention, and paying attention is what this writing gig is all about.
I know I’m not alone. Twitter mutuals ask for novella recommendations and story collections that will reboot their attention spans. My writer friends arrive to Writing Club every week with a vacant look in their eye; one, another educator, consistently refers to herself as a “husk of a human.” We set lofty goals (write for an hour every morning at 5:30 AM!) and return with nothing accomplished.
Beyond lesson plans and email replies (MY.GOD.THE.EMAILS.), I hadn’t written a thing since fall break. This was serious.
As my father, an accountant and a deeply religious man, would say, “No more dicking around.” It was time for an intervention.
It was time for Attention Span Rehabilitation.
As an athlete, I know the power of a visible timer. Our high school coach used the overhead scoreboard clock during practice for each separate drill or set of sprints; there, I had learned I could accomplish nearly any task on a range of tolerable (3-on-3) to totally abhorrent (down and backs) if I just knew how long it required my focus. In my adult life, I have often used a timer to manage my own tendency toward toddler-like tantrums, negotiating with myself as a parent with a child.
“But I don’t want to grade these essays! I hate it!”
“You must. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to do. I’ll set the timer for fifteen minutes. And at the end of the fifteen minutes, you can stop if you want to.”
I rarely stopped when the timer chimed. I had started—the hardest part, of course. I had also catastrophized, but once I got down to business, the business took care of itself.
I had never considered setting a timer for things I liked to do, but I was desperate to recover my singular focus, to generate some momentum in my creative life. Reading and writing weren’t traditionally chores for me—they were usually relief!—but my ability to concentrate was shot. I needed the Big Cheese of self help. If you grew up in the 80s, you know about the Pomodoro technique, a time-management strategy for working in 30-minute segments, created by an Italian student who used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer.
Given my penchant for Pomodoro-adjacent foods, I figured it was worth trying. I started by setting a timer for 30 minutes of device-free reading each morning. No notifications, no distractions. The first couple weeks of winter break, I was ashamed of how quickly I checked the time—often as early as the ten-minute mark. I felt itchy. I couldn’t get comfortable. I had to re-read paragraphs. I flipped ahead to see how much of the chapter remained. I sighed, loudly.
But by mid-January, I had settled in. I felt calmer, more at ease. I could pick up right where I’d left off the previous day without much effort. I read without pause and without checking the clock. When the timer rang at the end of 30 minutes, I was often surprised at how quickly those minutes had passed, and if my schedule allowed, I kept reading, engrossed in the fictional world at hand. By the end of February, I had read six novels. I applied the 30-minute technique to my writing sessions as well, and by early March, I had four different drafts in progress. I returned to each with excitement. I focused on structure and pace. I enjoyed the process.
One early spring morning, I pulled the previous night’s pizza box out of the fridge for a couple of cold squares. I sat down to eat – Off a real plate! Instead of standing over the sink! —and I pondered pomodoro. An educator for 25 years and an athlete for 40, I knew about life by the bell and the buzzer. Maybe those clocks really were the key to momentum.
I popped the last piece of pizza, paused to set the timer, and began this post with nothing to distract me but the faint scent of pepperoni in the morning air.
Erin Hill is a writer, educator, and director of Champion City Write Now at Wittenberg University. Her work has appeared in Design Sponge, The Under Review, and The Sun. A resident of Yellow Springs, Ohio, she serves on the Little Art Theatre board, is a first reader for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and definitely wants recommendations for good local pizza near you. You can reach Erin on Twitter.
I love the Pomodoro technique/method/approach and you remind me with your essay that I should use it this very day for a task I know I will enjoy if I could only bring myself to start it. Thirty minutes, here I come!
Fantastic, Amanda! Let me put this slice of breakfast pizza down and I’ll join you! 🙂 Writers, start your timers…
I almost breezed by this essay thinking, yeah, yeah, yeah… attention span… what’s next… But I decided to keep reading. All the way. Down. To the End. I very much relate to the distractions and shortened attention-while-reading time. Background commentary flows while my eyes scan lines… Did this person get back to me yet? I should go check.
And as a former radio producer, I know how even thirty seconds can feel like forever. I’ll think I’ve been reading for 20 minutes and it’s only been 3! Eh gads! So yes, set the timer. (And NOT the one on my phone!) Thanks for this reminder that practice can improve.
Thanks for hanging in there with this piece, Michelle!
Yes, this is a wonderful method, and I use it at times and know I should use it more because it works like magic for me. And your essay was a fun read! You’re a good spokesperson for the Pomodoro method!
Thanks for reading! Off to pursue my endorsement deal now…
So very true. I think I needed this reminder. Nice job!
Thank you, Emmy! Happy reading/writing/timing!
My mother was fond of asking me if I knew how many hours I spent scoring essays. I really did not want know.
I often set timer for scoring essays at home—12 or 15 minutes each—in order to finish soon enough to do something else when I completed that class set. Invariably, I would catch myself going over time, working to figure out how an essay got off track, whether a source was correctly cited, what to recommend the writer revise. I would pause my watch and then give in to the inevitable hours.
But yes, one thing at a time. Always.
Thanks for reading, Jan! Printing out “One thing at a time. Always.” to hang above my desk…
Although now retired, when teaching I always allowed myself so much time for each task. When the clock said the time was up, I got up and went elsewhere to start, or finish, another task. I called it the tyranny of the clock, and when I retired I was glad to give up that tyranny. But I really haven’t, just adapted it to my retirement time, which I must warn you, goes faster than all those working hours ever did.
Thanks for reading — and thanks for the warning! Now to figure out how to stop time…
I swear by my timers to get my writing done, as well as things I don’t want to do, like wash the dishes. I have plenty of time, but without boundaries, it just drifts away. Thank you for a great post.
The boundaries are key! Thanks for reading, Sue.
I needed this! Thank you.
I’m glad this resonated, Judy. Thanks for reading!
I heard about research indicating that very few Americans read more than one book a year (Aussies too, I’m sure.) Maybe we writers are doing all the reading for them. And there are a lot of books! It can be tiring.
Thanks for your engagement, Margaret! Lots of books, indeed. According to one source, over 700 million were sold in the US last year. I remain optimistic that people are reading them and not just using them as plant stands or coasters 🙂