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.

Why I get up early

September 26, 2022 § 13 Comments

By Becky Jo Gesteland

I ponder this question and peruse my blog to see if I have an answer. I find several relevant posts.

November, 2019 Time to myself.

I’ve been writing about my lack of time since July. Not sure why I felt I had so little time then, because I have even less now. Shifting priorities? New medication to combat depression? 

Women writers have always struggled to find time to themselves to write. Right now, I’m writing at 6:23 a.m. when I really wish I was still sleeping. The time change helped me wake up early. That and the cat. So, for the next week or two I’ll take advantage of my messed up sleeping schedule to arise early and write a few words.

But then what? When my body and cat adjust to the new schedule, when NaNoWriMo is over, will I continue? Surely part of the struggle is priorities. Because unlike some women, I have a supportive family who would help protect my writing time if I simply asked. I think part of the dilemma for women is this ingrained sense of “needed-ness.” That is, we need to feel needed. As mothers, wives, bosses, daughters, aunts, colleagues…our relationships with others dominate our lives. So, we drop whatever we’re doing to help someone else. I interrupt my grading to feed the cat; I shorten my writing time to check email; I pause my Netflix show to listen to my daughter; I stop reading to talk to my husband; I walk back from yoga with a colleague rather than enjoying the post-practice peace. Choices sure. Priorities yes. But also, a culturally ingrained sense of needing to be there for others. At someone’s beck and call.

September, 2020 Reflection 

What? After feeding the cats, before anyone else wakes up, I sit at the kitchen counter as daylight begins and the room becomes brighter.

So what? Observing my movements. Noticing my environment. Describing the scene. To what end? So that whoever someday reads this may know my state of mind? Why would they care? I live in a house with two people and two cats. It’s turned fall–September 22–and tomorrow I turn 58. The world still roils with COVID-19. Angry politicos battle for power. I’m tired, sad, listless.

Now what? I’m borrowing words from my syllabus, the questions that guide students to reflect on their community-engaged learning experiences. What? So what? Now what? At least those are the ones I recall. But I can’t answer “now what?” because I’m trapped in this space and time of pandemic. Still living one day at a time.

I can feed the hummingbirds, until they leave for the year. I can water the flowers, while they continue to bloom. I can wash dishes, fold laundry, mend shirts, knit shawls, read books, practice yoga, drink coffee, eat yogurt, type letters on a keyboard and watch them become text on a page and posts on a blog and artifacts of a moment in a day from a life of a woman passing time.

March, 2021 Lack of sleep. 

The precious commodity eludes me today, of all days, the first weekday after the switch to daylight savings time. Wide awake at 5:45, which was actually 4:45 two days ago. No, the cats did not wake me. Perhaps I slept too long on Saturday. Maybe I have too many puzzles racing around in my brain. I did four yesterday: the Spelling Bee, the mini crossword, the Sunday, and a jigsaw puzzle. Or it could be my body’s adjustment to the missed SSRI dose on Friday night. Still finding a balance.

Today I receive my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, and I’m a bit anxious–especially after my “mild prolonged response” to the first one. It will be a relief to be protected. By March 22nd. Just a little over a year since we shifted to remote work. The year that time stood still.

August, 2021 Observation. 

To watch the mother and baby deer graze in our front yard, to listen to the silence of the house, to read book reviews and craft advice in Brevity, to lie on the couch with the cat and try not to fall asleep, to solve spelling bee or crossword puzzles, to read and perhaps write, to keep the world at bay for a few hours…before the sun comes all the way over the horizon, before the air conditioner kicks on, before my work emails start to ping, before my family wakes up, before the news of the world rushes in.


Becky Jo Gesteland lives in Ogden, Utah, where she is a professor of English at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in Gravel, Palaver, Role Reboot, Plateau Journal, So to Speak, Visitant, Weber: The Contemporary West, and various scholarly books and journals. She blogs at

Reclaiming Your Time

December 12, 2017 § 21 Comments

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my loved ones gave to me:

I swear there was an outlet back here last year.

Twelve children quarreling
Eleven guests arriving
Ten addiction triggers
Nine Secret Santas
Eight dinners cooling
Seven picky eaters
Six spouses slacking
Five traaaaaa-ffic jaaaaaaams!
Four messy rooms
Three loud screens
Two touchy in-laws
And an obligation Christmas party.

I am somewhat notoriously not a holiday person. I love my family, I’m grateful there aren’t that many of them, and I live in a country where December is a festive shopping season. I’ve managed to be outside the United States for the past ten Christmases, and this one I’ll be in Taiwan.

Not everyone is that lucky. My writer buddy shows up distraught–she’s flying back to Ohio, and the in-laws who aren’t speaking to anyone else are refusing to attend the family gathering and insisting my buddy’s family come see them in Nebraska. “How come we’re your lowest priority?!”

My acquaintance is in the middle of a divorce-based argument affecting how many and what kind of presents the children can have. “You’re not spending my money on that!”

An artistic director I admire is fighting her board of directors over employee schedules while mounting a 50-child production of A Christmas Carol. Tiny Tim has managed to lose three pairs of crutches in three weeks. “They’re just going to have to do overtime.”

I suspect, Gentle Reader, you have similar items on your holiday list. In-laws. Neighbors you’d decided not to gift who show up with gifts. Debating how much to tip the super who was gone the week the boiler failed. Family from the other end of the political/moral spectrum. Tight budgets. Writer-friends who didn’t get Cat Person.

But your holiday experience is up to you. You don’t “have to” do anything. You may not like the consequences of not doing it, but it’s still a choice.

So give yourself the gift of time. Say no to more things than usual. Make a list right now of the things you expect/are expected to do this season, and choose your favorites. Ask your family what traditions they actually value and what’s rote. Don’t wait to be asked to the cookie party that takes five hours of prep and results in a carload of baked goods–go ahead and block that time out for something you want to do.

All that passive voice you’ve carefully rooted out of your writing? Employ it now.

What a shame our schedule filled up so much–let’s do something in January.

Our budget is gone–it just devastates me we won’t be able to make it.

Goodness, it sounds like that situation really bothers you–I hope it gets sorted out.

Let people be responsible for their own feelings. There’s a special holiday magic in “I agree, it’s just awful how things turned out. Oh gosh, the oven! I love you, goodbye!”

If you are an inveterate truth-teller, go preheat your oven to 350° and keep it going until December 26th. That way it’s ready when a phone call needs interrupting. (Brevity does not advise leaving your oven unattended. Please use all home appliances in accordance with manufacturer’s directions.)

Are you a fixer? Decide in advance where to spend your energy instead of having “problem-solver” thrust upon you. Pick one event or relationship you care about having in good working order–the dinner, the mother-in-law, the kids’ presents–and let everything else be someone else’s problem. It’s not even your job to assign who takes it on. It’s OK to say, “That’s not something I love doing. If you’d like to plan it, let me know when and where to show up and I’ll see you then.”

Refuse to engage with drama. Carry your notebook. When snippy Aunt Betty has something nasty to say, whip out your pen and ask her to repeat that, please, it’s perfect for a character in your book. Ask her to slow down when needed. Wait, do you want a hyphen in “streetwalker” or is it all one word? Is there a better adjective for Cousin Sally’s dress? What about “sleazy”–how do you feel about “sleazy”? I think that would tighten up the sentence. Avidly transcribe until she shuts up.

Finally, plan your escape. Even if you’re “on vacation,” it’s OK to go to the coffee shop for an hour and visit with your work. At home, leave a good book stashed under the bathroom sink, in the garage or basement or on the back porch. When a fight breaks out at the table, mutter “Oh dear, something must have disagreed with me.” That’ll give you about 25 minutes before anyone comes looking.

And if all else fails? Hit me up. I know a great noodle shop in Taipei.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!

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