Overcoming Perfectionism Using the Pomodoro Technique
By Shazia Hafiz Ramji
I am a perfectionist— I have a problem. I take pride in being a perfectionist— I have an even bigger problem. Last winter, I realized that part of the reason why I had stopped working on one of the storylines of my novel was because of perfectionism. The historical storyline draws on my family history, so the sense of responsibility I feel as a writer is much more intense than when I am writing the contemporary storyline. The need to capture the emotional truth in the historical storyline was overpowering. I told myself that first and foremost, I had a duty to this kind of truth. I began to feel inadequate again. I wondered if I had done enough research. Sometimes I would go so far into doubt, I would sit in my bed for hours, losing sleep, not doing anything. At times, I was so far in my head I physically couldn’t move. I stopped writing the historical storyline. Then I began waking up every day with the novel voicing itself in my head. I felt as if I hadn’t slept all night. Although it was initially exciting to be feverish with the novel, it made me acutely aware of something: I could get sick again if I don’t write this story; I could get another depressive episode. I understood then that not writing this story could hurt me.
What reawakened my perfectionism? It was one small question from a family member, which I couldn’t answer. But it made me question whether I would be loved by my family after I finished writing this book. As a recovering addict, I feel very lucky to have the love of my family. But I also know that this is a fairly new reassurance that I haven’t always felt. That small question brought on fear. And shame. Inadequacy. Guilt. The bane of being the first-born child who is a poet of all things— writing a novel on top of everything else— born into a family of poor immigrants to make matters worse. So, perfectionism.
But the urgency of the story was inescapable, so I had to find a way to write again, a method that would quell my OCD while also allowing me to get into flow again. I tried freewriting. I tried mapping, I tried playing with my Lego, I tried Tarot. I still felt fear, which arose in my body as an inescapable, endless loop of my characters’ voices in my head. Then I remembered a business student from my writing class raving about the Pomodoro Technique. I’d heard of it before, but I tried it for the first time after I felt like I had tried everything else.
The Pomodoro Technique is a time management strategy invented by Francesco Cirillo in the eighties. (Pomodoro is “tomato” in Italian.) Cirillo used a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato to break his work sessions into intervals of 25 minutes each, punctuated by 5-minute breaks between, and then a longer break of about 15-20 minutes after every four sessions.
The Pomodoro Technique sounded great, but my perfectionism would not allow me to last 25 minutes per session, followed by a mere 5-minute break. I began with tweaking the technique to my schedule by writing in bursts of 15 minutes. I set alarms on my iPhone to go off every hour and when they did, I set my stopwatch feature on a 15-minute countdown, and then I would begin to write.
And I did it. I entered the world of my historical storyline once again because of these 15-minute bursts. Despite the critical voice in my head, the technique quelled my perfectionism— it worked. For 15 minutes every hour on the hour, for about 3-4 hours in a row, I dove in and swam back out of my list of scenes. Typos abounded. A military scene suddenly became the funniest scene I’ve written so far. But I got that symphonic feeling again— that wave of the story moving with me. I no longer felt that I was inadequate, that I would never be able to understand and write the emotional truth of my characters, that I was disrespecting my family histories. Instead of despairing about my failure of language at every turn, I began to see the possibilities in it.
Writing in intense bursts using the Pomodoro Technique creates possibility. In possibility, writing becomes imperfect: characters slip out of their given roles and become contradictory, settings suddenly turn malicious, and the narrator starts to laugh. Imperfection brings emotional truth to the work. Imperfectionism is true to life.
Writing in 15-minute bursts using the Pomodoro Technique pushed me to exceed myself and my standards by embracing imperfection. By creating a constraint that felt manageable to me (15 minutes every hour for 3-4 hours in a row), I lowered the stakes of time spent, which encouraged me to make mistakes, to relearn how to dance in imperfection— the quality that I love most in all my characters— the flaws that make us fall in love with each other.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 Vancouver Book Award, 2019 BC Book Prizes, 2019 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her poetry has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2019, THIS magazine, and is forthcoming in Gutter Magazine (UK) and Maisonneuve. Her poetry and prose have been nominated for the 2020 Pushcart Prizes by Poetry Northwest and carte blanche, respectively. She is a columnist for Open Book and is at work on an autofictional novel.