Success in 90-Minute Increments

HourglassA few months ago, I blogged about interval training for writers. I referred to the growing body of research on human performance suggesting we’re most productive when we move between periods of high focus and rest, rather than attempting to maintain high focus for long periods of time. I’d been strongly influenced by Tony Schwartz’s book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working (which is still a favorite). I wrote that:

  • 90 minutes is the optimum high-focus work time; and
  • a maximum of three 90-minute focused periods a day provides for the most productivity.*

Lately I’ve been experimenting with this, using a timer on my desk to create 90-minute intervals for highly focused work, usually writing. The first few times I did this, I was amazed at how I finished the interval feeling energized, not wanting to stop what I was doing, and extremely excited to pick up the work again at my next interval. This happened without fail, every time I used the interval strategy.

But yesterday I was impatient to get more accomplished and so I scrapped my 90-minute interval plan. I worked pretty much straight through the day, with only brief breaks for snacks and letting my family know I was alive.

And I regretted it. By late afternoon, I was completely burnt out. I was no longer excited about the project; in fact, I was convinced it was a horrible piece of dreck. I felt no enthusiasm whatsoever for the next time I might be able to work on it. I never wanted to look at it again.

The difference between how I felt after a day of carefully planning my work intervals, and a day working straight through, was so startling that I felt it was worth blogging about again. What I’ve found is that my creativity (the “muse”) tires easily, and responds favorably to enforced time limits. Whatever I’m doing that requires focus, I will do it better if I pay attention to the simple concept of 90-minute intervals.

Have you tried the intervals yet? Does this method work for you? 

*Click here to read about Tony Schwartz’s “90 Minute Solution.”

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  • http://deadcember.com MK Becker

    I use it as well. There’s a book called The Off Switch that suggests a related approach – get focused on tasks that have a minimum of 20-30 minutes each and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted – by email, texts, or your own desire to wander into the weeds. That said, I find that at times I can get into flow and not notice that three or four hours have passed… but when they do, I need to take a serious break.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

      “Wandering into the weeds” describes my ADD well. Of course, some of my weed wanderings is where I’m the most creative, so I need to remember my high waders for the snakes.

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com/ Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    I tried it, and I can see where it might be helpful, but it’s not for me.

    I simply can’t predict when I can work effectively any more, and that constraint requires me to do what I can, when I can.

    One thing that I’ve found interesting is that I can no longer afford to lose time through burnout. I’ve GOT to use my heart and my head to carry me through incipient “creative fatigue”. For what it’s worth, the way I do it is to treat myself with scant sympathy, and mentally flog the effort out of my soul.

    It works, kind of, and so far.

    • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      Scant sympathy?
      Maybe a bit? Just a little?
      You aren’t a machine you know.
      :)

      • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

        Not a machine, but a person who’d gladly use Satan’s whispered words to treat myself with sentimentality.

        If the stories are worth telling, and the work worth doing – and I believe they are – they have to transcend whatever I might be ‘feeling’.

        Not a machine, and, yes, scant sympathy, because I can go a lot further than I think I can. And that is the only way to get the job done, when you’re running out of other options.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

      “Mentally flog the effort” <- How do you do that? Is it a meditative action or process? What helps you to focus?

      • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

        It’s a meditative process, with some help from C.S. Lewis. To prove the existence of a moral law, Lewis used the model of duality in personality…the inclination to courage vs. the inclination to cowardaice, for example. He then postulated the existence of another ‘level’ above and behind those, making the direct choice – and sometimes the choice that would be non-instinctive.

        Similar thing here – I visualize the choice between work, versus the appeal of morphine and a heating pad. I force myself to turn away from the latter with uncomplimentary admonishments about my character, and such aphorisms as “you can rest when you’re dead”.

        If does work, up to a point, but there’s a line beyond which it can’t be maintained. What I’ve seen is that the “no longer effective” line is a lot further off than I think…there’s the scope for getting work done when my body seems to be saying, “stop”.

    • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

      Yes, I have to work hard and steady for as long as possible. However, with regard to burnout; I can see how the 90 minute proposed stretches and breaks are meant to address that.

      • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

        I’d agree with that, under normal circumstances. 90 minutes is about right (except for the college age males I once supervised…for them it was maybe 5 minutes…unless a pretty girl walked by…)

        I guess what I';m trying to say is that when the normal is put out of reach, I would like to think we’re given the tools to reach beyond the limits we assumed, in the time and space we have.

  • http://www.jmbray.com J.M. Bray

    I read an article about 3M recently (which I can’t find now. :-/) It reported that they hold over 20,000 patents and encourage this type of cyclical work pattern.

    For me the creative process takes “mulling”. The length of time I work on something varies, and I don’t track it, but usually doesn’t go over a few of hours. Then I switch my mind to something else for a short while. I find that often the great ideas come to the surface during this mulling. I refine and focus them during the work sprint.

    As a test, I tried doing it on a 90 minute, timed system. I found that I spent too much time wondering about how much time remained!

  • http://www.gabrielle-meyer.blogspot.com Gabrielle Meyer

    One of my beta readers did something similar when she read my manuscript. She said she read a chapter, did a chore, read another chapter, and then did another chore. She is a stay at home mom and she often feels guilty if she’s reading and not “working,” so she enjoyed my book so much more this way, because she was still getting “work” done, while reading my book (FYI, the last eight chapters she said she couldn’t put down until she was finished reading). :)

    Because I’m a stay at home mom, pursuing a career that doesn’t pay unless I finish writing, I often feel this same guilt and so I’ve tried her trick – and I’ve found I get a lot more done when I write a scene, do a chore and then go back for another scene. This way, I’m breaking up my day, getting both jobs done and feeling energized to accomplish a lot more than I would if I tried to do all the housework, or all the writing, at once.

    • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      And, while you’re working, you have time to think, right? Then when you sit back down, you’ve got the ideas all ready to go.

    • Jeanne

      I love this idea, Gabrielle. I have tried it–when I revise a chapter, I take a break and do a job on my “to-do” list. I’m glad you found it productive. :) Maybe I’d get more housework done if I was consistent with this idea. ;)

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

      This is how I work it with my job, Gabrielle. I find I get more done in both pastoring and writing if I do some in one then switch to the other. A different part of my brain is used, so when I come back, my mind is rested and ready to go.

  • http://www.womenabiding.com Tehila

    I have recently subscribed to your blog (it’s fantastic!), so this is the first time I am hearing about the 90 minute work periods.

    I am really excited to try it, because I’m a homeschooling mom of 4 little ones, and just haven’t been able to write during the day with 5 or 10 minutes here and there to do it.

    However, knowing that all I need at a time is 90 minutes, I can set things up to accomplish that, if I time it right with baby naps, and reading time etc. for the older children.

    Plus with one more 90 minute sprint in the evening, I believe I could be far more productive in my writing than I have been.

    Thank you so much for this great idea!

  • Yogi

    I’ve recently finished my the first draft of my debut novel. When I started writing there was no routine to it. But after about 6 months, I fell in to a routine of doing a 2 hour stretch of writing a day, every day. (I have a full time job so it was the only time I could afford).

    The last year of using that method has been such a revelation. Like you, I felt energised and excited about the next ‘session’.

    Can’t wait to start the second draft/edit stage. Just wish I knew how to approach it O_o

  • Jackie Ley

    This approach sounds really interesting. A couple of questions. What if you’re really into a scene of a novel when the 90 minutes are up and you don’t want to break the flow? Also, how long a break should you ideally take? My most productive writing time is between 11am & 5pm with a half hour break in that time for a late lunch. Before 11 I get essential household chores done (don’t check under the beds!) and after 5 I fit in exercise classes and feeding my longsuffering husband. If I took long breaks during my 6 hour optimum work time, I’d feel like I was missing out.

    I probably should read Tony Schwartz’s book to get the answers but thought I’d flag these queries up.

  • http://doubtingwriter.blogspot.com/ jeffo

    I think I may follow this sort of pattern naturally, without setting timers, as I tend to find myself getting up at regular intervals for short breaks, which I’ll do three or four times throughout the full day.

    • http://makingbabygrand.com Dina Santorelli

      Ha! I just realized I wrote pretty much the same thing below you. :)

  • http://makingbabygrand.com Dina Santorelli

    I actually think I write (work) that way naturally — periods of high focus followed by periods of rest. I’m not sure it’s exactly 90 minutes for each, but that sounds about right too. Apparently, I’m onto something. :)

  • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

    No set intervals for me. I’m in a situation where my schedule can change with a phone call. Nope, not a superhero, but if someone forgets something or needs something, I hop in the Batvan and off I go.
    Or there is a deadline approaching that involves my focus.
    Or.Or.Or…
    People think that stay at home moms live the life of Riley and do nothing all day.
    I HAVE TO write when I can, not when I want to. But I do manage to harness the muse when needed. Too bad she doesn’t sort socks, THAT would be awesome!

    • Jeanne

      Which is why I get up at 4:00 most mornings to write. :) Happy writing today, Supermom!

      • http://talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

        You too, Wonderwoman!

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

        I didn’t know 4 o’clock came twice a day. Interesting…

        • Jeanne

          You had me guffawing out loud, Jim!

        • http://talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

          Actually, Jim, it comes 24 times a day, it just depends where you are.

        • http://talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

          ANdrew, back me up on this. Make up some equation nobody understand and I’ll up the chcoclate rations!

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

      Perhaps the breaks you need create the time slots for you? I can rarely write more than 90 minutes before something demands my attention–even if it’s a squirrel.

  • http://www.athoughtgrows.blogspot.com Julie Luek

    Great idea–I’ll have to give this a try. I can see where the interval segments would keep the energy up. Thanks for sharing– good to read the responses too.

  • http://www.susancraigromance.com susan craig

    Rachelle, This sounds like a great idea. Thanks for bringing it up!
    Can’t wait to try it!!

  • http://MindfulBanter.com Roxanne R.

    I’ve done this in the past for my non-fiction writing and it works well. During NaNoWriMo I’ve been writing in 45 minute stretches. I have a hard time being productive in the shorter, 20 or 30-minute stretches. I’m going to try the longer, 90-minute session for fiction this morning and see how it goes.

  • Michael

    I’m a woring lawyer and am expected to produce 8-9 hours of billable work every day. This system sounds interesting, but I won’t keep my job if I work only 4.5 hours per day. Any suggestions?

  • http://www.sueharrison.com Sue Harrison

    I’ve always used an interval writing schedule, not because I’m so bright, but because that’s what I could fit into my daily schedule. It does work for me!

    I found early on in my writing career that the most detrimental thing I can do to my brain and body is to write until I’m exhausted. There must be a multitude of glorious half-finished books out there that were waylaid by burnout!

  • http://www.kathleenbasi.com/blog Kathleen Basi

    I’m lucky to *get* a 90-minute interval, but I believe it works. I’m another work-at-home mom, and I have to get the moments when I have them. 90 minutes is about as long as I’ll ever get, and that’s on a good day. But when I have that long, you’re right, it seems like a natural breaking point happens at the end of that time; the brain says, “Enough!”

  • http://thoughtsthatmove.blogspot.com/ Wendy Paine Miller

    This style of work fits the intensity I like to write with. Bursts. That’s usually how I get it done. Some more intense than others.
    ~ Wendy

  • http://www.meghancarver.blogspot.com Meghan Carver

    Here’s something interesting I learned while nursing a newborn — the average person takes a drink every 90 minutes. At some point, we HAVE to remove our hands from the keyboard.

    I’ll second the other SAHM’s that 90 minutes is a blessing! I have noticed, though, that when I get more than 90 minutes I start to feel really fatigued past that 90 minute mark.

  • http://www.kerriansnotebook.com Patti Phillips

    I happened upon this approach last year quite by accident. Non-writing responsibilities carved up my day, so I was left with two or three 60-90 minute chunks. I began to assign certain goals to achieve during those times. I have to admit that the result was greater productivity and more focused writing. Good to know that the work/productivity model wasn’t a fluke.

  • Jeanne

    I usually get up uber early to write for about an hour before I get into my day. I need to establish the discipline of not only using a timer for my writing, but for things that can eat up a lot of my time, like social media.

    I am going to start using a timer for my writing for those days when I am home and can write.

    I liked hearing about how using a timer made a difference in your producitivity and excitement levels with your own writing.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

      I like that you’re willing to try something new to improve your creative time, Jeanne. The teachable try while the stubborn cry “why?”

      • Jeanne

        Thanks,Jim. We’re all learners, if we’re teachable, aren’t we?

  • http://mark-capell.com Mark Capell

    Oh how I smiled when I read this. It’s very true. I find that I write better early in the morning. And recently I’ve been trying to push my start time earlier and earlier. But like you, I found that I was finishing sooner.

    So I’ve also been splitting my day into sessions. The trouble I find is that each session is less productive than the last. I think I need the dawn chorus to be sung from 7 a.m. till 6 p.m.

    Yes, I’ve started blaming birdlife.

  • Karen Bain

    Excellent advice. I work in 50 minute increments – sciatica. LOL During my 10 minute break times I refuel, relax, stretch, or walk to the lake or golf course. Upon returning to my work, I’m refreshed and my fingers fly over the keyboard, or I approach related tasks with energy. Solutions to problems frequently pop up during my breaks as well.

  • http://leethompsonfiction.com Lee Thompson

    This has definitely worked well for me. I started it with music and boxing and once I began writing it kind of carried over. I like the results of those short, intense bursts way better. Plus I get a lot of reading time and brainstorming in between intervals.

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com P. J. Casselman

    I took your advice and tried the 90 minute increments. It does help. Those “writer’s block” moments are way fewer and my desire to chuck my laptop is nearly gone.

  • http://myquirkycity.wordpress.com Heather

    While my work day doesn’t work that way (you can’t always tell a client you’re not answering the phone for 90 minutes) I think I’ll try this for my creative writing at night. Only 90 minutes, then I can decompress for the evening, let my mind go so I get more rest at night.

  • http://www.sallybradley.com Sally Bradley

    Rachelle, the first time you blogged about this, I noticed that I was naturally looking for a break right at ninety minutes. So for me, this works.

    I’d also heard we should take a ten minute break after every fifty minutes of working. I tried that, and it frustrated the daylights out of me. I’d feel like I was at my most productive, stop, and then have to get back into it. I felt like I got less done.

    But ninety minutes totally works. I’m keeping this one. Thanks for sharing it. :)

  • http://einefeistyberg.wordpress.com Cherry Odelberg

    If I were to create a perfect writing environment, it would not be adamantly structured in 90 minute sessions, but would include breaks as necessary. It would go something like this:
    Rise just before dawn and write until I hit a snag. Leave the manuscript up on the screen and go shower and dress (sometimes running wet from the shower to type in an inspired phrase or two). Return to the computer until the writing process once more becomes a grind. Go for a 60 minute walk and return with an additional chapter to feverishly type out. Head to the piano and play until inspiration hits again. Complete the thought, sit back satisfied and complain, “Good grief, what’s for dinner?”

    This does not happen often. Usually my energy is spent in bottling the thoughts so I can make it to my “real” jobs on time. Real jobs are places where the management steadfastly doles out breaks and lunches punctually on their set schedule – unless there is a crisis involving all hands on deck for the 8 hour duration.

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  • http://danielfcase.com Daniel F. Case

    Rachelle, the focus-burnout-hate-this-dreck cycle you describe is, in my experience, a typical day in the life of a hyperfocused writer.

    Hyperfocus is one of the mixed blessings of ADD brain chemistry. Those of us who are so gifted (I refuse to consider ADD a “disorder”) crave focus so much that when we achieve it we don’t want to let it go. We love our focus so much that it borders on obsession, and at times we can be less-than-pleasant toward those people, things or situations that attempt to pull us out of focusland.

    The 90-minute focus cycle works for us because we are promised a soon return to the land of focus. That promise allows us to let go of that focus for a while–sort of. In reality our minds only let go of a portion of the focus, enough to convince our consciousness we’ve taken a break. While on that “break,” our creative selves keep working in the background, so when we return to the task our idea pumps are primed and ready to go. Think about it–how many times have you found yourself at a writing impasse with no idea how to get where you need to go, walked away for a while and found the answer waiting when you returned?

    In other words, we never *really* break that focus. We just manage it better. We have our writing time and then move on to the other things we need to do, but our brains keep right on crafting in the background, trying story twists or finding that perfect word, filling the reservoir so that when we enter writingland again it just flows from our fingers.

    I like to think of is as “functional hyperfocus.” :)

    D.

  • http://www.jessicanelson.net Jessica Nelson

    This is fascinating. Hadn’t heard of it but am not surprised at all. I’m a huge proponent of recess for elementary school kids and now you’ve given me another tool for my pro-recess toolbox. lol
    Thanks!

  • http://jenniferzeiger.com Jennifer M Zeiger

    I’ve heard this idea before with varying time frames. I definitely need to try it because trying to work the whole day straight just depresses me. I never live up to my expectations of productivity.

    thanks for sharing your own success with this=)

  • http://choosetotrust.com theperkster

    Great advice. You would not train for a marathon by getting off the couch and running 20 miles the first day. Every time I focus and remind myself of this technique, I am left feeling positive and wanted to sit back down and do more. Such great advice. Thanks for the reminder.

  • http://www.thewritersfriend.net Donna Goodrich

    I type and proofread manuscripts for a publisher. When I type, I set my timer for 1 hour (bad back), then take a 10-minute break (do filing, clean off desk, etc.)When I’m proofreading, I take a break at the end of a long chapter. However, when I’m writing my own manuscripts, I just keep going, unaware of time.

  • http://www.berniceseward.com Bernice Seward

    I’m excited to try this method! I have just over three hours each morning while my youngest is in Kindergarten, so I will probably carve out shorter time chunks and throw a little social media time into the mix as well.

    I also have ADHD, so the intense focus time interspersed with the breaks are probably exactly what I need :-)

  • Ursula Jordaan

    I haven’t tried it yet, but it really makes sense considering how distracted I become.

  • http://www.winebird.co.uk Helena

    This might just be the solution I need. With a 1-year old not yet at nursery, I have just two hours at lunchtime. It’s hard not to feel panicked as it’s such a short amount of time, but with this in mind, it might work! Reframing, I guess.

    Thank you. I’m finding all your blogs really useful.

  • http://www.janesdaly.com Jane Daly

    I’ve found if I set my timer for 20 minutes of intense work on my manuscript, I’m less apt to check email, check Facebook, etc. At the end of 20 minutes, many times I’m not ready to quit, so I keep going. Once I stop, I reward myself with a fresh cup of tea, a stretch, walk around, check FB, etc. This technique is invaluable.

  • Jerry Eckert

    So, how long is the interval between 90 minutes supposed to be? Sounds like a good idea otherwise. I find that normally occurring brain freeze happens with about this frequency.

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  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    Sometimes I need to be told twice before I listen; thank you for repeating yourself. I’m going to be more intentional about pursuing this, because I realize it’s correct.

    I write each morning before my “day job.” When I write for an hour, I find I’m often stopping when I’m on a roll — and I begin work thinking about my writing. When I push myself to write for two or three hours, I start work with low energy and motivation, plus the last bit of what I wrote isn’t my best stuff.

    (I wonder if there’s any connection between this and 90 minute sleep cycles?)

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  • http://www.cathydavidphoto.com/blog Cathy

    Great advice. My husband and I both work from home, so we are going to try this tomorrow. We have used a timer in the past, but it has mainly been a finish line for a goal (ex. I will edit 100 photos in 85 minutes). It has definitely pushed us to work harder, but we often set our goals too high and fail. I think looking at it your way will be a much more positive experience. Thanks!

  • http://chariseolson.com/ Charise

    This is the post I needed today! I’m so doing this! Sorry for the exclamation points but I like new systems and this one is a fit for where I am at in my WIP now. I completely agree with the theory and it is similar to teaching theory that you don’t want your students to use one skill too long or they will resist it in the future… So I think it’s going to work. Plus, my toddler’s naptime is usually at least 90 minutes so I’ve got a built in timer. :)

  • http://writingisablessing.blogspot.com June

    I haven’t tried this but I will. Sounds like what I need to get me over the hump and remained focused. Thanks.

  • http://merceyvalley.blogspot.com/ Mercey Valley

    Decent breaks keep thoughts flowing afresh. If I’m writing something and there’s a flow, and I’m aware of impending interruption (such as the need to cook dinner or pick the little Valleys up from school), the itch to keep going is overwhelming BUT the forced break makes the writing flourish when I get back. The ideas have blossomed and I’ve thought of angles I might have missed. Break = objectivity.

  • Roxanne Sherwood Gray

    Thanks for this tip. I’m under the weather with whatever bug is going around. But I should be back at my desk in another day or two. Can’t wait to try this!

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  • http://www.mfawriterguy.com MFA Writer Guy

    I haven’t tried work intervals yet. For me, it’s a bit different. I do my daily minimum word count no matter what How long I keep working for depends on how the work is going. Once I pass my minimum word count, I keep going until it becomes hard. Then I stop. Key here is that I never stop, hard or not, before I hit my daily word count goal. This has worked for me for a long time.

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  • http://www.mandilynn.com/ Mandi Lynn

    I write in increments unconsciously. I set aside at least an hour to work and usually by an hour and a half I’ve run out of inspiration for the day. It tends to aggravate me (especially when I tried to participate in NaNoWriMo last year) but the work that comes in the hour and a half is better then what it would be if I continued.

  • http://adventuresinhypergraphia.blogspot.com Kelly

    I’m trying this and it seems to work well! Thanks for the tip!

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  • http://djkirkby.co.uk D.J.Kirkby

    I began using this method last month and have found that it works particularly well when I am writing children’s fiction in my current series. I will continue using this method when I start a new project next month – also children’s fiction but something different to what I have written before. It will be interesting to see how well it works with this unfamiliar project.

  • http://www.marietayloronline.com Marie Taylor

    This strategy works to help fast thinkers focus their attention and for those with. slow thinking preference to stop mind wandering and inaction. If your preference is for slow thinking, I might suggest that you try breaking it down even more into 30 minute segments. I love it. To find out more about purposeful thinking and thinking strategies, check out my blog under better thinking. Thanks for the reminder about this strategy Rachelle.

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  • Cormac

    How disappointing a column.

    Like all the others I’ve seen on this topic it is full of news about the 90 minute attention cycle but doesn’t offer any useful advice about the length of the breaks. Which makes the 90 minutes info a lot less useful for productivity planning!

    It feels like it is just a tease for buying a self-help book.

  • http://inkspotplot.blogspot.com Jess Stork

    I like this idea. Although most of the time, I’m just writing for an hour or so before the workday (and my day job,) I’m going to try this on the weekend and see how it goes. Thanks!

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  • Anonymous

    This totally works! Thank you for this post. I’ve been searching high and low for tips on writing faster, and so far, this one has had the biggest impact on my word count. Before, I’d do word sprints of 30 minutes or so, getting only 500 words per half hour. If I did an hour straight, I’d get around 1200 per hour. I was afraid to do more than that straight, and working non-stop not only made me tired, but made me not want to start writing at all. The first time I tried your idea of a 90 minute sprint, I did almost 2500 words! I took a break, and went again, and did over 2500! So far, if I’ve plotted out all my scenes and I stay focused (don’t stop for typos or to look up a fact), I usually average 2500 words per 90 minutes. I’m trying now to work up to four sprints a day, for a total of 10k per day! I have a book way overdue, so I think this will help a lot.

    I’ve only been doing it for a few days, and it has been the best change I’ve made so far!

  • Kelsey Jones

    I just started doing this and it has CHANGED my life and the way I work completely. I get so much more done earlier in the day! I’m loving it.

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