Of Pomodoros and Pastimes: Why I Have Started Writing at the Racetrack

Belmont Race Track[This is a guest post by Dan Quigley, an Associate Professor of English at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury, New York where he has been teaching writing, literature, speech and theater for the past 23 years. He is also currently serving as the Associate Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. Follow him on Twitter at @danquigs.--@jbj]

Have you heard the joke about the amateur golfer challenging the club pro, asking only two “gotchas” during the round? On the first tee, as the pro was in the middle of his backswing, the amateur snuck up behind him, grabbed him in the ribs, and screamed “gotcha,” causing the pro to whiff on his swing. While the amateur never used his last “gotcha,” he easily beat the pro. Asked how this could have happened, the pro explained “I kept waiting for the next ‘gotcha.’”

After reading about the “Pomodoro” time management method in ProfHacker [see posts by Cory offering an introduction and a student's point of view, and by George] a while back, I decided to see if it would help me and I gave it a try with my writing tasks during the summer…grading papers, writing, answering email. I readily admit my need for such a regimen since I do have a habit of getting distracted and turning from the task at hand to something else far too easily. The basic principle behind the Pomodoro method initially appealed to me. I would work in 25 minute, structured segments and then allow myself a 5 minute mental respite and do something diverting before returning for my next 25 minutes of focused work.

I was initially disappointed with the results. I found that using the online timers and other methods of tracking my 25 minute work sessions left me feeling much like the club pro. The first time the alarm went off, I was startled enough to drop my wireless mouse. From then on, I started checking back to the timer, after about 10 minutes of work, anticipating the ring and the accompanying startle. The concept was appealing, but I became more focused on the coming “gotcha” of the alarm than on my writing.

What I really needed was a pastime whose rhythm and timing provided a sort of natural “Pomodoro”…something that would allow me to write in approximately 25 minute spurts, but also gave me a diverting respite from this work. I found just such a pastime after visiting Belmont race track for the first time last father’s day.

I teach at a college on Long Island and had always been interested in visiting Belmont Park, the home of the third leg of the Triple Crown. Last father’s day, with both my daughters older and away from home, my wife decided we should stop by and see what this was all about. From the moment I walked into the clubhouse side of the track, I was hooked. I was struck by how inexpensive entrance to the races is. It is merely $3 general admission, $5 to go in the “nicer” club house section, and general parking is free. And unlike other gambling establishments, there is no pressure to wager, although I will admit that the races are far more enjoyable if you have at lest a small rooting interest in a horse. Patrons also have incredible access to the horses before each race, have the pageantry and rituals surrounding a day of races, and, of course, the natural excitement of the races themselves.

But this blog post isn’t about horse racing per se. It is about finding a pastime with rhythms and timing that match up well with those of the Pomodoro method and using the past time as a less intrusive means of structuring work time. Let me explain.

A typical race day has between 9 and 11 races on the program, with post time for the first race at about 1 pm and races spread out approximately 25 minutes apart. Those familiar with the Pomodoro method will already see the parallels: There are brief five minute chunks of very diverting activity that takes the mind off writing or grading, followed by about 25 minutes of relative distraction-free time during which one can turn back to the tasks at hand.

Here’s how I work a day at the races into a day of writing. I try to arrive at the track at about the 3rd race with a small backpack loaded with a thermos of coffee, some water bottles, binoculars, and my iPad. After a brief review of the horses in the coming race, I place my initial wagers — usually $2 and never more than $5 per race. I fire up my iPad and begin to work on one of my writing projects. While it might seem like it would be difficult to work at such a location, the track is usually relatively empty on a weekday afternoon and I can easily find a quiet spot in the grandstands to prop my feat up on the seat in front of me and nestle my iPad between my knees to write.

About 5 minutes before post time,the trumpets sound and the horses are paraded out to the track. I will usually turn away from my writing for about 2 to 3 minutes to watch them come in and then do a little more work on my writing as they are escorted out to the starting gate (at Belmont, while all races finish at the same finish line at the center of the grandstands, the starting gates are usually somewhere on the far side of the track, depending on the surface and distance of each race.). Once the announcer has called out that “the horses have reached the starting gate and are at the post,” I put down the iPad, pull out the binoculars, and stop to watch the race. As soon as the race is over, I pull out my racing program to review the next race, choose my horses, make a quick stop at a window to place the wager, and then head back to writing.

The Pomodoro method also calls for a longer break after a few 25 minute working sessions. For these, I put away the iPad, pack up my bag, and wander around the back of the grandstands at Belmont. The grounds are quite beautiful and one can wander out to the pre-race paddock area where the horses are being prepped for the next race. The jockeys come out about 15 minutes before post time, meet with the owners and trainers, are mounted on the horses, and parade back into the the track to great fanfare and formality.

What I have found most rewarding is that I seem to be able to get far more writing done using this method then working in my office, waiting for a timer to go off, and then desperately thinking of something diverting to do with my free 5 minutes every half hour.

Obviously, not everyone is close to a race track, nor will everyone find horse racing an enjoyable pastime. The idea here is not the particular pastime, but to find some pastime that can be worked into an afternoon of doing meaningful work.

Has anyone else found a pastime or hobby that they can intersperse with work? Why not share in comments?

Photo “Belmont Race Track” by Flickr user Jay Gorman / Creative Commons licensed

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