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Using "Strategic Pausing" and "Tallying" to Increase Creative Work Efficiency

Updated: Apr 5, 2023

Conquer writer's block, avoid overthinking, and maintain the "big picture"

My work as a composer often switches swiftly between a state of grueling and inspired. While I've found that putting in long (but purposeful) hours is necessary, I've also learned that too much continuous work can be counterproductive. That's why I use "strategic pausing" to help me work more efficiently (and enjoyably). Here's how and why it works:

Strategic Pausing (on a Small Scale)

This strategy is based on the Pomodoro Technique. I have optimized this for composing music but it can be easily applied to other fields.

1. Set a timer for 25 minutes

(I use this timer directly on my desktop). Whatever timer you choose, make sure it sounds continuously until you to turn it off. A single chime can be easily ignored.

2. Work on a single task.

No breaks. No phone. No moving to another task.

Why: Focusing on a single task is imperative to doing quality, efficient work. When using a computer, I avoid clutter by closing all unused programs, to-do lists, and browser tabs. (Read here why constantly switching tasks is horribly inefficient.)

3. Stop when the timer sounds.

You can finish your thought, but you must STOP, even if you're "in the zone".

Why: Stopping when the timer goes off helps you stay on track and maintain a rhythm.

4. Mark a "tally" when you finish

This can be as simple as a check mark on a piece of paper. I keep track of every session I do and add up my hours at the end of the week. (I adapted this strategy from Deep Work by author/professor Cal Newport.)

Why: Seeing a big line of check marks at the end of the day gives you objective data that you are (or aren't) spending time on the right things. Personally, I keep track in 3 categories:

1. Composing (creative work)

2. KPMusic (administrative work for my company)

3. University (teaching, planning, meetings, and logistics for my faculty appointment)

This is a portion of my "Habit Tracker" that I use everyday.

Every week I can use my "Habit Tracker" to look back and quickly see if I have been spending my time in a way that is reflective of my professional and personal goals.

4. Set a timer for 3 minutes

You can use the same timer, but I like to set a 3 minute timer on my watch (see bottom right corner of image.) This allows me to wander outside of my designated workspace without worrying about hearing it sound.

Why: 3 minutes allows for a little buffer time to keep a work-break cycle at an even 30 minutes. If you work for 27 minutes, or break for 5 minutes, it tends to even out throughout a couple hour work session, and then I know I can plan on 4 segments in a two-hour block within my daily schedule.

5. Do ANYTHING else

Separate from your work. Do something different. I try and avoid my phone, social media or other distracting activities.

Stretching, deep breathing, or a quick clean-up of your surroundings is a good choice. During this time, my brain always seems to continue to work and I have had countless "eureka" moments during these "breaks".

(In fact, the first 30 seconds of Fanfare for a New Day came to me during a break one day, exactly as it sounds now...)

6. Come back with fresh eyes and the ability to let go

When you've been working on a project for a while, it's easy to become emotionally invested in what you've created. You might feel like every detail is essential, or that your project won't be complete without your favorite parts. However, taking a break can help you gain some perspective.

If you've been working for hours without a break, you might be making questionable decisions. This is why it's crucial to take regular breaks and step away from your work. When you return to it, you will have a fresher outlook, and you will be better equipped to make decisions based on the big picture.

For instance, if you're struggling to come up with the next solution, idea, or wording for a specific section, taking a break can help you let go of your attachment to certain details. You might find that the parts you were fixated on were not as crucial as you initially thought. This willingness to let go of what isn't working is commonly known as "killing your darlings."

A Scenario for "Killing your darlings":

Option 1: "I just want to get this done!"

Option 2: "Trust the system. It will work out better in the long run."

Turn the timer off and power through.

Take a 3 minute break. Have a stretch. Refill your water.

Continue working on the same problem.

Come back to the same problem with fresh perspective.

​You dig deeper, trying to make Section 43.21e successful by clarifying Sections 43.21a,b,c, and d.

Because you have separated from the work, you now have perspective and are less emotionally attached to what you just did.

You continue working this way and finish the day dejected and exhausted. You wrap up for the day and come back tomorrow.

You realize that all of your work on 43.21e is pointless because the entirety of Section 43 is a horrible idea.

Because you have separated from the work, you now have perspective and are less emotionally attached to what you just did.

Delete Section 43. Accept that the SMALLER amount of "wasted" time was an investment to get to the good stuff.

You realize that all of your work on 43.21e is pointless because the entirety of section 43 is a horrible idea.

You move past your writer's block and the project begins to flow smoothly once again.

Delete Section 43. Accept that the LARGER amount of "wasted" time was an investment to get to the good stuff.

​On to the next project and feeling fresh!

"Killing your darlings" is always difficult, but you'd always rather lose 20 minutes on it and not double, triple, or more time (where it then becomes excruciating to get rid of your work).

Discovering that your high school diploma was accidentally thrown away is a lot more distressing if it happens the day after your graduation, when being a recent graduate is still fresh in your mind, compared to 20 years later when your memories of being a "Wildcat" are more distant.

Multiply this Technique by days, weeks, years...

Time to decompress and take breaks works in the short and long term. Imagine the same scenario above but over the course of a week. I have certainly dumped hours into working the fine details on compositions without taking a step back and realizing that there simply isn't a market for ensembles consisting of 36 oboes and a virtuoso kazoo player. After a weekend off, you come back and realize the entire project is not as earth-shattering as you once thought. Realizing this, you quickly wrap it up, or abandon it altogether. But at least you only spent a week on it and not a month...

A Success with Strategic Pausing

I began this technique while writing Meaning in the Echoes. As with most creative work, this piece stalled a number of times over the months I spent composing it. I have hours of work that I had to completely abandon because it simply didn't work within the scope of piece.

Without strategic pausing (3 minute breaks; taking the weekend off) I would have become overwhelmed in the detail of the piece and lost the overall "story of discovery" that the music attempts to tell. The piece had a well-received world premiere along with being named a 2022 Finalist for the National Band Association's William D. Revelli Memorial Composition Competition.

Makes me glad I took that break...


Kevin Poelking is an award-winning composer, conductor, and educator. His music has been performed throughout the world and he is regularly commissioned for new works. He serves on the faculty at Colorado State University where he teaches courses for music students and future educators. More...

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