Train your brain to focus: use scraps of time to write and FINISH your book

Written by Claire L. Fishback, PMP

Book Coach & Story Strategist

July 18, 2022


Welcome to your new way to write more in less time

Back in 2017, I was at a writing conference with USA Today Bestselling Author, LS Hawker. We were being all silly and giggly, as is the result when libations have been imbibed, and the keynote speaker, the amazing Tess Gerritsen, said, “You can, too.” I turned to LS and whispered, “You can, TOUCAN!” And we giggled with glee, much to the (probable) annoyance of our table-mates. I proceeded to draw a toucan on the back of my program.


That night, Toucan20 was born.

Toucan20 is the method that will help you find and harness time in your life to do important things. Like start, finish, or otherwise work on your novel. Though it can be used for other things, this post will focus on writers and writing.

Toucan20 is so simple. It’s not revolutionary by any means, and in fact, there are already books about similar methods and techniques out in the world. Those books, however, don’t have the adorable toucan I designed and drew myself, nor do they have my shining and charismatic personality. *grin*

Here’s how it works:

  1. Set a timer for 20 minutes
  2. Write until the timer goes off
  3. Rinse/repeat as time allows

That’s it?

Yes. It is THAT simple.

Here’s the thing: it works.

Keep reading to learn how and why it works!

Less time means more pressure to get to work, which means more time actually doing focused work

This is the main reason Toucan20 works. If you have a small amount of time, you are more inclined to get to work instead of jack around. The key words are, “focused work.”

Short, focused periods of work are less mentally taxing than prolonged bouts of multi-tasking.

What we consider multi-tasking is actually a myth.

As a person who has had multiple concussions and has used brain therapies to heal from them, I have learned from my experience and from speaking with the people who have made it their life’s career to work with neuroscience and brains that multi-tasking is not real.

What we believe is multi-tasking is actually the ability to switch from one task to another quickly. This is called “serial tasking.” Your brain, however, is still only doing one thing at a time.

Being able to switch back and forth between tasks quickly doesn’t make a person more productive or efficient. It’ll still take you three minutes to write a carefully worded email to that co-worker who took all the credit for your project. It will still take you two hours to compare the content of one spreadsheet to the content in fifteen PDFs. It will still take you approximately one hour to field dress a goat for the sacrifice tomorrow night… you get the point. It’s better for you, your brain, and your sanity to focus.

If you focus on one thing for twenty minutes, your brain will be less fatigued than if you have an hour and try to do fifty things at once. Or even just two things. My tiny brain gets tired easily.

Less time makes it quicker to get into the zone and be productive

This second reason is tied to the first one, but it also has strong roots in creating habits.

I used to write on my 60-minute lunch break. Lunchtime would roll around, and I’d sneak off to a little hidey-hole corner at work. I would sit down and think, wow, sixty minutes? That’s a long time!

I would proceed to check Facebook (repeatedly), check personal emails (compulsively), go down rabbit holes through click bait photos and headlines… you get the idea.

I’d look at the clock, and, what? Twenty minutes left? Well, that’s certainly not enough time to get anything done. So, I’d continue to waste time. And there goes my sixty-minute lunch break, squandered away on useless activities.

Back then, my lunch break was my only writing time. No wonder it took me 11 years to publish my first book.

That was before Toucan20 came to be. Now? Twenty minutes is my bread and butter, baby!

As I type this paragraph, I have a lasagna in the oven. At first, I was going to grab my iPad and play a jigsaw puzzle app. But… wait… I have forty-five minutes until my lasagna is done. I have enough time to complete TWO Toucan20s in a row with a little time to spare!

Because I’ve been doing Toucan20 sessions for so long now, once I start my timer, I almost immediately get into the zone. This is because I have trained myself to show up every day.

I’ve conditioned my brain and body to sit and write for 20-minute increments.

I’ve made writing a habit.

Because of this, I can write more in twenty minutes now than I could when I first started this. If you track your time and your words, you will see the same results.

Keep track of how much you write in twenty minutes for a week or a month. Seeing the word count rack up will inspire you to keep going. It’ll help you show up every day, or nearly every day, if you aren’t a daily writer, and create that writing habit.

Don’t buy gold-plated snorkel gear

Before I get into the next reasons why and how Toucan20 works, let’s talk about Awareness of Activities.

This is a phrase I came up with to define the phenomenon that comes about when tracking damn near anything. Examples: food journals, expense logs, and how you spend your time.

Awareness of activities comes about the moment you start tracking things.

Food journal: you don’t want to put junk food on your log, so you think twice about eating a whole bag of chips. That’s awareness of activity.

Expense log: same phenomenon. You’ll be more inclined to not buy that gold-plated snorkeling gear than if you weren’t tracking everything you spend your money on.

The same goes for how you spend your time.

This is a critical step, especially if you are a busy writer who cannot seem to find time to write as often as you would like, or ever.

The next two reasons Toucan20 works rely heavily upon awareness of activities.

Less time makes it easier to fit one or more sessions into your busy day

Track how much time you spend on social media, playing games on your phone or other device, or doing any other unnecessary things—obviously if you’re the person who takes care of the people in your family and keeps them fed, watered, clothed, bathed, and contributing members of society; those are necessary tasks. Your day job is (probably) a necessary chunk of your time as well.

Identify the time wasters and you will identify the scraps of time in your day in which you can throw in a Toucan20 or two.

If you have more than 20 minutes, you can use the Pomodoro technique with Toucan20.

Here’s how:

  1. Complete your Toucan20 session
  2. Take a five-minute break (the perfect amount of time for a quick bathroom break or a beverage refill)
  3. Rinse/repeat three times
  4. Reward yourself with a 15-minute break (or another reward of choice)

Item 4 is the reason the Pomodoro method works. The Reward. Yes, with a capital R.

Think of it this way: when you train a dog or other animal, there are various methods of rewarding. The most successful, founded by the father of operant conditioning BF Skinner, is the variable reward.

The variable reward, in case you don’t know, is when a reward is randomly given after the completion of a task. Rats in the lab were more likely to learn a behavior if the reward was on a variable schedule. The rat might have to do the behavior three times to get a reward in one round, twice in another, and five times in yet a third. Varying the reward conditions the trainee to always do the behavior in anticipation of possibly getting the reward.

As humans, it’s difficult to follow a variable reward schedule, since we know when we decide to reward ourselves. A way to make the reward variable, however, is to roll a die. Even numbers, you get a reward. Odd numbers, you get nothing.

The reward keeps us motivated, so find a great reward. Like, if you write for 20 minutes, you can watch an episode of the show you’re currently binge-watching, or have a piece of chocolate, or read a chapter of your favorite book, or check your social media notifications (just be sure to be mindful of the time, and when your break is over, STOP SCROLLING and put your device face down).

It could be playing a round of fetch with your dog, or even taking a break to pet said dog, because that will release endorphins in both of your little brains and you’ll both be so much happier for it.

(Please note, “dog” can be replaced with any pet, be it cat, hamster, ferret, lizard, tarantula. Whatever pet you have, even if it is a beloved fishy who comes to the glass when you approach and begs for tasty wormy or flaky snacks.)

Whatever motivates you, reward yourself with it!

Less time makes it easier to find time in your busy day

Toucan20 is for any writer, but especially useful for the busy writer. The writer who, like me, has a full-time job and writes on her lunch break, or in the chair at the salon (with my thumbs on my phone!), or during any other spare moment.

Look at your current schedule, or just be more mindful of your time-wasting habits, and instead harness those scraps of time to do the things you’ve been putting off because you “don’t have time.” Even if you watched 20 minutes less TV in the evening, or woke up 20 minutes earlier, or went to bed 20 minutes later… You get it.

Again, track how you spend your time for at least two days (one weekday and one weekend day). From there, you’ll have the information you need to upcycle any time-wasting moments into Toucan20 sessions.

Less time tricks your brain into motivated mode

There will be days (weeks, months, years, who’s counting?) in which you won’t feel like writing. I know 2020 was challenging for a lot of creative people, and it pains me to hear their stories. Their lack of motivation to create. Their depression. Their loneliness. How their art suffered.

Toucan20 saw me through the first and second years of the pandemic and will carry me through to the end.

There is a way to trick your brain into working for you, even on your most unmotivated days. It’s called Toucan20.

You probably thought I was going to say something else, right? Tricksy little thing, aren’t I?

The concept is simple.

If you tell yourself, “I only have to write for twenty minutes,” you’ll be more inclined to sit down and try. On the tail of reason #2 (less time makes it quicker to get into the zone and be productive), the more you do this, the more your brain will kick into gear and know the timer means business.

As in the last lesson when we talked about Rewards (with a capital R), if you reward yourself after a single Toucan20 session your brain will love you even more. I’m not talking about buying yourself a new car or a bottle of Dom Perignon. I’m talking about using a sticker chart, a fun habit tracker, a stamp to mark that you completed your 20 minutes. Even a piece of chocolate, a glass of wine, stepping outside into the light of day (don’t hiss at the sun! The sun is our friend!). Small things that bring you joy and delight your brain.

If you have a stubborn brain, however, and all you do is sit at the computer or notebook or fancy journal you are too afraid to write in with the fancy pen you don’t want to write with because, gasp, it will run out of ink someday, the Toucan20 will still work for you. Just stare at that blank page, screen, stone tablet. Your brain will not like it. It will send something your way.

And if your stubborn brain doesn’t send you a single word in that 20 minutes, please hit reply and let me know, because maybe there’s something else causing the blockage that I can help with.

Less time means sprinting, which means writing more words faster to beat the clock

For those thriller lovers out there, what makes a really great thriller? A ticking time bomb, of course! Nothing gives the reader or watcher of a thrilling movie (or show) the sense of doom and anticipation and anxiety as the threat of a bomb going off, and the constant reminder of how much time remains.

Toucan20 is your ticking time bomb.

Our brains love this stuff. Our competitive streak, no matter how faint, loves it, too.

Writing sprints are just as simple as Toucan20. Set a timer and write fast and furiously! Paul Walker (RIP, super-sad face) and Vin Diesel be damned!

Next time you have time, do it again and see if you can beat your own record.

Better yet, sprint with a friend and see who gets the most words. Your inner competitor will thank you. Your inner critic will be gasping and spluttering, trying to keep up and therefore unable to tell you how awful your writing is (it isn’t awful, trust me). Your manuscript will be that many more words closer to The End. And you will feel a sense of accomplishment and pride.

The proof is in the pudding (aka data)

Now let’s talk about the data I have collected that shows Toucan20 really works.

The proof, after all, is in the pudding. And by pudding, I mean cold hard unfeeling chocolate, or maybe vanilla, or maybe even banana cream, data.

This is another long one (okay, I would be remiss to let another that’s what she said joke like that slide by unnoticed twice in one short email course, so there you go. Now you know I have a juvenile sense of humor).

Anyway… There’s a lot here, so please bear with me once again! The good news: there are pictures!

Why is tracking your data important? Because, then you will know how long things take. So profound.

Knowing how long you take to write a book is vital if you ever want a multi-book deal with a traditional publisher. It’s vital if you are an independent author (like me) and want to be able to accurately let your adoring fans know when the next book in your series will be out. Because they will want to know.

You don’t have to do this forever and ever. And, quite frankly, if tracking your writing sessions gets in the way of actually writing, then don’t do it!

But if you track for just one book, start to finish, it’ll give you a “good enough” idea of how quickly you can produce.

Now, the data. At long last. Shut up, Claire, and get to the nitty gritty!

November 2018, I set out to write for at least 20 minutes a day.

More often than not, it was the jump start to my writing session (remember #5? I used Toucan20 as the motivational trick to get my brain into gear quickly). I usually wrote for more than the 20 minutes if I had time.

The results? 23,277 words between Nov. 1 – 30, averaging 775 words per writing session (remember, I only wrote on my hour-long lunch break back then). Not too shabby!

Here’s a picture of my bullet journal tracker:

January 2019, I wanted to see exactly how much I could write in only 20 minutes a day.

I type pretty fast, around 90 words per minute, and some days were better than others. The results, however, were pretty impressive, if I say so myself. I wrote 13,348 words from January 1 – 31 in only 20 minutes a day, averaging 430 words per Toucan20.

Here’s a picture of that tracker:

In August 2021, I tracked the time it took me to write the first draft of the first You Can, Toucan! Do More in Less Time book in 20-minute increments.

The first draft was 15,740 words. I wrote all of those words in 22 twenty-minute sessions, equaling 420 minutes (go on, make a weed joke and laugh like Beavis and Butthead).

That means I wrote the first draft of this book in seven hours, and I averaged approximately 2,250 words per hour, or 787 per Toucan20.

By sticking to my plan and using the Toucan20 method, I finished the first draft of this book two days ahead of my self-imposed deadline, a deadline I could estimate based on previous data.

See how cool it is to have hard data to analyze? *Cough* nerd *cough*.

I hope this data has proven to you this technique works.

But keep in mind, twenty-minute increments will only get you so far.

You also need perseverance, resilience, and a You Can Toucan-Do Attitude! *snort*

I’m such a dork.

Fun fact: I had a dream once, in which I was a racecar driver, but my car was a go cart, and the other cars were Formula 1 cars… at the end of the dream, Will Ferrell—who won first place—got out of his car and said to me, “You need more than heart and skill to win a race, kid. You also need a fast car.”

If you want to see more data, go check out my data page. I’ll be updating that page with more data as I smash through first drafts using the Toucan20 method.

Until next time…

Set your timer. Go write!

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