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Painting productivity and staying motivated

Spend enough time talking to any miniature painters, especially those that do it as part of another hobby such as playing Warhammer 40k, and inevitably you’ll hear questions about how to paint faster and how to stay motivated when painting a large project. When you consider that, for many people, painting is the means to an end rather than the goal itself and that, for pretty much all of us, we constantly add to the backlog of miniatures we have still to paint then it’s easy to see how it can slip from enjoyable hobby time to depressing chore.

A prime example of adding more to the backlog before getting everything else finished.

Recently I have been trying out a technique I used to use when working as a web developer in my painting process and, to be honest, I have been very pleased with the results. At this point I fear I’m going to start sounding like an evangelist, or a salesman, but fear not – this is at its most basic a “pen and paper” technique – you don’t need to buy anything to do it. With that being said, do you have time to talk about our Lord and Saviour Pomodoro?

So here’s a quick explanation of what Pomodoro is: basically you take any job you need to get done, in our case painting some models, and create a list of the basic steps you need to do in order to complete the tasks. You then complete those tasks through short 25 minute sprints with little 5 minute breaks – together these 30 minute blocks are called Pomodoros. It’s simple but surprisingly effective. And if you’re wondering what Pomodoro means I think it’s Italian for tomato, the name of the technique comes from little tomato shaped oven timers.

Step 1

Start by deciding what you want to get down: in our case we’re probably talking about painting a model or group of models. You then make a list of each step you’re going to take, making it reasonably granular, so we can work out how long it’ll all take.

Let’s take a squad of 5 Space Marines as an example – painting them up in a fairly typical way. We’ll assume our models have already been assembled and primed. Our tasks might look something like:

  • 2 thin coats of base colour
  • Apply wash to recesses for shading
  • Line highlights on armour sections
  • Base all metal areas in black
  • Paint metal areas silver and apply black wash

And so on….

You list these tasks on a piece of paper, or a simple to do list app or whatever you prefer. You then assign them the number of Pomodoro, or 25 minute sprints, you think it’ll take to complete that task. For each task you probably want it to be between one and three Pomodoro, any more than that and it’s better to break the task down into more steps.

Step 2

When you’re ready to start you’re going to set a timer for 25 minutes and work on your first task. For that short time you’re going to paint as quickly and efficiently as possible and you are going to ignore all other distractions.

It’s really that simple, set a task that takes about 25 minutes and then focus on it for 25 minutes. To help you focus you need a timer, using your phone is fine but make sure you’ve set the screen not to lock. That ticking clock pushes you to focus and actually is better than the anxiety of a buzzer going off unexpectedly.

At the end of the time set a new timer for 5 minutes and rest. If you completed the task then put a tick next to it and if not then you simply take another full Pomodoro to complete it.

One of the things that really matters doing this is the use of the on and off time. During the 25 minutes ignore all distractions. Don’t read messages or notifications that come in on your phone or computer. Don’t get up to do something else (unless you obviously have to). Equally important is that during the 5 minutes off time you need to stop. It’s important to give your brain a little rest and it’s good for you to get up, stretch, take a little walk around the room etc.

Step 3

After every 4 Pomodoros (if you paint for those kind of lengths of time) take a 20 or 30 minute break instead of 5. It’s very important to keep yourself from getting too burned out and if you’re doing it right then during the 25 minute sprints your brain is very active.

Step 4

The satisfying conclusion of a day of painting

When you’re ready to stop painting it’s time to look at your results. How often did you complete a task in a given Pomodoro? How many Pomodoro did you do? Looking at your results helps you see how much you have achieved, which is good for the reward centre of your brain, but also helps you get better at planning your Pomodoros. if you planned 1 Pomodoro for applying the base coats but it took two then you can adjust your next session. Likewise if you allotted a full Pomodoro for applying a wash that took 10 minutes to apply, or needed drying time then you can also plan for that in your next session.

Review

So that’s the technique. A little bit of planning before starting and a sprint/rest work method for getting the job done. Simple, easy to learn and effective.

Doing this technique for painting miniatures I have had two of my most productive days of painting in months and feel significantly more motivated to complete the next stages and keep painting after a large session. I actually realised how much time I wasted on tabletop models going back over different areas not being happy with a wash or a highlight or taking some models further then having to go back and catch up with the other squad members. Even just listing out the tasks at the start helped me paint better but the sprints and rests definitely helped me stay focused. The small sense of achievement after each task is also a great motivator, it’s not a huge thing but just checking off a box on the list feels like progress and that keeps you going.

Another, possibly situational benefit I noticed, was being able to fit other tasks into my day and incorporate the painting as a reward system. What I mean by this is that a few days ago I had both some free time to paint and some work around the house to get done. Rather than just split my day up and do one for a bit I actually planned all those extra tasks into my Pomodoro list. That’s probably going too far but it was fun.

Is it for you?

It’s probably obvious by now that I like Pomodoro but truthfully it’s not the best fit for every situation. If you have an army to paint and you’re going unit by unit just repeating the same colours without huge variety then, absolutely, Pomodoro is a great fit. This is probably also true even for high end display quality models but each step will likely be more minute to avoid rushing.

Sometimes you just paint something because you enjoy it

What it is less suited to is the more expressive side of the hobby. If you have a single character model and just absolutely love the sculpt then drop the timer and just enjoy the process – we’re doing this for the enjoyment after all. If you are experimenting with colour schemes it’s better to take your time and figure out what works and the best way to get the results you want.

Next time you get a chance to sit down and paint why not try Pomodoro. In fact let me know how you get on with it I’d love to hear other people trying this technique and seeing how it fits them. Maybe you have your own productivity / motivation tips (always welcome) you want to add. Finally I’ll add that these longer format posts are not something I’m very practiced in and I’d welcome any feedback. I don’t have an editor to keep me right so if there’s anything wrong let me know.

Until next time, bye the noo.

– Callum

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