My current sabbatical serves to remind me, over and over again, that I don’t always practice what I preach. How can I tell other people how to improve their academic writing process when my own is so inadequate? Of course, as I’ve said often, this blog is not about telling you the one right way to do things. Rather, it’s just about trying to present a way of thinking about the problems of academic writing that I hope will be helpful. If I were preaching temperance, say, and was actually burying my empty gin bottles in the back garden at midnight, I’d be a hypocrite. If, on the other hand, I suggest making academic writing an inviolable part of your daily schedule, while allowing it to slip to the bottom of my own to-do list, I’m just trying to be helpful! Indeed, my own many productivity fails are entirely consistent with this blog’s position that academic writing is hard and endlessly resistant to the well-meaning productivity hacks that we try to enact.
But while an honest ‘do as I say, not as I do’ may be a defensible position for a blogger, I’m still left to confront the ‘what I do’ part. And some days lately what I do is a whole lot of not-writing. I don’t particularly lack discipline, I just lack writing discipline. All my other projects and commitments get attention; in fact, they often get all the attention. For me, productivity can be a trap of sorts. My desire to feel productive overwhelms my ability to be productive: I want to get a lot done when I actually need to get a little done on the projects that matter most.
Trying to evaluate my own productivity reminded me of an article from a few years ago from the Harvard Business Review called The Unimportance of Practically Everything. Simply stated, this author uses the law of the vital few to question our common allegiance to the equal significance of all the work we do. He concludes by suggesting a simple challenge: at the end of the day, write down the six things you hope to do tomorrow—and then cross off all but one. When you get to work the next day, devote a set amount of time to that one task before doing anything else. During that set time, if you feel the urge to do other things, make a note of the urge without otherwise stopping your work on the priority task.
It took me a while to come around to the soundness of this advice. My gut reaction is to be sceptical, of this and a lot of advice about productivity. It has that unmistakable sound of you’re doing it all wrong and the problem is all you. What if it feels like all six of those things are equally important? What if you’ve made commitments to other people to get some of those things done? What if you’re not putting off writing because you lack commitment and concentration but rather because the rest of your workload is using up all your time? How can we be expected to cross off tasks like a part-time job or a sick kid? Much of the thinking around productivity puts all the responsibility on the individual, leaving little room for critical reflection on the conditions under which we are expected to be productive. However, chances are you’re only reading this blog because writing is essential to your professional success. Even when we feel that we can’t ‘cross things’ off our list, we still need strategies to protect our writing time. Accomplishing requisite writing tasks is of such tremendous psychological and professional benefit that we owe it to ourselves to find a way past all the legitimate distractions.
Another reason to remain open to productivity advice is the way it can help us with what we might call illegitimate distractions. That sort of distraction takes different forms: it can be an inability to settle into the work because of a recurring need to check on email and social media or it can be a chain of distraction as we click link after link on our way down the rabbit hole. Acknowledging the potential for distraction, especially when our plates are too full—and full in part of work that requires us to think deeply—is crucial. What this all means for me is that I don’t cross five things off my list, leaving only the truly important. Instead, I look at the list and circle the one that I know will leave me most vulnerable to distraction. That one becomes my priority. In practice, this means I’m starting with the hardest thing first, which tends to be writing, although it doesn’t have to be. I like that I then have a plan for the next day, one that will allow me to dive right into without needing to engage in any planning. Once I’ve done the ‘first thing’, whatever it was, I find that I settle more easily into the many other tasks that are left. Overall, it means less wasted time since the essential non-writing tasks tend to involve a style of work that leaves me less susceptible to distraction.
Productivity still feels like a double-edged sword to me: of course we all need to take control over how we spend our time, but the illusion of control can make us feel bad when life inevitably intervenes. The shiny-happy-people version of productivity can, in my observation, do more harm than good. However, even though so much productivity advice seems tone-deaf and detached from the reality of our lives, it does reflect the basic fact that spending limited time wisely is hard for almost everyone. Reflecting on how we spend our time and whether that outlay of time is commensurate with the importance of our tasks is a crucial step to finding the approach to productivity that will work for each of us.