A few weeks ago, I received an email from a former student, asking for some advice about managing a summer of writing. With her permission, I am sharing her email and my reflections on our conversation.
I’ve taken the summer off teaching with the aim of making considerable progress on my dissertation. I’ve only once had a big block of time for writing during the degree (very early on), and it was terribly unproductive. And terrible. Although I’ve made progress with writing, I’m oddly nervous that I won’t maximize my time and will have forgone a summer of income for nothing. I’ve made a writing schedule for the summer that I believe is ambitious but reasonable, but I would like to have another pair of eyes on the plan. I’m especially interested in your feedback, as someone who thinks extensively about dissertation writing and productivity.
My first thought upon receiving this note was that the student was right to be afraid of too much time. A generous block of writing time is an opportunity, not a solution. As with any opportunity, you need a sound strategy in order to take full advantage. If you find yourself thinking that time itself is the solution, you may not be engaging in the planning necessary to make the most of that time.
At this point, you may be thinking that having too much time is better than having too little: if we simply don’t have enough writing time, all the strategic planning in the world won’t remedy that problem. But just because too much time can be a good problem to have—and I’m sure some of you are desperate for more writing time—doesn’t mean that it can’t still turn into its own productivity challenge. The student’s letter had a telling detail: she had already experienced the perils of having too much time with not enough to show for it. Until we have had that experience, we may think wistfully that more time would be better. Unfortunately, far too many of us are familiar with having failed to take advantage of ample time.
Think of all the conversations that take place among academic writers in late August. “Yes, I had a good summer, but I didn’t get all the writing done that I had hoped.” Sound familiar? This reflection is often followed by one of three different sentiments:
“But I needed a break, so I’m okay with how I spent my time.” In other words, there may be times when foregoing writing in favour of recharging is the best decision.
“But my goals were unrealistic, and I’m happy with what I did get done.” In other words, if our goals are truly disproportionate to our time, we may fail to meet those goals while still having been productive.
“And now the term is about to start and I can’t believe that I let the summer get away from me.” In other words, I needed to write and I had the time to write and still I didn’t meet my goals.
The first two sentiments are good moments for self-reflection. When deciding how to use our time, we should definitely be aware of the need for real breaks and of the tangible limits to what we can accomplish in any given time. The third sentiment requires a deeper kind of self-reckoning. Having had time to write and yet having not taken full advantage is a profoundly frustrating experience. Since it is still April, I thought now would be an apt time to reflect on the process of devising an effective summer workplan.
If you want to make sure that you maximize the benefit of a significant expanse of writing time, here are some steps you can take:
- Create a timeline: What needs to be done and by what date? By explicitly defining your goals, you can move from a hope to a commitment. “I’m hoping to finish chapter three … ” can easily lead to “I didn’t get as much done on chapter three as I’d hoped I would.” Starting instead with “I’m going to finish chapter three …” puts us in a much stronger position. Of course, we must be realistic and rational about our timelines; however, once the timeline makes sense, we should endeavour to treat it as a commitment.
- Create a realistic breakdown of the task: The next step is to break the task down into composite parts. (This breakdown may show us that our original timeline was flawed; if that is the case, you can tweak that timeline before proceeding with this step.) “Three months should be plenty of time” becomes “This number of days means that I’ll have to do that amount of work every day.” At this stage, it is crucial to resist any sort of magical thinking. A summer is never endless and it rarely involves a complete cessation of all other tasks. We need to count the number of weeks, subtracting those weeks that will be spent on crucial, restorative leisure. We need to count the number of days per week that we can realistically write, subtracting those days that need to be spent on other sorts of work or relaxation. Most importantly, we need to count the number of hours per day that we can write, subtracting those hours that need to be used in other ways. Not only do we need to leave time for all the other tasks that comprise our work lives, we also need to account for the fact that we can only consistently write for a certain number of hours per day.
- Create concrete interim tasks: With our committed timeline and our realistic breakdown, we are then able to define the constitutive tasks of each working session. Without this third step, it can be way too easy to let our writing time slip away. Let’s say you have four hours a day to write. First, make sure that you also have a couple other work hours in which to do all the writing-adjacent things that will need doing; needless to say, if you have four work hours per day, you won’t actually have four writing hours. If you have an open expanse of time, you can divide it up into writing time, non-writing work time, and leisure time. If you legitimately have four hours for writing, you will need a plan for how to ‘spend’ those hours. You won’t be able to do this all at once, of course. In April, you can’t know how you will use your time on the afternoon of August 16th. But it is a crucial habit to get into, at least for the near future. Its value works in two ways. One, if we have a concrete goal for our writing time, we can’t be satisfied with just having put in the time. And, two, the accomplishment of the concrete goal can give us a sense of satisfaction. If we have general tasks—of the ‘work on chapter three’ variety—we can end up doing very little or we can can end up doing lots while still feeling like we haven’t accomplished something specific. It is crucial to be flexible about these goals: writing is a mysterious process and you may be wrong in what you think you can or should be able to do in a particular time. This flexibility, however, shouldn’t be allowed to turn into imprecision. Precise interim goals are tremendously useful, even when they ultimately need to be revised in the face of the vagaries of the writing process.
This planning process is designed to help those of you with an expanse of writing time in the near future make the most of it. But what if, as is likely for many of you, you are looking at a summer with writing pressures and a lack of writing time? Perhaps you have to teach or work over the summer or perhaps your family responsibilities will ramp up as school ends for the year. As you face this tension, it can be helpful to remember that a shortage of time can be a manageable problem. Just as we sometimes err in thinking of time as a straightforward solution to writing problems, we can err in thinking that a lack of time must be an insurmountable obstacle. To be sure, a complete lack of time is a legitimate obstacle, but a shortage of time need not be fatal to our plans. When writing time is scarce but writing is still essential, it makes sense to think about how you will fit writing in without waiting for stretches of time that may never come. The planning process laid out here can help writers manage long stretches of writing time, but it can also help you maximize scarce writing time within the confines of a full and busy life.
Thank you, that was really helpful
Thanks for these great strategies. I’ve worked as a DE with many authors who think “classes end on May 12, then I’ll be able to work on my book full-time.” As you say, time is an opportunity, not a solution. That is a great line, and I may have to borrow that! The mere availability of time does not = a writing plan.
Thanks, Michael! I’ve been a DE too, an experience that helped me to see how having time to write does not necessarily lead to prolific writing. I’ve also been through it myself as a writer–it’s a terrible feeling!
Your responses and suggestions for the struggling writers who commented here are lovely–honest, compassionate, but also wise and effective. Frankly, what most helped me learn to set–and meet–realistic writing goals was working as an editor in the publishing industry for a while. I am freelancing again now, mostly writing along with some teaching, and I treat my writing as a 9-5 job. I sit down at my desk and start writing at the same time every day and work in two-hour-ish chunks of time. If I am not in the mood to write, I promise myself to just write or make notes or an outline for 15 minutes. Usually, after 15 minutes, the writing is flowing and I keep going. Discipline just takes practice and some of it is almost a Pavlovian level of behavioral training. Day in and day out, just as if it were a paid position at a publishing company!
Thanks, Michael. I agree that the experience of 9-to-5-style work can be a huge benefit to our ability to discipline ourselves. Learning to write–with or without inspiration–can be such a boon to our productivity. I run dissertation boot camps, and I think one of the benefits is the way that enforced writing time alerts writers to their own ability to commit to writing at set times for set periods.
Thank you for this information. I have seen very little about this problem of having too much open time.
I have had the problem of not being efficient for quite some time. I am at the point where I don’t know if I will be able to finish my dissertation draft because it has become a habit to pretty much never finish a task I set out to do in the time I have allotted for it. NEVER. It is very frustrating. The more this happens the less I am able to make a task goal the next time. You might think my expectations are too high, that I am trying to do too much, but I don’t think this is the problem, although perhaps I do need to think of making tiny totally easy goals just to get my confidence back. The real probably is that I simply don’t do what I set out to do half the time. Sometimes it is because I find the writing task is much harder than I expected or I haven’t really figured out what I want to write. When I run into difficulty I have to fight tooth and nail to keep myself working instead of running off to distract myself with something, even “work” things like cleaning the toilet. I usually lose these battles and sometimes I lose them even before I have given a good fight. I like the idea you suggest about breaking the goals down. I have tried this too, but I still run into the same problems. I really want to finish and know that I can if I could just develop a consistent work habit. If you have any further advice on this I would really appreciate it. I have enjoyed many of your blog posts.
Thanks, Sarah. While I hope these strategies can help writers manage time effectively, I think you are describing a somewhat different problem. Willpower can get us through a difficult task if we know what we are trying to do, but willpower is often unequal to the task of keeping us at our desks when we don’t know what we are trying to say. When we are troubled by a lack of confidence in our own ideas, writing can become excruciating (because it is the place where those uncertainties are made visible). I would suggest trying shorter writing times (with manageable goals) and a broader definition of writing. Shorter writing times (you can read about the Pomodoro Technique here) can be really helpful in the way they lessen our fear that we won’t be able to stick with the task for hours on end. If you just have to write for 25 minutes before taking a break it can be easier to convince ourselves to stay with it. Most importantly, I would recommend trying a broader definition of writing, which would allow writing to be a means to figuring out what is problematic rather the place where you expect yourself to be articulating a well-thought out idea. When you encounter a problem, rather than stopping, try assuming that the solution to that problem will involve more writing. Switch your font/size/colour and try to articulate what isn’t working in your writing. That sort of reflective writing can (1) keep you writing rather than cleaning your house, (2) increase your writing stamina because you’ll gain the confidence that you can stay with the project even when it’s hard, and (3) possibly solve the problems that you are wrestling with. I wish you the very best with your project!
This post is very helpful, and also very challenging for me. I adopted many of the strategies you describe while writing my dissertation, but I never comprehended the total package that you outline here. I often experienced the difficulties Sarah Babcock describes in her comment as well. I just recently learned about the pomodoro technique and have found it helpful. Something else that helped me was to get out of the house. You can’t clean the toilet or make tea & cookies or whatever if you are not at home. It was worth spending $5-10 each time I spent a few hours at a coffee shop to be free of distractions and make progress. I wish I had done this during my coursework years, but I suppose the immensity of the dissertation finally forced me to find new techniques and habits to focus.
I have had the most trouble with the balance between being precise and flexible in my goal-setting. In fact, while I had tracked my writing times and daily goals for over a year during my dissertation, I gave up on the practice about 5 months before I finally finished. I just had gotten so frustrated with setting short-term goals (in the 2-week to 3 month range) that I never reached, and cancelling plans for things like paper submissions and revising my job application documents. I guess I felt I had no control of time despite my attempts to plan, because I always had to revise and let things go. So eventually I gave up. I even forgot about the planning and tracking I used to do until I read this blog. I guess it’s time to try again.
Thanks, Tim. I do think the tension between precision and flexibility is an ongoing one for all academic writers. There’s no point in setting simple quantitative targets; doing so will never create the necessary space for creative engagement with our writing tasks. At the same time, writing without clear targets can lead to a lot of non-accomplishment. It’s an ongoing process of being honest with ourselves about writing obstacles that are out of our control and those that we could be managing better. And I agree that experimenting with the right writing space is crucial!
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Thanks, Rachel, for another really useful blog. The issue you’ve addressed is very recognisable, though rarely spoken about openly. I would add one suggestion to the strategies you’ve outlined above: where possible, create a community of practice around writing and write together with others who are serious about writing. By ‘together’ I don’t necessarily mean jointly writing an article; I mean meeting with one or more fellow writers, setting writing targets for the session together, and then writing together in silence for pre-agreed periods of time. If it’s a long enough session, then taking breaks together, again for pre-agreed periods of time, would also be included.
This kind of social support for writing is powerful, and I get my best writing done this way. It helps me get better at target-setting and there is something about the presence of another that dampens my writing-related anxieties. Most importantly, it supports me to turn up and stay with the writing. It also helps me to take breaks, which I sometimes avoid because I don’t always trust myself to come back.
I still do most of my writing on my own, but sessions of shared writing space helps keep my momentum going. A few times a year, a group of us gets together for longer (2+ days). We follow the model of ‘structured writing retreat’ (developed my R. Murray) and these are particularly useful for maximising productivity (and keeping your sanity) when you risk having ‘too much’ writing time.
Thanks so much for this thoughtful comment, Laura. I didn’t think to talk about writing groups in this context, but yours is a very helpful reminder. I’ve talked about this topic in my post on dissertation boot camps. More resources can also be found in my post on thesis writing groups Thanks again!
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