Category Archives: Productivity

Posts that discuss issues of productivity

A Productive Process

As I prepare for an upcoming dissertation boot camp, I find myself frequently returning to a central question: How do I talk about productivity without seeming to suggest that my audience is somehow at fault for being insufficiently productive? There’s no getting around the fact that self-improvement schemes often rest on a basic notion of inadequacy. Why else would we need to improve the way we eat, exercise, communicate, or store our socks? Obviously, many such suggestions are benign; even if you’ve been bundling your socks all wrong, it’s unlikely that any suggested improvement could make you feel particularly bad. You may even feel good about your existing sock storage regime and be happy to roll your eyes at those who advocate dramatic new approaches. But chances are that you lack the same insouciance when on the receiving end of writing productivity advice.

Advice about writing productivity is a sensitive topic for two reasons: one, because writing is an inherently hard activity that is intimately connected to our sense of self and, two, because writing often elicits our very worst tendencies. If it were just the former, things would be much simpler. Advice would scarcely be necessary: support and encouragement would be sufficient. But the truth of the matter is that most writers struggle to write enough. Our writing struggles are emphatically not a superficial issue: all this not writing isn’t freeing us up for more leisure or more sanity in our work-life arrangements. If anything, inconsistent writing habits are making it harder for us to achieve some sort of balanced allocation of our limited time. The promise of writing productivity is that if we learn to manage our distractions and use sound strategies to harness our good intention, we might spend less time writing and still get more done. While that sounds entirely good, advice about writing productivity can still often feel very wrong.

One of the reasons that productivity gets such a bad name in academia is that it often seems as though even good productivity advice fails to take into account the complex context in which academic writing takes place. Self-improvement, after all, puts the focus firmly on our self, leaving very little room to treat that self as subject to a wide range of social, economic, emotional, and physical pressures. When the individual is seen as the sole author of their own productivity woes, they are likely to experience a sense of personal inadequacy, regardless of the structural barriers that they face. However, while productivity can be a pernicious framework, productivity itself can be amazing. The ability to get things done is generally a significant factor in the happiness of a writer. Needless to say, I’m not suggesting that a writer who isn’t writing because they have caregiver responsibilities or administrative duties or teaching tasks or a desire to enjoy these last days of summer vacation is doing anything wrong. There are so many reasons for not meeting externally determined goals, and I have no desire to contribute to the view that we are only doing right when meeting those goals and conforming to standardized productivity approaches. But while productivity can be a poor master, it can still be a good servant. Despite my reservations about the hazards of the discourses surrounding productivity, I’m still going to talk to graduate students about having a productive writing process.

My hope is that the shift from talking about productivity to talking about having a productive writing process will undercut any hint of guilt or blame. Being productive can mean meeting external demands in a way that is detrimental to our sense of ourselves and to our ability to live a full life. But having a productive process is something that naturally benefits us. We aren’t focused on producing a certain amount or on meeting disembodied requirements, but rather on what we need in order to be productive writers. To develop that self-understanding, we have to be reflective about all aspects of our writing process. What does being productive mean to us? What does a good day of writing look like for us? What sorts of things stop us from realizing those goals? What roles do guilt and anxiety play in our ability to write? What sort of writing support community do we want? What specific pressure points tend to push us away from writing and towards distractions? What might we do differently to change the patterns of our writing practice? These types of questions are a way of starting a conversation about building a productive writing process into our lives. And while that conversation needs to be critical about the conditions of academic labour and highly attuned to individual circumstances, it also needs to acknowledge the power of building a productive writing process.

Are You Ready for AcWriMo 2015?

When I saw that PhD2Published had announced AcWriMo 2015, my first thought was that they were announcing it early this year. Then I looked at my calendar and noticed that it was already October 29! I’m not sure where October went, but I’m excited that AcWriMo is starting. Given that my October seems to have vanished without a trace, I obviously need something to inspire me to get back to writing.

For those of you who are new to Academic Writing Month, you will find all the information you need on the beautiful new PhD2Published site. For my thoughts and reflections on previous iterations of AcWriMo, see here, here, here, and here. As I say in all those posts, I love the idea of a month dedicated to academic writing. By inspiring us to articulate specific goals (rather than just hoping to write more) and by nudging us to share those goals publicly (rather than keeping them quiet in case they don’t pan out), AcWriMo can change our experience of academic writing. There are no magical strategies, of course, but giving academic writing more priority and more publicity makes a lot of sense to me. If you are interested, go to PhD2Published to declare your writing goals and plans for the month. I signed up this morning; I’ve never been all that productive during AcWriMo in years past—all the great conversations about academic writing and productivity inevitably distract me from actual writing—but I’m hopeful enough to try again.

I am hosting the next #acwri Twitter chat (November 12 at 3:00 pm EST/8:00 pm GMT), and we’ll be chatting about AcWriMo and productivity more generally. Whether or not you decide to participate in AcWriMo, I hope you’ll join me on the 12th to talk about the many ways in which we all struggle to be productive in our academic writing. And all month you’ll find a great conversation about academic writing by following the hashtag #AcWriMo. I looking forward to seeing you there!

 

Productivity: An Ethical Response

At the end of a recent course on thesis writing, I received an interesting note from a student, Ann Sirek. We had spent our final class talking about productivity: what impedes thesis writing and how we can overcome those impediments. Ann wrote later to say that our conversation had inspired her to think about the challenges of thesis writing from an ethical perspective:

The writing of the dissertation could be viewed not so much as a patchwork of duty, obligation, punishment, and even self-effacement, but as a fulfillment and culmination of a certain kind of personal maturation, that comes, as all maturation does, with some travail and adversity. Sometimes in the name of virtuous discipline, violence gets perpetrated in subtle ways, and that kind of discipline paralyzes creativity. But, if I reward even the slightest flicker of creativity and growth, I start developing habits of creativity, rather than habits of fear. From this point of view, times of chaos and non-productivity require balancing out with intentional times of quiet and stillness in an attitude of self-compassion (eg. yoga, meditation, prayer, music, painting, etc).  I think you were getting at all this, but obliquely. The ethical paradigm that rewards growth and creativity is quite different to the one that adjudicates and punishes. This insight from the world of ethics might bring to awareness a question worthy of consideration. Is writing a dissertation more about obligation and getting stuck in one’s own limitations, or is it more about creativity and exploring my own personal, undiscovered potentials? For me it has been about increasingly fostering my own creativity and turning away from voices that would adjudicate and make me anxious about failing. I may not be the exemplar of PhD perfection, but I am getting towards the finish line, and that’s the goal for most of us! My comments are not meant as a critique of you, but rather as a sharing of my own process and my own work with the intention of perhaps reassuring someone else in the same boat! Thanks again for this very excellent course and for your warm teaching presence!

I was so pleased to get this thoughtful response from Ann because it gives me an opportunity to address something that is obviously missing from my discussion of writing productivity. When we treat writing as something to be managed or as a chore or as a necessary evil, we are foreclosing the possibility that writing might be joyful or that we might use the occasion of writing to be kind to ourselves. Ann is absolutely right to see a notion of discipline inherent in many versions of productivity; while we often think of self-discipline as positive, it’s important to be mindful of what we are doing when we view writing as something that has to coerced out of us. Coercing or disciplining ourselves into being productive writers can preclude us from seeing writing as valuable way to express our developing selves. Reflecting on Ann’s observations allowed me to think more about my usual approach to writing productivity. That approach—both here and in the classroom—tends to focus on two things: the value of admitting that writing is inherently hard and the importance of acknowledging the systemic obstacles faced by graduate writers.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I talk often about the inherent challenge of academic writing. And I definitely see a great deal of benefit in acknowledging that difficulty. Doing so allows us to ask this crucial question: ‘how can we write through the difficulty?’. Like many people, I’ve been thinking of late about the influence of William Zinsser on the way we approach writing. I often return to this passage: “Writing is hard work…. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard” (On Writing Well, 2005, p. 12). As a teacher of writing, I feel obliged to offer a bit of pragmatism: you don’t need to enjoy writing, you just need to get down to it and work through the difficulty. It seems so important that each struggling writer be reminded that the problems aren’t theirs alone—everyone struggles with writing.

Second, I also think it is valuable to recognize that the inherently difficult task of writing may be hard for reasons that are beyond our control. We need to be sure that we don’t use discourses of productivity to overestimate the power of the individual to minimize systemic hurdles. Encouraging people to write in an atmosphere that neglects their barriers to writing seems genuinely wrong.

While I believe that these two approaches are valuable for most writers, I’m intrigued to engage with the ethical challenge that Ann has raised here. Any approach that is premised on the notion that writing is hard has to confront the hazards of negativity. While I don’t think that the writing-is-hard narrative is necessarily negative, it can easily crowd out a more positive attitude. On the other hand, I often worry that encouraging people to find joy in writing seems a bit risky; the last thing I want is to annoy students or to make them feel that they ought to be enjoying the writing process more. My yoga teacher is able to deploy, at the absolutely perfect moment, the phrase ‘with joy’; the class always laughs because her suggestion comes just when practice feels the least joyful. Being reminded to do something that’s important to us with joy—when it’s done right—is a gift. But done wrong, it can just make everything worse.

I don’t mean for this to sound like a dichotomy between effective pragmatism and unattainable idealism. That dichotomy is false because Ann is illuminating a third possibility: productivity through meaningful self-awareness. In her vision—which is a lovely one—productivity comes from self-realization which in turn comes from self-awareness and deliberate self-care. We don’t discipline ourselves into productivity; instead, we nurture ourselves into productivity. This view doesn’t diminish the trials of writing but rather reframes our response to those trials.

I would love to know what others think. How do we define our work in order that the completion of that work becomes an authentic and satisfying expression of ourselves? If we confront the undeniable challenge of graduate writing by turning it into an unpleasant task that must be handled with discipline, are we in danger of damaging a valuable dimension of that work? For me, this comes down to a set of questions about what sort of writing advice is likely to do the most good. Do you want tools for disciplining yourself through the daily slog of writing? Would you rather be encouraged to view writing as form of self-expression that can be drawn out if we are sufficiently attentive and kind to ourselves? Or perhaps something that tries to encapsulate both approaches? Again, many thanks to Ann for raising such provocative questions.

AcWriMo is Here Again!

Academic Writing Month begins tomorrow! I’m excited about the opportunity to interact with so many academic writers all over the world and maybe even do a little extra writing myself. If you are new to this idea, you can get a full description from the event’s hosts at PhD2Published. If you are interested in participating, you can enter yourself on the AcWriMo Spreadsheet and−my new favourite part−on the Google map of AcWriMo participants. Then come find us all on Twitter to share your progress and find out how others are faring.

But what if you are sceptical about the idea? Maybe you find it gimmicky or poorly timed or yet another opportunity to feel bad about not writing enough. I am, obviously, a fan: here are my reflections on AcWriMo 2012 and my thoughts at the beginning of AcWriMo 2013. That said, as much as I like the idea and enjoy the experience, a certain amount of scepticism doesn’t surprise me. It is, in a sense, a gimmick; in a perfect world, we would write the necessary amount every month without requiring extraordinary measures. If that is what September and October were like for you−full of productive writing time−AcWriMo may not be what you need. But if those months were instead a blur of teaching and marking and meetings, if your to-do lists had the same writing tasks on them week after week, if the thought of the rest of the term slipping away makes you feel a bit queasy, maybe some sort of productivity intervention is called for.

As for the timing, of course November is a terrible month for academic writing, but I’m not sure it’s any worse than October or December. Or any other time that school is in session. For some, but certainly not all, the summer months may be better. But if you are lucky enough to have better access to writing time in the summer, you may not need heroic measures to keep you focused. The beauty of declaring November to be a month for academic writing is precisely that there is so much else going on. A sustainable writing practice is one that can coexist with the rest of your life. If you can find time to write in November, you will be able to find time to write any time.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is AcWriMo just another opportunity to feel bad about writing? More specifically, is it another way in which individuals are made to feel deficient without enough thought being given to the structural impediments to writing? If so, that’s no good. But productivity discourses around writing are always double-edged. As much as we may object to the way they turn a complex array of problems into an individual problem of will power, we also know that being productive writers is hugely satisfying and hugely difficult. That is, even if the systemic barriers to writing don’t up and vanish, employing creative strategies to improve our writing lives may still make sense. And when those strategies involve international community and a tremendous sense of good will, I think it is an opportunity worth considering. Not only is it an opportunity to be more productive, it’s also an opportunity to talk and hear about how others write. The way that AcWriMo allows us to write ‘out loud’ is one of its central virtues. So much of the struggle of academic writing is obscured by its essentially solitary nature; the communal aspect of AcWriMo makes it harder to imagine that our struggles are ours alone.

For what it’s worth, I have a terrible track record of meeting my AcWriMo goals, but I’m eager to try again. Maybe this year will be different! If you do decide to give it a try, I look forward to following your progress over the month.

Silent Sociability

One of my first tasks upon returning from my sabbatical was to run a dissertation boot camp. Although dissertation boot camps are a well-established way of supporting doctoral writers, this is the first time we have offered one at the University of Toronto (we did offer a very successful research article boot camp earlier in the summer). We had sixteen participants (doctoral students from a wide range of disciplines), and we met for three days, from 9-5 each day. Our days were made up mostly of writing, with breaks to discuss strategies for pre-writing, productivity, and revision and to consider the particular challenges of thesis writing. The overarching theme for the three days was silent sociability. A writing retreat of this sort involves both silence and sociability and thus presents an opportunity to reflect on the ways that academic writing relies on both.

First, the silence. When planning the boot camp, it was obvious that our writing time would be silent in order to make it hospitable for everyone. While not everyone likes silent writing time, as demonstrated by the number of people writing in every Starbucks one visits, quiet would obviously be essential for a group like this. People who preferred some background noise were able to use headphones to create the sound scape appropriate for them. But that’s just the outer writing environment; I was more concerned about the way that the boot camp might support the creation of an inner quiet.

By inner quiet, I mean nothing more than the ability to withstand distraction. The boot camp model offers a kind of externalized discipline: we turned off our Internet access and created a norm of sustained writing. But that only worked for the three days that we were together; we all need that sort of distraction-proof writing time without the benefit of artificial constraints. To get that, we must understand the nature of the things that distract us from writing. We all have what I’d call ‘legitimate’ distractions—preparing for teaching, administering a research project, engaging with the scholarly literature, etc.—and we need to vigorously protect our writing time from those sorts of encroachments. We also have what I’d call ‘pure’ distractions. Those pure distractions are generally things that aren’t inherently interesting or important but that become suddenly compelling when writing isn’t going well. We all need to find a way to live with those writing challenges without taking refuge in distraction. In order to resist distraction, we need to be committed to carrying on with a piece of writing even when it feels too hard. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I think the best way to learn to co-exist with our writing challenges long enough to solve or manage them is to accept those challenges as normal. When we normalize our obstacles, we increase our sense that we all need routine strategies to help us handle the inevitable difficulties of academic writing.

Second, the sociability. Acknowledging the need for sociability in academic writing is important for two reasons. Most writers need some sort of accountability, some way to externalize the ongoing pressure to write. When a goal is very long term (i.e., ‘I have to finish my dissertation by next spring.’), it doesn’t necessarily provide the immediate motivation that we need. Instead, many dissertation writers need to create accountability by finding some peer group that will support writing. Most writers also need some sort of community to combat the inherent loneliness of academic writing. Accountability and community can be found in the same place, but that won’t necessarily be the case. The important thing is that doctoral writers find company—virtual or actual—to help them remain productive and to allow them to experience the pleasures of a scholarly community. Once this boot camp was complete, the participants emphasized how much they had benefited from writing quietly while in the company of a sympathetic peer group.

Overall, the three days of the boot camp were a very fun experience, at least for me. I got more writing done than usual; our daily schedule (I’ll include that below in case anyone is interested) had four hours of quiet writing time, which is considerably more writing time than I normally find myself with. I also learned a great deal from the conversations we had about writing. I may have been leading those conversations, but many of the most valuable insights came from the participants, who were able to frame their own experiences in ways that were helpful for a group of students from widely divergent backgrounds. It was inspiring to be writing with so many talented and generous graduate students—I’m already looking forward to doing this again.

Daily Schedule

9:00 – 10:00           Thinking about Writing (Instructor Presentation/Discussion)

10:00 – 12:00         Writing

12:00 – 12:30          Lunch Break

12:30 – 1:00             Lunch Break/Discussion (Writing Process)

1:00 – 2:00               Writing

2:00 – 2:45               Discussion (Thesis Writing)

2:45 – 3:00               Break

3:00 – 4:00              Writing

4:00 – 5:00              Open Time (Writing/Discussion)

Priority and Productivity

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.

A Change is as Good as a Rest

Thinking back over a month’s worth of AcWriMo conversations, I was struck by how frequently people mentioned the need to negotiate the demands of multiple projects. In particular, I was interested in the notion that we often wish to work on tasks other than the ones we are currently doing. Is this true for you, that the grass is always greener? That nothing sounds better than writing when you actually can’t write? That working on an article makes the simple task of preparing a class handout seem relatively easy? That other projects become more appealing as soon as you need to work on this project? That you fritter writing time away only to find yourself dying to write while stuck folding laundry or running endless errands on the weekend?

In part, this response is surely just human nature. Working on the other project can seem like a way to avoid the inherent difficulties involved in working on this project. We could, of course, strive to cure ourselves of this wrongheadedness. Or—and this is the simpler path—we can harness the allure of the other project by allowing ourselves to move between multiple projects. Anything that allows us to capitalize on this perverse tendency has to be good. If you are labouring away at one task, a different task can start to look a bit like a shiny object that you want to play with. Better that than the gazillion shiny objects that make up the Internet.

So clearly I’m a fan of switching from one thing to another when the situation demands it. And there’s always something else that we can do: editing earlier writing; working on the literature; thinking about teaching; marking student papers; keeping up with administrative work; and so forth. I think it’s better to have that other task for when we are stalled because, ultimately, it’s better to get something done than nothing. But that doesn’t answer the perennial question about whether it is actually better to work on just one writing project at a time or to have multiple writing projects on the go. There is absolutely no correct answer to the mono- vs. multi-task question. But there are some other questions to help each of us figure out what will work best for us.

1. Do you have to do multiple projects? Sometimes the question is not about work flow, but about priorities. How many additional projects should a doctoral student take on? How many conferences a year? How should publication plans be integrated with ongoing dissertation writing? What about blogging or contributing to edited collections? Those priorities need to be addressed with a supervisor rather than approached as a question of work flow.

2. What does your standard work week look like?  Do you like to work in long stretches or in short bursts? What role do your family responsibilities play? Do you have a job outside of graduate school? What are your non-writing graduate student activities? Your writing schedule should be planned with your actual schedule in mind; that may sound obvious, but in my experience many writers create writing schedules that are destined to fail because they don’t take reality fully into account.

3. Are other people involved in your deadlines? Do you have to get something to your supervisor, co-author, or writing group? If you know that your work will spend significant time out of your hands, it can make sense to have multiple projects to fill those gaps.

4. Finally, and most importantly, what do you prefer? For the sake of argument, imagine that you have a conference abstract and an article submission that you want out the door by the end of the year. Can you imagine setting up a leapfrog system in which one lies dormant while the other is active and then vice versa? Or would you just like to get one done completely before moving on? Again, I don’t think there is a right answer, but I do think that each of us needs to answer this question for ourselves in order to optimize our work flow.

If a student asks me about multi-tasking (and has absolutely no preference or decisive external factors), I suggest trying the leapfrog, for two reasons. First, most of us produce better writing when we can let it rest before turning our attention to revision. Second, to return to my original theme, having multiple projects means that we have worthwhile activities to turn to when our current task becomes intolerable. If you find that the other project never gleams so brightly as when you can’t attend to it, you might as well make that state of mind work to your advantage. After all, if you can’t have a rest, why not enjoy a change of scenery?

Lastly, a quick thanks to Charlotte Frost of PhD2Published, to all the other AcWriMo ‘ambassadors’, and especially to all the AcWriMo participants. It was another inspiring and thought-provoking month. If you haven’t had a chance, I urge you to look through the #AcWriMo Twitter feed for successes, challenges, calls for carrying the momentum into December and beyond, and reflections on the whole experience. I’m already looking forward to next November!