going and stopping

Almost everyone agrees — and this is supported by my own many years of observation of colleagues — that the  most productive scholars have regular schedules of writing a few hours every day.  We binge writers can be intensely productive when we are working and can get a lot done in a short time, but over the long haul we are simply less productive than the “write every day” people.  A big reason for this is that if you have been away from the writing for more than two days, you forget what you were doing and have to invest a lot of time in start up and remembering where you were. The turtle beats the hare every time. I have known this for years and “write every day” is the advice I give students, even though I have never successfully followed that advice for an extended period.

Today I figured out the other half of the problem. It isn’t just a problem with self-discipline.  I actually have quite a bit of self-discipline in some areas. The problem is that when I am working, I become extremely focused and I don’t stop. I’m on sabbatical now and finally got time to overcome angst and distractions and re-engaged my work. I became so focused I lost track of time, forgot to eat, and even stayed up all night. No deadline, I just could not let go of the work. This always happens when I really engage my work: even if I have outside obligations, I do the bare minimum and return repeatedly to the work whenever I can.  I sleep too little and exercise too little. After a while, other things pile up:  unpaid bills, undone laundry, unwritten letters of condolence and letters of reference and article reviews, unprepared lectures,  undone shopping, unplanned vacations, neglected family. Even when I’m not actually working, my mind is on my work and I’m just not attending to anything else. At some point the “rest of life” explodes and demands attention and yanks my focus away from work.  And the cycle starts anew. When I’m aware of more than one thing that it is important to do, I lack focus, I’m easily distracted, and I experience anxiety and tension from being pulled in different directions.

So there’s the crux of the problem. To be a “write every day” person you also have to be able to take care of ordinary business every day, too. You have to be able to shift your attention and focus from one thing to another, to compartmentalize not only your life, but your brain and attention. I find it easier, for example, to do “mindless” activities like exercise or laundry when I’m focused on work than to do other intellectual work like prepare classes or write reviews, because they do not compete for mental attention. I wonder if people may actually differ in their innate ability to shift focus, or whether this is a skill that can be developed.

I still plan to keep trying to develop the “write every day” habit.  But now I know that for it to be sustainable given my lack of a personal life assistant, I also have to have a “do some urgent tasks every day” habit, too.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

9 thoughts on “going and stopping”

  1. I have the same problem, but it extends to all areas. When I start cleaning, I’m like a hurricane. When I’m writing, nothing stands in my way. If I’m reading, a brass band could set up next to me and I wouldn’t notice. The problem is that when I’m teaching, it seems that all I can do is work on teaching. I don’t know how to break this. It just ends up hurting me in the end. But despite my best intentions, my daily to do lists that end up not getting done, I can only seem to focus on one thing and not let it go until it’s completely done. This was never a problem before, as I was an RA whose job was to research. But now that I’m teaching, I can’t seem to do my research because there is always something else I can add to my class. ARGH!


  2. Given the teaching materials you’ve posted on the web, I can see why they take you a lot of time, but I will say they look really good. Hopefully that evidence of teaching quality will pay off for you.


  3. Interesting, I agree that the orthodox advice is to write every day, but I wonder if there are any studies that show this to be the norm? Are those people you’ve observed the exception? (and if so, what makes them exceptional). It seems to me that academic work like other types of knowledge generation is rhythmic in nature (for the reasons you’ve outlined) – perhaps it makes sense to understand and accept it’s rhythms rather than try and stuff it into a more regular standardized time frame?


  4. I have not been able to get into a good daily writing routine for the reasons that OW and pitse1eh mention. I do best when I am really engrossed in a project — if I am teaching, I like to be in the teaching zone; if I am writing, I prefer to ignore the world for the day. So far, I prefer to block out one long day per week for writing rather than a couple hours daily. Hopefully, it will pay off…


  5. I’m not a “write every day” person but I’m pretty close. I actually belong to the “write according to a rigid schedule” class of academics. I find that by scheduling writing days every week I both get the focus to work and get time off for perspective. Perhaps it’s an early career thing, but I find that if I don’t regularly lay a project down for a few days or a week I start to develop an over-blown opinion of its quality. So, when possible, I try to have a set of projects going at all times that I rotate between. Like crop rotation for the mind.


  6. I’d like to be a “write every day” person. For now, I’m trying to be a “write three days a week” person.

    This is also the reason I had to give up novels during the academic calendar. The whole idea of “read a chapter a night before bed” just doesn’t work for me. At all.


  7. Thanks olderwoman.

    I want to try the daily schedule idea. Where I work on teaching two or three days and writing the other two or three. Leaving the weekends to freak out in whatever way is possible. That seems to have promise.


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