Wednesday, January 30, 2008

3 x 80

I have mentioned Paul Silvia's How to Write a Lot before. He suggests writing on a schedule rather than on a series of "binges". A binge happens whenever you spontaneously take a day or a week out of your busy schedule to "get that paper written". It does not matter whether you are driven by inspiration or desperation. Any substantial amount of unplanned writing is a binge.

Writing on a schedule, by contrast, means writing regularly whether you feel like it or not. This morning, I want to suggest a concrete way of doing this. Not everyone will be able to do exactly what I suggest here, but it can serve as the model for your scheduling efforts. Minimally, it can serve as a thought experiment.

Try to give yourself a 17 week period at least once a year that includes 80 three-hour writing sessions. This may mean concentrating your teaching at other times, but I am not suggesting a sabbatical. In fact, with a little training, it may be possible to do this every semester, even with a normal teaching load.

The simplest model is three hours in the morning (9-12), Monday to Friday, taking one week off as vacation and/or "reading break". This will leave you with 80 afternoons for other things. Try to avoid two-session days (six hours of writing is rarely productive).

Now, think about what you want to write in this period. Suppose you have three papers on your mind and a grant proposal. Give yourself, say, 10 sessions to finish one of them off (the one that's been "almost finished" for some time, or the one you've been wanting to resubmit), 20 sessions to write one of the others (a bit further along), and 30 to start and finish the last. Give yourself another 10 sessions for the grant proposal.

Next, distribute these sessions in your calendar, specifying which days you will be working on which piece of writing. Make sure that this distribution respects whatever deadlines you may have (e.g., resubmissions, conference submissions, grant applications). Remember to take a week off somewhere in the middle. (And try to keep the weekends free, if you can.) I recommend that you include one or two writing projects that don't have a deadline in the scheduled period, i.e., projects you can work on without the sense that you absolutely have to get them finished.

Leave yourself plenty of time before deadlines. Don't plan to finish your grant proposal the day before it is due, for example. If you don't finish at the end of your scheduled time, make an emergency plan that doesn't interfere with your other schedule tasks. Respect your writing schedule as you would respect your scheduled classes. In fact, consider making "contingency plans" to keep emergencies from turning into catastrophes (where you cancel everything else).

Finally, divide each writing project into tasks corresponding to the amount of sessions you have. Here an outline of each text will be very useful. These tasks may be subdivided further, but keep it realistic. Make sure that you can complete the task in the three hour period you have.

All you have to do now is follow the schedule. You will get better and better at planning your work as you get a better sense of what you can accomplish in the allotted time. You will also, of course, get better at accomplishing things in a specific period of time. If you do this once or twice a year, you will train yourself to use 240 hours at a time in a effective, goal-oriented manner. You may be surprised at the results.


Jonathan said...

I've found two hours conducive to high levels of production, and seven days a week rather than five. This gives you 14 hours a week as opposed to 15, it's true, but two extra writing sessions, so you'll possibly accomplish more. Two hours can almost always be crammed into a day, no matter how busy otherwise, and Parkinson's Law decrees that tasks expand to fill the time available for them, so the two hours might be more efficient too. It's perfectly compatible with weekend leisure activities as well.

I've found that as I keep to two hours, I get more efficient. It's almost like conditioning the brain to work well. There will be enough intense concentration during that time to make up for any moments of laxity.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Yes, Parkinson's law applies to writing as much as to anything else. I'll have to write a post about that too. I think at least one day's break is a good idea. I suggest taking the whole weekend off mainly to keep things very realistic (many PhD students have very young children, etc.).

But it's the amount of sessions, not hours, that counts. I completely agree with you on that.

Also, you get me thinking about another tip. If you're writing three hours a day and not getting enough done, try cutting it down to two hours a day. Sometimes that extra hour just wears you down, or destroys your focus.

That's pretty much another post. Just thought I'd jot it down while fresh. As always, thanks for the input. (Your Bach-blogging was very much an inspiration for my 5-paragraph exercises.)