Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dividing Your Time

The other week, it seems, I told one of my writing process groups that it was okay to count the time spent making powerpoint slides for seminars and classes as "writing time". I don't know how I got trapped into saying that, but it does raise an important subject, namely, that of categorizing your tasks.

Needless to say (I hope), it is not sufficient to use your calendar to distinguish only between "work" and "play" (or what some people call "life"). At work, as an academic, you need to distinguish, minimally, between the time you spend doing the three main kinds of work you will normally do: research, teaching, administration. But that is not enough; the confusion arose because writing can play a role in all three kinds of activity. So let's be clear: your writing schedule is a way to ensure you have time to produce publishable prose.

In your calendar, you should block off the time spent teaching as well as the time you spend preparing for class. This includes any writing that you might do to that end, which then does not count as "writing time". Your real writing time should, of course, also be scheduled, preferably so that you write every day (you take weekends off, of course), starting at the same time, and writing at least half an hour and at most four. Make sure you have at least one three-hour block to devote to your writing every week.

You should also leave time for administrative work. Since you do much of this "on the fly", you may find it useful to leave it blank in your calendar at first, then booking in tasks and meetings as they become concrete. If you can stay disciplined, writing only when you have scheduled writing time, and thinking about your classes only when you've scheduled time for that, then administrative tasks should be able to fill the rest of your day in a natural way.

Other tasks that will obviously be booked into your calendar: research seminars and conference participation. The writing you do in preparation for these things will usually count as real writing time. This is because such prose can, at least in principle, end up as published work.

What about writing research proposals? I think you need to distinguish between the prose component of such applications and filling out forms. The important thing, thereafter, is to make sure that you don't define writing tasks in such a way that you can "stick to your schedule" without writing research papers (and book chapters, if you like that sort of thing). If you do spend some of your writing time working on research proposals, make sure that it is explicitly marked in your calendar. You should be able to see at a glance whether or not you are actually leaving time to write for publication.

There are many different ways to classify your activities. Just make sure that your way of doing it keeps competing interests distinct. A writing plan forces you think explicitly about how you are dividing your time among activities that normally compete for it. This allows you to protect the time you need to keep your commitment (to yourself) to get what you know expressed in writing and into that all-important conversation with your peers. Vaguely defined blocks for "research" (or even "writing", if not specified further) is often not enough to build the habit of productive academic writing.

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