Friday, August 20, 2010

The Sixteen Week Challenge

As always, we begin with the math. Starting on Monday, there are eight weeks until the fall break. After the break, there are then another eight weeks until Christmas. 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. 240 ideal hours in an ideal world, of course.

Each semester I issue my Sixteen Week Challenge to try to get researchers to think about how they might really spend those 240 ideal hours. To make their world a little more ideal, we might say.

The first question is, Do I really have 240 hours? That is, how many three-hour blocks can I really reserve for writing tasks? I recommend taking a sober look at your calendar, which should be filling up with teaching and administrative tasks by now. As often as possible, then, book a writing session as the first thing you do every day. Even if you are teaching in the morning, plan to write for at least fifteen minutes at the start of every day.

You will hopefully be able to give yourself more than fifteen minutes on most days. Try to start at the same time each day (to "sharpen the edge of your resolve," as I sometimes say.) Consider getting an early start. You might want to write from 7 to 9, or even 5 to 7. But if your other obligations allow it, the ideal for most people is probably a writing session from 9 to noon.

But what will you write about? I usually say that the minimum planning horizon is to know what you will be writing about in the morning before you go to bed at night. But it is certainly possible to know a few days or even weeks in advance what you will be doing. (See this post for some ideas about how to structure your writing process.)

Again, there is an ideal to strive for: as often as possible, try to know what claim (or claims) you will be defending in a particular writing session. Most academic prose supports claims, i.e., statements. You may be claiming that a particular event took place, or that a particular theory dominates the literature, or that particular methodology is inherently flawed. Whatever your claim, you will need to argue for it. Knowing that you are going to spend between one and three hours arguing for a particular claim is an excellent way to stay focused. You go to bed knowing that's what you'll be doing the next morning. Then you get up and do it.

Remember the math. Ideally, you will have eighty such writing sessions before Christmas. Here's the challenge in a nutshell: How many times this semester will you get up and write in support of a claim that you knew you would be writing about before you went to bed? 20 times? 40 times? 60 times? This semester, resolve to know the answer to that question. In fact, resolve to know in advance, and then see how accurate your estimate turns out to be.

Out of the possible 80 sessions, how many did you plan to spend writing, and how many did you actually spend writing? Out the possible 240 hours, how many did you plan to spend writing, and how many did you actually spend writing?

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