Monday, January 03, 2011

A New Year's Challenge

Everyone knows that New Year's resolutions don't work. Every year, therefore, I begin by issuing my 16-week writing challenge. I think resolutions rarely work because they are formulated as vague goals (e.g., "lose weight", "quit smoking") rather than well-defined programs (e.g., "go jogging on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 6:15"). We can only resolve to do something, not to successfully achieve our goals. My suggestion today, then, is that you replace your resolution to "write more this year" with a resolution to submit to 16 weeks of writing discipline before summer (and then, perhaps, another 16 in the fall).

We begin with some basic math. There are ten weeks from the end of January until the Easter break. There are then another six weeks until the end of May. (Normally, I try to break the challenge into two 8-week parts, with a one-week break between them, but this year that would delay the start until mid-February and take us well into June.) 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. Let that be the maximum limit. Try to appreciate the finitude of your resources (time).

Now, look into your calendar from January 31 to May 27. Block out the Easter and May holidays (in Denmark there are quite a few statutory holidays; adjust the challenge to your local conditions; in fact, Easter may not be especially relevant for your purposes). Resolve to write every remaining weekday for at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours. (Never write for a whole day.) Book these sessions into your calendar. In an ideal world you would book 80 three-hour sessions from, say, 9:00 to noon. But you'll probably have to settle for about 70 sessions, many of which will only last 30 minutes. It all depends on your time and, to an extent, on your resolve.

How many hours of writing time does that give you? How much do you realistically think you can accomplish in that time? Set some writing goals on that basis. Then break those goals up into smaller tasks ("things to do") and assign those tasks time in your calendar. Be as a specific as possible about what you will be writing on a particular day. Try to be realistic. If you need time for "free writing" or "thought writing" (writing to find out what you think) book that into your calendar as well, but the important part of the challenge is to find time to write down what you already know needs to be written. If you don't yet know what you're going to say this semester, then your challenge is to spend your writing time figuring that out. Keep in mind that we are only talking about sixteen weeks in the very near future. Surely you know something about what you are going to write.

Assuming that you do have something say, then, here's the challenge: write always and only when (and what) your calendar tells you to. Don't write when "inspired" to do so (unless this happens to coincide with your writing schedule) and do everything possible to keep your appointments with yourself (the writer). Here's a post about how to deal with fits of inspiration.

My posts this week will be about how to make a sustainable writing plan. If this is your first exposure to the challenge, I recommend you commit some time in January to planning, while also doing a bit of (planned) free writing to see what you want to say. Think seriously about what you want (and are able) to get written before summer. Plan to write it. Then resolve only to stick to your plan. Happy New Year!


matt said...

Thomas, how do you negotiate working on multiple projects at once? For example, I am in the prospectus stage and hope to have my prospectus turned in Feb. sometime. So I'll be working on my prospectus and then dissertation, but I also have an article that I would like to complete in the next couple months (ideally by late Feb. early March).

My struggle is that I feel terrible if I devote one whole writing session to the article because I feel as though I should be working on the prospectus/diss. everyday without fail...

Any advice about juggling to substantial projects at this stage in my late grad. student / early jr. scholar career?

Thomas said...

There's absolutely a lot of room to juggle in a good schedule. Work for, say, an hour on the paper every day. (More on Wednesday about how you can micromanage that hour if you choose.) Then spend a couple hours on the prospectus. As the paper nears completion, and you start to get impatient, reverse the times: 1 hour on the prospectus, 2 on the paper. Let both projects know they matter. At times, it is enough to give 15 minutes to one project, just to keep it "real".

All this also works for three or four projects, but your juggling here should probably stretch over two or three days to get to them all. Everyone has their own thresholds. Like I say, more on this on Wednesday and Friday. Thanks for the question.

matt said...

I tried out your suggestion today in a three hour writing session, even though my formal 16 week challenge will not start until the week of 1.24.

I was pleasantly surprised in that I did not have as much trouble transitioning between the two projects as I thought I would. I began working on the article at 9am, and was working on the prospectus by 10am. I was able to get a decent amount of writing done on each project.

I have found the "happy writer" approaches encouraged both here and on SMT as helpful because they naturally lead to getting writing done, and then when I have something that approximates a finished product, I can spend a week or more worth of writing sessions revising my writing!

Thanks, Thomas!