You will likely fall into one of two camps. If you’re in the first, you might find yourself frustrated and disappointed about your productivity. You know you can write more (or “be more productive”), but it feels like something is wrong with you. “I don’t know how other people do it!” you tell yourself.
Or, you fall into camp two: it feels like something is wrong with your environment. You just “can’t find the time to write.” You eke out most of your writing at the last minute. Then, exhausted, you take a break, only to find yourself facing an imminent deadline again.
Regardless of which camp you fall in (or even if you don’t quite see yourself in either), I’ve got great news. Like everything else, how much you write is dependent on an interconnected set of habits, thought patterns, and beliefs.
The good news? All of these are behaviors you can take charge of and develop or change. Here’s how.
Setting regular writing appointments allows you to make consistent progress over time, ultimately making scholarly writing more pleasurable. Committing time on your calendar to writing, too, proves to yourself that your academic writing is a priority.
But this habit consists of two parts: both setting and keeping appointments. After all, you can’t write if your butt is not actually “in the chair.”
If you find yourself regularly setting writing appointments but struggling to actually keep them, you probably need external accountability. Proceed directly to habit 6 (externalizing accountability often but thoughtfully) below. Or, if you schedule your writing but frequently feel tired and lack focus, jump to habit 4 (tracking your focus, time, energy, and progress).
Academic writing projects–whether conference papers or academic books–are large and nebulous. Telling yourself you’re “writing your article,” or worse, “writing your book” can quickly overwhelm and stall you.
Another benefit? When you sit down to write, you don’t waste your precious time deciding what to do.
Writing works best when it becomes a habit. As Charles Duhigg shows, habits are triggered by cues. Creating an opening routine–a series of actions you do each time you sit down to write–can help you start your writing session more easily because over time, your brain associates those actions with writing.
Closing routines–a series of actions you do each time you end a writing session–support habits 2 and 4. Ideally, your closing routine consists of at least two pieces. First, you record when you ended your session and what you accomplished (habit 4). You also set actionable tasks for your next session. That way, you spend your precious time writing, not deciding what to do.
Our energy and focus do not stay consistent throughout the day, but everyone’s chronotype (how your energy fluctuates daily) is different. Once you know your specific chronotype (The Productivity Project offers great suggestions for discovering yours!), you can schedule your writing sessions–and everything else!–strategically around your own peak, trough, and recovery.
Additionally, our brains are bad at predicting how long things will take and remembering what we accomplished. These two factors combine into one pernicious problem with academic writing: we underestimate how long things will take and then we feel like we’re not making any progress. Talk about demoralizing!
Tracking what and how much you get done in every session helps you combat this issue from both sides. First, tracking how long specific tasks (writing a paragraph, close reading a passage, etc.) will help you better estimate similar tasks in the future. Second, tracking what you accomplish in sessions will show you, concretely, what you’ve accomplished. Whenever you feel like you’ve been spinning your wheels for weeks, just pull out your spreadsheet and look at what you’ve actually done. I promise you’ll be amazed.
Even cultivating the habits of scheduling, keeping, and tracking writing appointments do not make you immune to disruptions or negative thoughts. But these thought patterns and disruptive behaviors during writing sessions are nothing more than behaviors. So, the good news is they can be changed!
The first step to change any behavior is to notice that it is happening, and to approach it with curiosity. This is no different for how you can monitor your negative thought patterns and behaviors during writing sessions.
The second step to change any behavior is to identify its trigger(s) and develop a replacement behavior. Here, too, writing is no different. So, if you find yourself checking your email every time you finish a section, check out how you can develop an alternative–and more productive–habit.
Do you frequently find yourself binge writing just before deadlines? Do you find conferences–having real people in front of you–extremely motivating? Or, do you intend to write but frequently find something urgent comes up? If so, you might be an obliger. (Take Gretchen Rubin's free quiz to find out).
Most people–but especially obligers–need external accountability to hold themselves to their own expectations. You want to go to the gym, but find you don’t go unless your workout buddy is counting on you to be there.
You can externalize a number of writing tasks. Set a target number of writing sessions per week, and agree to text a friend when you begin each one. Agree to write with someone in a coffee shop three days per week. Or
But, external accountability comes with one big catch. Whom you choose is critical. Ask too close a friend, and you are likely to feel comfortable making excuses (which she might not call you out on). But folks you don’t know well might not be nurturing enough to provide both accountability and support and encouragement. And others (especially those close to you) might flat-out resent having to be your accountability.
Finally, academic (or any other type of writing) is about communicating ideas–that is, transferring them from our head (where they make perfect sense) to the page, into our reader’s head. Getting feedback at different stages helps us not only clarify our ideas and think through points we might have missed.
But it also gives us the most valuable insight possible: what our reader does (or does not) understand about our ideas. Doing justice to our ideas means working to communicate them effectively. So, we need to regularly ask “what about this doesn’t make sense?”
There is one qualifier here, though: purposefully. Different types of comments are valuable at different stages of writing. So, when you solicit feedback on a piece of writing (except, of course, with peer review) , it is also your responsibility to help your reader understand what type and scope of feedback would be most useful to you.