The summer before I began the tenure track, I read as much about how to balance the competing demands of the tenure-track as possible. How did successful faculty publish more than others? One of the sources, Professors as Writers, prompted me to do one small thing that ended paying huge dividends down the road.
I highly recommend Boice’s Professors as Writers for new faculty and graduate students. Three of his main findings are that the most productive faculty members write regularly (mostly at least every week day), they write before they feel ready, and, most importantly for this post, they consistently track their progress.
The spreadsheet I created was the single most valuable thing I created that summer.
Reviewing the different ways I tracked my writing over the past four years, I made a shocking discovery:How I tracked my writing determined how I wrote, how often I wrote, and how much I published. Click To Tweet
I used a couple of different systems over the four years, but in evaluating their effectiveness, one single variable has consistently predicted how much I published: whether or not I integrated weekly and daily goals into my tracking spreadsheet.
How I Write more Academic Pieces by Tracking Weekly and Daily Academic Writing Goals
Over the past five years, I have experimented with different tracking systems, but what works best for me is very simple. Each week on Sunday, I set a concrete, actionable goal (or set of goals) for each writing project I will be working on. I type these goals into one row of a spreadsheet, so that they are visible as I start each writing session. Before I begin each writing session, I open my tracking spreadsheet, note the date, time, and project I will be working on, then I write down what my goal is for that session in particular. After I have completed my writing session, I note the time I finished, how many words I wrote (if applicable), and what I want to accomplish in the next session (which Bolker calls “parking on the downhill”). Click the image to enlarge a sample week from my tracking log. It might look simple, but I found, paradoxically, that tracking more variables actually made me less productive. Email me if you’d like to know more.
Why do I Track Weekly and Daily Academic Writing Goals?
Writing academic manuscripts (especially in the social sciences and humanities) can take months. Breaking the project down small, concrete tasks to accomplish lowers the stakes for each writing session. It reminds you that you have only one main focus for that session, and increases the likelihood that you will remain “on task” for your writing time. Finally, for impatient writers (one of Boice’s categories), tracking your daily and weekly goals allows you to see that finished writing projects are really the sum of many frequent, low stakes writing sessions, confirming Jensen’s main point in Write no Matter What.
Additionally, because I track goals immediately before and after sessions, the tracking process itself catalyzes my writing. The goal setting has become part of what Bolker calls a writing ritual or Duhigg calls a “keystone habit.” In other posts, I explain why you need a ritual to open your academic writing session and a reward to close each academic writing session, and why I think tracking your goals should be an integral part of this routine.
I have found that when I tracked more variables, but did not explicitly track my daily and weekly goals, I did not write as easily, as much, or as frequently. Looking back on these periods, I now realize that this was because my writing projects tended to be more abstract and unwieldy monsters to tame, rather than the sum of small, well-defined, doable tasks.
Do you currently track your writing? If so, do you incorporate weekly and daily goal setting into your tracking process? If you think this system can work for you, I’d love to hear from you. As always, if this post has helped you, I bet someone else would find it useful, too. I’d be grateful if you’d share it with a friend, colleague, or writing partner using the buttons below.