Finding the Time to Write Your Academic Book with a Young Child [A Guest Post]

Many first-time academic book authors, but especially parents of young children, struggle with finding time to write their book.

I frequently receive questions like these:

I’m starting my second year on the TT as the parent of a now one year old. I spent all last year in survival mode between the sleep exhaustion that comes with a newborn, barely keeping my head above water with new course prep, and getting used to my new institution and department.

I know I need to make progress on my book this year for tenure, but I don’t know how I can make it work. How can I find time to write my book while parenting a young child?

So, I turned to a mentee who’s been through this struggle herself. Here is her guest post, including her top 5 tips for finding time to write your first book as a new parent.

My Mentee’s Academic Book & Productivity Advice for Parents:

I can definitely relate to the exhaustion and overwhelm! In the spring, I was teaching a 3-3 as a VAP and a mom to a 2-year-old, when I was offered an R1 TT job. I knew things had to change to meet the tenure requirements of my new institution.

When I started talking with Katelyn about my habits, I was writing and researching in the summers, but during the school year I only worked on shorter writing projects with a set deadline—specifically, conference papers. I would begin researching in advance as much as I could, but despite the smaller word count of a conference paper, I always felt crunched for time when completing them.

Given how little writing I was fitting in, I felt discouraged about my book project and I couldn’t see how I would ever be able to find time to write it during the semester with a young child.

I have since learned, though, that making a few simple (but not easy!) changes to how I was working could make all the difference.

Here are the top five things I did that allowed me write a book chapter in a semester while maintaining personal and professional balance.

Tip 1: Schedule your writing for your peak.

Your time is an extremely precious commodity when you become a parent. And of that time, none is more valuable than your “peak,” the time when you are most alert and focused, when it comes to the book.

I discovered that working on the book for 15 minutes during this time is worth more than 2 hours during the trough. Why? Because intellectual work is hard and requires us to grapple with ideas. So, trying to write during my trough (afternoon) became a recipe for disaster. I would open a Word document, struggle to focus on my ideas, and when I felt stuck, find my reflexes had taken me to Facebook (time and again!).

In contrast, when I started writing in the morning, I found I was energized, excited, and focused. Even when ideas were challenging, I was able to work through them.

Tip 2: Challenge your assumption that you can’t write before teaching.

I thought this too. My assumptions were: “I will not be able to make the mental switch from research to teaching,” “I need that time to review my lesson before teaching,” and “I need long stretches of time to be productive—a half hour won’t be enough to make meaningful progress.”

In reality, it was much easier to write before teaching than I had expected, and I found I was more productive with only fifty or even fifteen minutes in the morning than I was with an hour or two in the afternoon. Additionally, when I wrote before teaching, I actually entered the classroom with more energy and enthusiasm than before. Being productive in my research inspires me in my teaching, makes me feel like I’m doing something for myself (in other words, it creates balance in my professional life), and helps to silence the imposter syndrome that is often at the back of my mind.

And, I was much more able to be “present” for family time later in the day knowing I had already made progress on my writing that morning.

Tip 3: Batch class prep or administrative work after teaching and in the trough.

Teaching both invigorates and exhausts me. Even on days I don’t teach, my energy and focus wane around 1pm. So, scheduling writing for these times sets me up for disaster.

Instead, I now schedule teaching prep, grading, administrative work, and email for these times, freeing up my most valuable hours (my peak) for focused intellectual work. Making this switch—writing before teaching and prepping class or taking care of other relatively low-energy, low-brainpower tasks afterwards—was the single most transformative change I made to my productivity.

Tip 4: Set actionable goals and use opening and closing rituals.

Thinking about my book has often felt overwhelming, but the feeling became more pressing after parenthood drastically changed when and for how long I could work. That’s why breaking down writing projects into specific, actionable tasks is so important: even when I only have 15 minutes to write, I can still see how my work is progressing.

Opening and closing rituals are an essential part of this. After I began talking with Katelyn, I started logging the start and end times of my writing sessions and noting the next steps in the process. However, in the early days I frequently forgot the closing ritual, and quickly abandoned it entirely. It wasn’t until I spent 15 minutes needlessly rewriting what I’d done the day before that I realized the value of opening and closing rituals: by keeping track of where I wanted to go next, I could pick up my train of thought more quickly, and make the most of my precious peak time (which thankfully falls during regular daycare hours).

Tip 5: Embrace imperfection as part of the growth process.

While the four changes listed are all small, tangible changes, one of the most important shifts I made relates to the thought patterns that made me feel like I needed to be both a perfect mother and a perfect scholar/professor. I internalized (and amplified) these messages from a variety of sources, both personal and professional.

Eventually, though, I realized that these two aspects of my life give me balance, and while I can’t give 100% of my attention to both of them at all times, I can be good enough.

Along this line, I have also discovered that developing and refining productivity and writing habits is an ongoing process. There are days when I arrive late for my writing session. There are other days when I need to stay home with my sick child, or take him to a doctor’s appointment. But I can see that I am making progress, little by little. Understanding that learning from these bumps in the road is part of the growth process has helped me to keep going even when things aren’t “perfect” and keep moving forward.

Your Turn

What tip resonates the most with you? What do you plan to implement first? Or, do you have any other suggestions to complement the advice the guest poster offers above? Grateful for the advice? Please let me know by email and I’ll make sure your response gets to the guest poster!

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