Finding Time to Write Your Academic Book #4: Container Routine 101

This post is the fourth in a series designed to help first-time academic book authors find time to write their book during the semester.

In part 3, I told you how the container routine will help you solve five of the most common struggles first-time book authors face.

In this post, I’m going to walk you through making your first container routine. The basic idea is that you are going to determine a “default template” for how you spend your time each week.

Ready? Let’s go!

Step 1: Block off Non-Negotiable Commitments

Open your calendar app or weekly planner to a “model” week of your choice, or open a blank Excel spreadsheet. It’s best to have a weekly view. I like to make mine in Google Calendar.

Now, block off all your non-negotiable commitments, such as teaching, child pickup, etc. Be sure to include travel time. If you drop off a child at daycare and teach MWF 10-11 and 12-2, yours might look like this:

Container Routine Sample Schedule Non-Negotiable commitments

*Note: I always color code my container routine because it helps me see, at a glance, what type of task I am supposed to be doing. Doing so also helps me see the relative balance of my schedule. Color coding yours, though, is optional.

Step 2: Make a List of Other Non-Negotiable Commitments whose Times you Decide

Now, make a list of all the things that you must make time for. Your categories might be different than mine, but some common ones include:

  • Research  (can, alternatively, be split into: Writing vs. Revising, or Writing vs. Research)
  • Teaching Prep & Grading
  • Office Hours
  • Triage Time
  • Family Time
  • Social/Entertaining Time
  • Exercise (or classes such as dancing)
  • Service Work

Step 3: Schedule Your High Focus Non-Negotiable Commitments

Your level of focus decreases by about 20% during your daily trough–usually between 2 and 5 pm.  So, that is the prime time for low-stakes administrative work, not for academic research, which requires a lot of focus.

In this step, you should plan your high-focus tasks first. Most people find that they are most focused in the morning and evening. So, If you have not yet tracked your daily focus and energy levels, schedule your high focus tasks for the morning. Here’s what your routine would look like scheduling your research for the morning:

Container Routine plus research

Right now, you might have two objections:

  1. “I cannot possibly write before teaching!” If this sounds like you, stay tuned because you will soon hear from someone who recently thought this, too.
  2. “But I can’t possibly make enough progress writing only one hour per day!” Unless you are already consistently writing for at least one hour per day most days, the goal of your first container routine will be to practice setting and keeping appointments with yourself, not accumulating hours of writing time. Trust me. If and only if you already write four times per week for an hour each time, you can make your research sessions longer.

Step 4: Schedule Your Low Focus Non-Negotiable Commitments

Many of my mentees find teaching exhilarating yet extremely draining. So, they find the time after they teach is best spent in one of the following ways:

  • Office Hours
  • Triage and Email
  • Grading Low-Stakes Assignments (quizzes)
  • Administrative work (grade entry)

So, you might arrange your container routine to look like this:

Container Routine Low Focus All Days

Note the following:

  • Do follow your departmental guidelines for the number of office hours you are required to have, and departmental culture regarding the number of days per week you are on campus.
  • You will notice I have “double booked” two slots. This is how suggest people indicate to themselves a “default” task they will do when not otherwise occupied. For instance, if no students attend office hours, you will use that 2-3:30 pm slot on “Triage” activities. I have found that having this “default” time use significantly helps faculty not “waste time.”

Step 5: Schedule Your Other Blocks of Time for Focus and Priorities

Now, fill in the remaining slots. Here is what a sample container routine might eventually look like:

Final Sample Container Routine

Note that I have only filled in dinner and later for Monday as an example.

If you write well at night, you might schedule “revising,” “reading” or “brainstorming” blocks in the late evening.

Here is another sample container routine, made in Excel, for an R1 assistant professor, showing a whole week (click to enlarge):

Container Routine R1 Professor

Step 6: Evaluate and Revise Your Container Routine: Does it Reflect Your Priorities?

One benefit of color coding my container routines is that I can quickly assess if  I have found spots for all of my non-negotiable commitments. I simply ask:

Is there a red (research), orange (triage) and yellow (run) block each day? If not, I need to adjust my container routine. You can also use the colors to assess whether the balance of your job responsibilities (teaching, research, and service) are reflected in your weekly time blocks.

You can also assess your container routine for efficiency by asking: Have you scheduled many short sessions or longer blocks of time devoted to one type of task. Generally speaking, switching tasks disturbs our focus for 23 minutes, so, when possible, try to batch your work.

Where to Go From Here?

The reason it’s called a “container routine” is because you will “fill” those containers each week (or day) with actionable tasks. You now have a concrete “spot” where everything goes.

Let’s say, for instance, that  you’re in the middle of your “research” block, when you suddenly remember that you need to complete some paperwork to turn in the following day. Instead of doing it immediately,  you can quickly make a note and complete that task during your “triage” container later that same day.

But, I’ll show you how to “fill” your containers and use your container routine each week soon.

Your Turn

What “container routine” questions do you have? Do you currently use a form of time blocking? What challenges have you faced in planning your week? Let me know in the comments below or by email.

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