Finding Time to Write Your Academic Book #3: Introducing the Container Routine

I work with junior humanities and qualitative social science faculty on tackling their book revisions.

Writing an academic book, though, is not just a matter of mastering its content, form, and process.

It also involves trying to find time to write it while still adjusting to a new institution, teaching more classes than ever before, and balancing work and life.

Most of the first-time book authors I talk to desperately want to find time to write their book. They just can’t see where in their week this time could possibly come from.

Enter my recommendation: the container routine.

At its core, the container routine is like a weekly time map (see the Chronicle blog article “How to Make a Time Map for the Summer”): it’s a template for how you will spend your time each week.

Making a container routine means pre-budgeting your time and committing to what types of tasks you intend to do when.

There’s no one absolute right way to make a container routine, just a set of principles that will help guide you in making one that works for you.

Next week, I’ll show you how to use these principles to make your first container routine and find time to write your book this semester.

But this week, I’ll show you the logic behind why and how the container routine works.

Below, I’ve laid out some of the most common time-related struggles junior faculty writing their first academic book experience and show you how the container routine can help.

You Don’t Feel Like You Have Time For Everything and the Book (or Your Sleep!) is The First Thing You Sacrifice

Ask junior faculty in the middle of the semester, when they’re drowning in an endless sea of essays and barely keeping up on course prep, to add just one more thing to their to-do list and they snap. There’s already not enough time, and now you’re supposed to add one more thing?

That’s what trying to add writing your book in during the semester frequently feels like for junior faculty.

A container routine, on the other hand, asks you to view things differently: not to add additional things in to an already overburdened schedule.

Rather, it challenges you to make all the pieces of your weekly time puzzle fit together, before you begin the semester.

In so doing, it does something else, too.

It shows you that you can get it all done. You can sleep. You can relax. And you can write your book, too.

For many junior scholars writing their first book, seeing how this can all work is revolutionary. They had lived in triage mode for so long, that they had begun to assume it was the only way.

Of course, though, making a container routine involves making decisions about what to prioritize on a regular basis. And implementing it involves discipline.

But just knowing that there is a way to get it all done other than operating on 4 hours of sleep per night can be liberating.

You Feel Like How You Spend Your Time Changes Drastically from Week to Week

If you feel this way, you might think the container routine–which asks you to have a more-or-less regular weekly schedule–will never work for you.

But you might be thinking about it backwards. Think of it this way: the reason your time use changes drastically from week to week might be precisely because you don’t average out your weeks.

Consider this scenario. On average you spend 8 hours per week prepping your classes and 8 hours grading. One week, you complete your 8 hours of prep, but none of your classes turned in major assignments. So, you spend no time grading. But you also don’t put those 8 hours toward prepping ahead.

The next week, however, you still need to spend 8 hours of prepping. But two of your classes have major assignments due, which will take 16 hours to grade. Where last week you spent 8 hours, now, you need to “find” 24–a full 8 hours more than your average.

Instead, the container routine helps you average out your time better.

You can’t necessarily control how much time you spend grading each week. But, using the container routine, spending less time grading one week means you have additional “teaching” hours to spend prepping ahead. So, when you get to the week with 16 hours of grading, you have less class prep to do.

You Find Yourself with Frequent, 15- or 30-Minute Chunks of Time That You Can’t Seem to Use Effectively

If you feel this way, or that you “spend your whole day putting out fires,” you could greatly benefit from developing a container routine.

When you develop your container routine, you will deliberately schedule a triage time each day to deal with the fires that arise. Knowing that you have a dedicated time to put out fires can help you maintain focus instead of switching tasks (which costs you 23 minutes of focus each time!).

Second, and relatedly, batching–doing many repetitions of the same type of task all in one chunk–is a core container routine principle. So, rather than spend 15 minutes every day entering grades, you might “batch” your grade entry into one 35 minute chunk. Batching necessarily means you can be more efficient with your time.

You Feel Like Your Daily Schedule Does Not Reflect Your Priorities

Pre-planning your time also allows you to assess how well your priorities align with how you spend your time. The container routine will give you a visual representation of your time and help you ensure that you make time for what’s important to you.

You Get Distracted Easily or Struggle to Concentrate When Writing Your Book

This issue might signal that you are trying to write during your trough: the period when your cognitive abilities dip by about 20%. 

The container routine helps you pre-schedule your time around your own daily energy and focus rhythms.

Intrigued by the container routine and ready to learn more about how it can help you write your book during the semester? Check back next week, when I’ll show you how to make your semester container routine, show you some advanced tips, and help you avoid common container routine mistakes.

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