Professors: Monitor & Reframe This Thought Pattern about Writing to Boost Productivity

In previous posts, I show humanities faculty why and how to monitor negative writing behaviors and how to develop an action plan to develop better habits.

But thoughts are just as much a part of your writing as the behaviors you exhibit. Curious about tips to be more productive? Monitoring and replacing just one thought pattern can make a significant difference.

What’s the thought pattern to monitor and replace?

“I don’t know.”

I hear what you’re thinking: “I don’t know? That’s harmless! In fact, it’s the truth about a lot of things!”

If that’s your first reaction, you will probably see the most benefit from doing this work.

Don’t believe me? Read on, and try what I suggest for one week. What you find will likely shock you. I know it did for me when I did it.

What’s Wrong with “I Don’t Know”?

“I don’t know” definitely has its place in the classroom. In fact, it’s important to model being comfortable enough to admit what you don’t know in situations where you are perceived as an authority. Usually in these situations, though, we follow “I don’t know” up with “but I will find out and get back with you,” “why don’t you research that and let us know?,” or “how could we find out the answer?”

But “I don’t know” is the sneakiest of all destructive thought patterns for academic writing. It doesn’t really sound negative; it just sounds like objective reality.

When you probe this thought further, though, you see that “I don’t know” is often something your brain tells you in one of these situations:

  1. You do know, but you don’t like the answer (perhaps because you think it will be difficult).
  2. You have convinced yourself that figuring it out will be hard and take a lot of time. So, you use “I don’t know” to let yourself off the hook of doing this work now.
  3. You have a hard time trusting yourself and your intuitions. You probably do know (or at least could make a solid, educated guess). But, you worry about what will happen if you make the wrong choice. You want to keep your options open and so are using “I don’t know” to avoid eliminating paths.

Regardless of the situation, allowing yourself to continue thinking “I don’t know,” leads to inaction and inefficient writing.

“I don’t know” keeps you in a position of helplessness and leads to inaction. And inaction produces no academic writing.

Forms “I Don’t Know” Can Take & Sample Thoughts

When I first started monitoring the number of times I thought “I don’t know,” I was BLOWN AWAY. Because it tends to preface another, more substantive thought, like “I don’t know what I’m trying to say here,” it usually flew under my radar.

Monitor these types of thoughts:

  • “I don’t know…” (if I should put this paragraph first, what I’m saying here, where this is going, how to introduce this quote, how this piece fits in my book)
  • “I’m not sure…” (how to write more sustainably, if this paragraph works, if this novel belongs in my book)
  • “I have no idea…” (what I’m doing, how to write on teaching days, why I did that, what this text means)
  • “I can’t figure out/decide…” (the path for this section, whether to cut my book in two, what tracking system works best for me)
  • “I’m having doubts about…” (my chapter’s structure, whether there’s really anything here, if I need to revise this section)
  • “I need to do A LOT more research about… “ (other productivity habits, this author, the history of this methodology)
  • “I’m confused about…” (which order is the best for this section, how to be more productive,  whether to send out proposals now)
  • “I don’t think this ____  is right” / “Something’s not right about this…”(routine, paragraph, sentence). This type of thought is perhaps the easiest to fix: identify what, specifically is bothering you, and then write about it until you get to the root of the problem. The solution will usually be apparent.

How to Reframe “I Don’t Know”

First, you must identify which of the three thoughts listed above is underneath “I don’t know.” Then, use one of the replacements below.

Want a handy worksheet to help you monitor and reframe “I don’t know,” with examples how it works? Download a “Monitoring and Reframing ‘I Don’t Know’ Worksheet.

Reframing Underlying Thought #1: “I DO know, but I don’t like the answer.”

Pinpoint what about the answer you don’t like. Is it that you think implementing it will be hard? Take a lot of time? Does it mean you will have wasted time or resources (sunk cost fallacy)? After recognizing these blocks to your progress, commit to implementing your answer. You can revisit it later.

Reframing Underlying Thought #2: “Figuring it out is too hard to do right now.”

This form of “I don’t know” often comes when we haven’t clarified for ourselves what it actually is that we don’t know. So, the way forward is to clarify. Ask: What are all the steps I would need to take to figure this out? What one step is most important? Start there.

A word of caution: this type of process-focused research can trick you into believing you’re making real writing progress. You’re doing something that feels productive, but you’re not generating any words. So be sure, to set time limits (1-2 hours). When you hit your time limit, commit to one course of action.

If, when the time limit comes, you think “I just need to find one more article” or “I definitely can’t do X until I’ve read about Y,” work on these thoughts using “reframing underlying thought #3” below.

Reframing Underlying Thought #3: “I don’t trust myself or fear making the wrong decision.”

We often want to have all of the answers before we start. But we can’t actually know what works and what doesn’t until we try something. So, first, clarify what, exactly, you need to figure out. Then, ask yourself: if you could do NO research on this, what would your best guess be right now? Commit to trying that, and then revise later.

Other Reframing Thoughts to Try

  • “I trust that I actually DO know ___; I just need to clarify it to myself” (the best order for this section, how to write on teaching days, whether this sentence should be a footnote instead)

How to do it: Set yourself a prompt: “Here is how I should…” and then spend 10-15 minutes writing out your answer. I bet you will surprise yourself with how quickly the answer comes to you.

Why it works: You probably have intuitions about what will work in your writing and productivity routine(s), but you have learned to doubt and second guess yourself. Starting from the perspective that you actually DO know what to do, and then clarifying this thought to yourself teaches you to trust your intuitions. Keep practicing it and watch your trust in your own intuition compound over time!

  • “___ is my current best plan for…” (how to structure this chapter,  writing every day,

How to do it: Commit to one course of action right now. Trust that you have enough information to make this decision. Use the commit fully, pause, revise model if you need to.

Why it works: If “I don’t know” leads to inaction, this phrase gets you back into action. What is more, it reminds you that you will have the opportunity to revisit your decision later. Doing something produces more writing than doing nothing.

  • “I’m figuring out…” (whether this fits, which writing tracking system works best for me, how much background I need to give on this topic)

Why it works: Reframing your thoughts in this way puts you back in control by emphasizing what you’re doing to solve the problem. Additionally, it reminds you that progress is always a process: you do what you can, figure out what doesn’t work, and revise your plan.

My Challenge to You

As I said above, I was STUNNED by how many times some form of “I don’t know” snuck its way into my brain, especially when my writing proved challenging.

Monitoring and replacing this one thought pattern is one of the best things you can do to revolutionize your academic writing. Click To Tweet

Commit to monitoring for this thought pattern for one week. Print out this monitoring and reframing worksheet and keep it where you write.

Know that it will not feel natural at first. The first day, you will feel like you’re doing more tracking than actual writing. Your brain will say that this distraction isn’t worth it. It’ll try at all costs to get you to give up monitoring your own thoughts. Trust, though, that monitoring and revising your thought patterns is the work that produces more, efficient writing in the long run.

The second and third days will probably feel similar to the first.

And then it’ll happen.

You’ll start to notice yourself catching these thoughts as they happen–not just during writing sessions, but at other times, too.

And then, if you commit to another week, something extraordinary will happen. You’ll not just notice these thoughts as they happen, but you’ll start to reframe them in the moment, too. It won’t happen every time. And you’ll still frequently allow yourself to think “I don’t know,” but it will get easier.

And your experience of academic writing will change permanently, one reframed thought at a time.

When this happens for you, please email me or write a note in the comments below. Or, better yet, share this post with a writing partner or group who could benefit, too.

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