When I worked as an assistant professor, I had a huge teaching load. I think many people can relate to this… Students who are asking questions are often the most motivated and interesting ones, so you are also motivated to give something in return. When you provide feedback, this sometimes triggers new questions, you schedule a meeting and discuss, or they send more questions. Or others see that you are approachable and also pose questions. During the exams, you notice the students who posed questions and integrated insights into their answers, so you believe you are doing something good. You receive kudos for your commitment and approach. And so you feel that this work is so valuable and rewarding… You can literally hear students asking questions, and at the end of the day, you go back to your desk, sit back, and remember on what you were writing… You do not hear these ideas and papers, but it pops in when you have room for it.
Well, this is how it went in my case, verbally strong students, who become the most thankful and appreciative of your education and open nature of a teacher. And sometimes, research was able to sneak in, but it became the last thing on my to-do list…
The past couple of years, I explored ways to deal with this, put research and writing higher on my to-do list or agenda, to make it structural part of my activities, and balance it with attention given to students. This was a little bit of a tough cookie, not so much a piece of cake. I want to share some insights which helped me and may help or inspire you.
Make your writing structural part of your day is often provided advice. I kept track of my writing process for a couple of weeks and months. When am I writing, during which part of the day, how much, when do I feel to be the most productive, et cetera. I noticed a recurring and systematic pattern. In the morning, I am really ‘fresh’ and creative, motivated, intrigued by my surroundings in a scientific way, very much alert and present. I also noticed that I aim to write for hours and I think that this is realistic, but that 20 to 45 minutes is my range of concentration radius. So my first ‘shift’ is to write 45 minutes starting from 8 a.m., and my last ‘shift’ will end in 20 minutes at 11 a.m..
But what do I do in this ‘writing time’? What do I count as writing time? Is it also about looking for literature and writing references? My ‘objective’ or tangible measure is the word count in a document, but my procrastinatory nature often tells me to add some references to have a quick win and steep rise in my excel sheet with the chart of my writing process. – do not judge, I am being completely honest here…
Next, I thought to schedule some deadlines and schedule meetings with my imaginary P’s (papers that turned into ‘people’). But I already knew: “my meeting tomorrow morning with ‘Polly’ (I called one of my papers Polly) is not an actual meeting, so I can run late and reschedule if necessary.
I looked for ‘accountability partners’; first I thought they could just keep track of the process, but I started to realise that I am also very much of a social being who wants to discuss, hold brainstorms, look for advice, and present thoughts to others to check whether it comes accross. So I started looking for co-authors and started to actively think about collaborations and to articulate that I need meetings to proceed actively with papers.
Creativity versus creation
I also realized that I have a difference between creativity time and creation time. I heard about this difference during a podcast and it helped me to set some boundaries. I have some post-its which I put in the creativity time when something creative pops up during creation time. Often, whilst working on a different paper, I think of an idea for something else. I put it down on a piece of paper and put it on my memory board which I focus on during creativity time. I need this time also to be delineated. Only producing stuff is just not realistic, I want some room and head space to reflect and be creative.
‘Eat the frog’
I also followed training in productivity, efficiency, and project management. I addressed that I really do not like administration and financial activities (paying bills – who loves that anyway?!) and the teacher told me to kill the frog first. Do it first thing in the morning. Get it over with…
I did that for a couple of weeks and I realized how much time administration consumes and started to miss my creativity and creating time so bad. I wanted to get back to the writing-table and just write. So I scheduled that I could only eat a frog for 45 minutes.
Writing retreats sound like music to my ears. But unfortunately, they are not always possible. Especially during the pandemic. I looked for ways to work around this. I made an ergonomic writing place at home, but many things came in between the “soup and the potatoes”; neighbours, laundry, dishwasher, internet issues, and so on. Again, things that seem to cry louder than papers…
I bought a typing machine in a second-hand store, I tried to switch all electronics off. Next, people began to call me, wondering whether I was still alive and kicking. Several friends wanted to chat, which I also liked, and time flew by… Also… Fun fact… I like to start working at a round number (I know…); if my call ended at 10.03… then I wanted to wait till 11 o’clock (oh boy, I should do something about this).
So again, accountability partners to the rescue. We called over skype without sound, just to have someone writing at the same time. It worked for a couple of sessions, but adjusting agendas was a challenge that also restricted us. Sort of solution: putting mirrors at my desk so I feel watched or at least that somebody is there. This brings back memories of psychology courses on how to make children behave desirably…
By now, I am building a writing cabin; I am still in doubt about which wood to use, but electricity and water is present in the back of my garden. Nice idea… or does it also serve as a distraction? I envision how nice it would look; victorian style with some wooden ornaments and with trees climbing on the outside walls and tiny windows with a lot of coziness…
Maybe I just do not love to write. Nope. I am 100% convinced that this is what I want, need, and should do. I have so many ideas, insight, and knowledge that I want to share. But it is so hot in Belgium at this time, my body feels a high need and pressure to rest. Well… then you should read; ‘give.yourself.time’. And just as you do not want others to feel overly pressured, you should also not impose this on yourself.
Celebrate! (with chocolate!)
I feel that submitting a paper is a big (mental) step or hurdle. Everything needs to be correct; author guidelines should be met and your paper should make sense because it will be sent to different people. Somebody else will read it, and I do not want this to be total rubbish. And so, pressing the submission button became a long leap.
One day, I shared this with colleagues and agreed to press the button on a specific day (I believe it was the 24th of April a couple of years ago). They remembered, asked, and I shared a print screen of my cursor hesitating to press the button. It gave me so much joy that we were in this together and it helped me, but also them to be aware of others during this process. You are not in this alone.
I also asked a journal whether they could give balloons or some “yays” after the screen that you submitted, just to make you feel good and happy about it, but the dry and dull message apparently cannot be changed. Pity.
“De vloek van de koffiekoek” (the curse of sweets and yamyams)
After eating lunch, I often feel ready to take a nap. And especially, when I eat something sweet. Of course, I would not suggest skipping lunch, but eating healthy is crucial.
Finally, you cannot fully force creative processes. Things take time. Papers and ideas develop over time. They also need your sleep to get in the right spots of your brain.
Further reading, tips and tricks
- I am so thankful for Kathy Mazak’s effort of reaching out to individuals with the same struggles. Her early podcasts helped me a lot.
- Some journals are also developing podcasts on how publications developed over time (for example: Academy of Management Review). For me, this is very inspiring; hearing turning points during the development of a paper helps me to also confide or acquiesce in the (often slow) process of a paper.
- Many different tools can help in organizing projects, papers, and writing time. From computer programs like Trello, but also plain Excel, to smartphone apps like Forest, Avocation, all kinds of pomodoro’s which provide pop-ups and can interrupt distraction. Also a ‘driving app’ can help; certain apps send an autoreply when you are driving (“I am currently unavailable because I am driving”); I switched this thing on when I wanted to write. However, this can also trigger others to go in discussion with the autoreply (my mother in law send a reply: “well, okay, good that you let me know that you are driving, but you should not be texting when you are driving, are you being careful?”).
This toy plays hide-and-seek, it keeps on talking till you find it… I’ve put it on one of my manuscripts…