It’s the first day of the EISA 2019 conference, and we're sitting in a crowded university restaurant waiting to learn how to overcome the procrastination faced by all academic writers. During the next two and a half hours, Beate Jahn, Professor in International Relations at the University of Sussex, persuades everyone in the audience to engage in short, daily writing sessions—with a twist— from today forward. The following post is inspired by this career-altering writing workshop and our own trials and tribulations as academic writers. We present ten inter-related tips on how to stop procrastinating and get things done.
1. Schedule short, daily writing sessions every working day- Set aside a brief period to write every working day, no exceptions. Don’t wait for a gap in your schedule or your courses to end and do not procrastinate until your next sabbatical or vacation. Start writing today.
2. Limit the time you spend writing- Each session can be as short as 5-10 minutes or as long as 2 hours. Anything longer than 2 hours is inadvisable even if you have a deadline tomorrow. As Dunleavy contends, writers experience “diminishing returns in much longer sessions” (2015, p. 34). These include an inability to maintain focus, a feeling of annoyance or boredom with the task, and resistance to continuing the task later. Sound familiar?
3. Schedule your writing like every other work task- Physically schedule each short, daily session in your calendar. For extra points, keep a writing journal where you detail all of your writing projects, when they are due, and the steps you need to take in order to complete them. Supplement this information with a week-by-week schedule including headings for “scheduled writing,” and “actual writing.”
4. Set feasible goals- Each of your writing projects needs a goal. Examples of goals are turning a thesis chapter into an article or revising an article in response to reviewers’ comments. Be specific about your goals and set deadlines for each of them (which you then report in your writing journal!). When you do not reach your goals, reflect on how you can devise more readily attainable goals in the future.
5. Divide each writing project into a series of manageable tasks- One you have set your project goals, it’s time to figure out the tasks you need to undertake in order to achieve them. You should work on one of these tasks during each of your short, daily writing sessions. Your session task can be as self-evident as drafting a section of text or as trivial as going over your reference list. The point is, whatever you need to do to finish your text count as a session task.
6. End each session on time- You must end your short, daily writing session as scheduled. No exceptions. Keeping to the schedule ensures your writing session doesn't drag on until you just can't write anymore. Ideally, you would end each session in the middle of drafting a sentence. This helps you do two things: pick-up where you left off during your next writing session with minimal warm-up, and continue thinking about your text until your next writing session. After all, who can start a sentence and forget about it entirely over the course of a few hours?
7. Get (more) creative- Some writers think they need inspiration in order to sit down and write. Others believe they first need a clean desk or—worse—they just wait for a deadline to approach and hope for the best. These (loosing) strategies will not only stifle your creativity, but they will also force you to produce piss-poor texts. The best way to ensure creativity is to work at a project regularly and methodologically through— you guessed it— short, daily sessions.
8. Reward yourself- Make sure you reward yourself after each short, daily writing session with a 5-minute break, a piece of chocolate, or even just a stretch. The point is, you need something to look work toward aside from the fantastic you’re producing. When you set a manageable task for your session, also consider how you will reward yourself once you complete the task.
9. Avoid distractions and prioritize writing- Think of your short, daily writing sessions as sacred and inviolable. No emails, no phone calls, and no social media. In fact, if you're at work, put a “do not disturb” sign on your door. Speaking of distractions, make sure you prioritize your writing over all other work-related activities. You will always find time to check your email, but you won’t always find time to write. So complete your short, daily writing session before you even open your email. Better yet, reward yourself for completing a writing session by allowing yourself to check your email (See point 8).
Here’s the twist Beate revealed at the workshop:
10. Check-in- In order to use social psychology to your advantage, you need to schedule a meeting once a week with several of your colleagues to check-in. During this weekly meeting, each of you will present your short, daily writing schedule for the upcoming week AND explain how well you met your goals during the previous week. Checking-in will make you see your scheduled writing sessions as a promise to yourself to just sit down and write. Best of all, when you don't meet your goals, you’re force to reflect on not only what happened last week but what you need to do differently this week.
As we learned during that fateful writing workshop at EISA, it’s time to stop procrastinating and agonizing over our writing. It’s time to schedule short, daily writing sessions so we can write deliberately and sustainably. It’s time to speak about the writing process with peers and use peer support to produce our best work. It’s our job as academics to write publishable texts. It’s time to get it done!
Hortense Jongen is a Postdoctoral researcher at SGS. Her research interests include new modes of global governing and mixed methods.
Elizabeth Olsson is a Ph.D. candidate at SGS. Her research interests include constructive conflict and academic writing.
References and suggest readings
Boice, B. (1997) Which is More Productive, Writing in Binge Patterns of Creative Illness or in Moderation? Written Communication, 14, 435-459.
Dunleavy, P. (2015) Authoring a Ph.D. How to Plan, Draft, Write and Finish a Doctoral Thesis or Dissertation, New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Silvia, P. J. (2007) How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.