In his recent New Yorker essay “Later: What Does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves?” James Surowiecki describes the human experience of “going through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience.”
He notes the phenomenon of being always about to do something, but the moment never arrives, and asserts “academics, who work for long periods in a self-directed fashion, may be especially prone to putting things off.”
Yo, James: You’ve got us pegged.
Our first two columns in this series on supporting academic writers addressed two areas we academics cannot put off: aligning writing projects with departmental expectations and managing writing time by minimizing distractions.
This installment (if we don’t put off finishing it) focuses on avoiding the temptation to procrastinate by structuring and sustaining writing momentum.
We’ll start by agreeing with Mr. Surowiecki about the complicated relationship human beings have with time. All of us, and perhaps especially academics.
The Academic Life
As academics, we work in a three-ring circus (Toews and Yazedjian, 2007), where we’re expected to perform equally well as teachers, servers, and writers. And simultaneously, at that.
Two of the rings (teaching and serving) involve constantly entertaining paying customers with day-to-day acts related to the mission of the university: delivering a high-quality education and keeping programs and departments running at top speed. The third ring under the big academic tent -- writing -- lurks in the shadow of teaching and serving, nibbling at our conscience, waiting for ... more time.
The first two rings have lots of people in the audience, including students who evaluate our teaching and colleagues, attentive to how we are fulfilling our service expectations.
However, the third ring appears to have no one in the audience. Or at least we’re not always positive who the audience for our scholarly writing includes, so it’s tempting to put off addressing them.
In truth, this ring is arguably the most important place to perform. Especially when it’s time to submit materials for promotion and tenure.
Supporting Your Writing Life
In our WWU Faculty Writing Series & Residency, we encourage, cajole, and nudge our colleagues to develop a systematic, sustained approach to meeting the scholarship requirements of their university department amid the challenge of teaching and serving.
And to avoid that little voice that entices us to step out of the writing ring, to put off the writing part of our jobs. We work against this inclination to delay delivering the (written) goods until later because it’s a lot easier to talk about our writing projects than it is to do them.
We like the advice of Robert Boice in his book, Advice for New Faculty, to actively seek systematic ways to move a writing project along when small amounts of time present themselves in a busy schedule. He calls this “active waiting,” a means of being patient and productive and avoiding an all-or-nothing approach to writing.
This advice requires having an eye toward the long-term rewards of writing, in this case getting promoted and tenured. And not becoming comfortable with passively waiting for writing time to appear.
As the British actor and journalist Christopher Parker notes, "Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill."
Here are some tips we have developed for enjoying the pay-as-you-go approach. As you read, consider which of these tactics you use as an academic writer to develop and maintain momentum.
Let us know of tips you don’t see on our list. We’re actively seeking new habits and rhythms as writers, too.
Tips for Structuring and Sustaining Writing Momentum
1. Examine your habits and tendencies.
Consider your recent progress as a writer and look ahead to what you expect to work on in the next few weeks and months. Develop a timeline to map out the small steps you will take to reach your goals. Consider transferring your timeline goals into your daily planner. Ask yourself:
- How will you proactively and consciously fit writing time into your three-ring circus schedule, given your other obligations (like having a personal life)?
- Are you able to commit to a daily writing plan at the same time each day, or will you need to sandwich writing between teaching, serving, and other obligations?
- What sort of writing space and writing tools (books by other great writers, reference books, pens, paper, candles, chocolate, inspiring photographs music) will you most look forward to returning to, day after day, with a smile on your face?
- What can you change about your current schedule to allow for using your writing space more often?
Once you’ve established some new habits as a writer, it’s time to find a new rhythm. Consider this your opportunity to create a new mix tape to support your writing progress.
2. Make a commitment.
Making steady progress as a writer is like committing to an exercise routine. It’s a challenge to get on track, but once you do, the feelings of confidence and satisfaction begin to sustain your every move. Consider your personal style and work habits and develop an appropriate routine, and then you’ll have a writing regimen that will be more likely to work for you:
- Will you work alone? Create accountability and support by meeting with a writing partner or group? A combination?
- What do you need to do each week to be ready to carry out your plan for the week?
- Who can you check in with, every so often, to “stay public” with your intentions and seek feedback from when your writing plan stalls?
- How will you acknowledge the thrill of meeting small goals? Can you schedule a short personal writing retreat at a cabin or a friend’s house to celebrate your new groove?
Our colleagues report immense satisfaction once they begin to put writing in the forefront of their daily lives. Like any new positive habit, it’s important to anticipate the steps you’ll continue to take to maintain your momentum.
3. Celebrate your accomplishments.
Honor your commitment to putting writing in the forefront of your schedule as a faculty member, as the “ring” of the circus where you are the star. Celebrate small goals, cherish the positive moments you experience as a writer, and realize the value of reclaiming writing time:
- How will you stay positive about your writing progress this next month?
- What will sustain you, physically, mentally, and emotionally?
- What will you do to have fun?
- How will you handle setbacks or challenges to staying on track?
- What can you set up, now, to reward yourself along the way?
Taken together, these suggestions could help you readjust your tendency to defer jumping into the writing ring and showing the world what’s on your mind.
Next time you feel like you should sit down and write, do it. Let it be your moment to act and not procrastinate. And celebrate the one small step you’ve taken toward your larger writing goals.
Try it for a day, and then another day, and see how it goes. It just could lead to feeling absolutely and positively fulfilled when your portfolio reviewers notice you’ve paid attention to all three rings of the academic circus.
Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, agrees.
His rule for writing? Write every day, even when you don’t feel like it, because regaining momentum takes three times as much energy as sustaining momentum. He calls this a law of literary physics.
We like this law. How about you?
Karen Hoelscher is professor of education at Western Washington University, where she guides teacher education majors into and out of the K-8 certification program in the year-long internship program at Woodring College of Education, and writes about intercultural communication and faculty development. Carmen Werder is director of the Teaching-Learning Academy and of Writing Instruction Support at Western Washington University, where she is also on the faculty of the Department of Communication and part of WWU Libraries.