New Year, New Habits

Kerry Ann Rockquemore launches a new series for junior professors.

September 13, 2010

A few weeks ago, I attended my discipline's annual meeting in Atlanta. As is often the case, many people approached me to discuss their writing (or more accurately, the lack thereof). These conversations had a similar awkward quality and painful script that I've only experienced in a confessional booth: no eye contact, hushed voices, palpable guilt, and a touch of desperate hope that another person can say something that will magically wipe away the past and provide a new start. For six days in a row, person after person (from graduate students through senior faculty) pulled me off to a private space to confess various writing sins. Unfortunately, I have no power to grant absolution, so all I could do was listen.

These conversations made me wonder: Why does the perfectly common experience of getting stuck in our writing feel like a dirty little secret? Why do we ALL think that we're the only ones who struggle with writing? And why is our first response to writing problems self-isolation, self-flagellation and avoidance of the very types of community that would help us to move gracefully through our writing resistance? It was particularly striking to me that I heard the same two core themes over and over again:

As difficult as these conversations were, there was one remarkable point of contrast. I had the pleasure of meeting with a group of new faculty who I've worked with over the past year in workshops, on the discussion forum, and in my Faculty Success Program. They spent their summers engaged in consistent daily writing, created writing accountability groups, and stayed connected to communities of support that helped them through the tough times. Our dinner was a celebration of their completed articles, chapters, dissertations, grant proposals, and book manuscripts, as well as the book contracts, external funding, and opportunities that occurred as a result of their proactive networking (aka “getting out there and shaking it”). These women were energetic, engaged, empowered, and, dare I say, delighted with their writing progress and excited to start the new academic year.

The difference between my typical frustrated confessional conversations and the celebration I had with this group of productive writers was so striking that I am feeling inspired to spend another semester walking with each one of you, week-by-week, to develop the time management skills that will: 1) allow you to stay closely connected to your intellectual projects, 2) create time each day for academic writing, and 3) exert your personal power in the areas of your professional life where you DO have control. I believe learning how to manage your time is not only critical to surviving the tenure track, but to making a successful transition from graduate student to professor.

Because the beginning of the academic year is filled with fresh starts, I want to encourage you to make this week a fresh new beginning in your relationship with your writing. The best way to start is to:

Let go of the past and create a plan for the future

Release yourself from any negative and debilitating feelings you have about what has NOT been written in the past. Guilt, disappointment, shame, and frustration aren't useful energies to draw on as you move forward into this new academic year. Instead, forgive yourself and move on by redirecting the energy you have been using to beat yourself up toward accepting that academic writing is a slow and time-consuming process and creating an achievable semester plan.

Commit to writing every day for 30-60 minutes

Researchers have repeatedly demonstrated that the most effective way for new faculty to become productive writer is to write every day for 30-60 minutes, track how you spend your time, and create a mechanism of support and accountability for your writing. In other words, there is an alternative to deadline-driven binge-writing, and it results in higher productivity, lower anxiety, and healthy consistency. To move in that direction: 1) block out 30-60 minutes each day (Monday through Friday) in your calendar for writing and 2) find a community that will provide support and accountability for your writing this semester.

Face Your Resistance

Whenever you start a new habit, you can expect to experience resistance. For academics who are trying to start a new daily writing habit, resistance often takes on the form of procrastination, avoidance, and/or denial. When resistance strikes, I suggest you try three things. First, acknowledge that your resistance has arrived on the scene and name it. Even if it's simply identifying the feeling "I just don't wanna write today!" That's a great start. Second, find the smallest amount of time you can stand for daily writing and show up. If you can write for five minutes every day this week, that's a success. If all you can do in that five minutes is physically pick up your manuscript and walk around your office snuggling it, that's progress! Third, in that small amount of time, reconnect with what you love about your project. You may hate thirty different things about it, but for now try remembering what you love about it. Doing just a little something and loving it will help you tiptoe around your resistance, the positive energy and connection will return, and you will be moving forward on the pathway to establishing a healthy and sustainable writing routine.

Weekly Challenge

This week, I challenge each of you to:

  • Let go of any past writing failures and release yourself from the negative feelings associated with not writing, producing, or finishing your work in the past.
  • Create a semester work plan that identifies your writing goals, outlines the tasks required to meet your goals, and maps the work that will be required to meet your goals onto your calendar (visit the NCFDD discussion forum if you need some examples).
  • Share your semester plan with your mentor and ask for his/her feedback.
  • Commit to 30 – 60 minutes of writing each day this week.
  • Greet your resistance with curiosity and compassion when it shows up (and it will).
  • Commit yourself to whatever supportive community will meet your needs this semester.

I hope this week brings you a fresh start for the new academic year, clarity about your writing goals, and a new spirit of confidence to move forward!

Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore


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