I love all the messages I’m getting from those of you following along on the process of finding your mid-career mojo, especially those of you who are newly naming your current state as “stuck “and determined to get “unstuck” this summer. Having identified the common challenges and emotional blocks faculty experience at mid-career, I want to spend the remainder of this series sharing with you the concrete strategies I’ve seen mid-career faculty use to get themselves back on track and moving down their self-defined post-tenure pathway. Specifically, we’ll talk about jump-starting your writing productivity this week, then move into building new mentoring networks, saying “no” and considering an exit strategy over the next few weeks.
While not all of the post-tenure pathways are paved with writing, the majority of them are. For that reason, one of the quickest and best ways to jump-start your productivity after a period of dormancy is to actually start writing again. That may sound painfully obvious, but the majority of people I work with who are stuck haven’t written in a very long time, feel a profound sense of guilt and shame about it, and can’t imagine how to move back into research productivity amidst their busy schedules. There really is one clear way back into productivity: start writing again. Not just writing once in a while when you’re inspired, but really working towards the development of a consistent and sustainable daily writing habit. And if you told yourself in the past that you "only had to write to get tenure," it may be time to move beyond that limiting belief, re-engage your intellectual life, and step into being the senior researcher and scholar that you aspired to become when you started graduate school.
We know from faculty development research that daily writing leads to greater productivity, lowers anxiety, and serves as the well from which new ideas constantly spring forward. But beyond those benefits, I am a proponent of daily writing because it helps to realign each day with your long-term goals by connecting you to what you love. I run a large national center that serves over 6,000 faculty members, I manage a 13-person staff, and I travel almost every week to a different campus to give workshops. But guess what? No matter how busy I am, every morning starts with my “power hour” of writing. Not because I love writing (I don’t), but because it’s the one thing that concretely moves me toward my long-term goal each day. Daily writing changes the way I think and behave for the rest of the day. And doing it first thing in the morning means that no matter how far the rest of the day goes off the rails, the truly important work moved forward.
In order to actually engage in daily writing, you’ll have to let go of three pervasive myths that academic writers cling to: 1) you need big blocks of uninterrupted time, 2) you need to feel inspired before you can write, and 3) writing is what happens when you’re done thinking. I’m calling these myths because none of them are supported by research on writing. But even more importantly, I want to challenge you to simply try daily writing for two weeks to see how much you can accomplish in 30-60 minutes per day, what happens when you sit down and write (irrespective of your mood), and how writing occurs through every stage of the research process.
12 Steps to Establish a Daily Writing Practice
Let me offer the following 12 steps as guidelines for you to experiment with daily writing.
Step 1: Clarify your writing goals.
Figure out what writing tasks you want to accomplish at the beginning of the week and block them out as specific times and dates in your calendar. Keep in mind that there are two different kinds of energy at work in getting things done: 1) figuring out what you need to do, and 2) actually doing it. If you have to stop and figure out what you need to write at the beginning of your writing time, it may keep you from doing it.
Step 2: Create accountability.
While daily writing is important, accountability is the magic ingredient that will help you to get it done each day and maintain the habit. There’s plenty of ways to create accountability for your writing including professional nags, writing buddies, online writing communities, and coaches. You can write with someone in the same physical space, on Skype, or via chat. Or you can write along and just connect before and after your writing time (by phone, text, or e-mail). It doesn’t really matter how or who, but you should pick whatever mechanism is going to inspire you and make sure that you get the work done.
Step 3: Start each day by with a pause.
Taking a deep breath and a momentary pause to clarify what really matters is a great way to start your day and your writing time. It’s so easy for the daily chaos and electronic distractions to set the tone for our day and lead us to stay locked into a mode of reacting to others. The pause is a time to remind yourself of your post-tenure path and elevate the truly important work that is quietly waiting for your attention (your writing) above the seemingly urgent barrage of requests coming at you.
Step 4: Get your butt in your chair.
This is the most important aspect of developing a daily writing practice: show up and do the work. You must literally get your butt in your chair in front of your computer and keep it there for the duration of your writing time. Treat this time with the same respect you would a meeting with a colleague: show up on time, start on time and end on time.
Step 5: Set a timer.
Timers are wonderful because they keep us on task when we’re trying to establish a new habit. When you first start a daily writing habit, you may consider this unnecessary or beneath you. Try it anyway. One of the biggest mistakes that writers make is grossly underestimating the amount of time that writing tasks take, so a timer is useful in learning how to accurately estimate routine and repetitive writing and research tasks.
Step 6: Manage your resistance.
It’s perfectly normal that as soon as you sit down to write you will feel a burning desire to do anything but write. You’ll want to check e-mail, find the right music, read something before getting started, log on to Facebook to let everyone know you are writing, knock a few quick tasks off your to-do list so you can be fully present, get a snack, fold laundry, or do ANYTHING other than start writing. This is just a wave of resistance and it will pass. The quickest way around it is to tell yourself that you’re only going to write for 5 minutes. That’s all. Then you can do those other things. Once you go for 5 minutes, you’ll be settled in and all of those other burning desires will settle down.
Step 7: Stop when the timer goes off.
People often get excited when they start writing again, but do stop when the timer goes off. You can leave yourself a note about where to start the next day, but don’t just keep going. Why? Because we’re trying to break the binge-and-bust cycle and the only way to do it is to write in consistent, small, daily increments (think marathon, not sprint). In other words, if you overextend yourself one day, you’ll be that much less likely to pick back up the next.
Step 8: Track your writing.
Find a way to log your writing time on a daily basis. There are plenty of ways to do this through online communities and various apps. I find the simpler the better when you’re getting started. The idea is to see your efforts add up and truly feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the week (instead of the perpetual sense of frustration that occurs when we keep putting the writing off).
Step 9: Give yourself a treat.
Every day you write is a day to celebrate! A treat is whatever brings pleasure into your life. It doesn't have to cost any money or take a lot of time; it’s just a way to acknowledge that you deserve some pleasure every single day.
Step 10: Review your progress on Friday.
At the end of the week, take a look at how much you accomplished and how long the various writing tasks are actually taking you to complete. Raising your awareness about the connection between time and work will help you to avoid making promises you can’t keep, setting yourself up for conflict in collaborative work, and will help you to get much better at saying “no” to requests that take time away from your writing.
Step 11: Assess and adjust as necessary.
When establishing a daily writing practice, you want to take a perspective of compassionate curiosity towards your work. In other words, be gentle with yourself when you don’t meet the unrealistic goals you set the first week. And be curious about the difference between how long we imagine it takes to complete writing tasks and the reality of completing them. In that spirit, assess your work and adjust accordingly.
Step 12: Take the weekend off.
Did I forget to mention that the best part about daily writing is taking the weekend off, free of guilt and thoughts of what you should be doing? Your brain needs rest, sleep, and leisure for optimum performance so this part is mandatory! But it will also become easier and easier once you begin to experience the regular forward progress and productivity that results.
The Weekly Challenge:
Now that you’ve identified your post-tenure pathway and cleared away the emotional blockages, it’s time to:
- Carve out your daily "power hour."
- Use it to establish a daily writing practice.
- Find an accountability partner or mechanism that will help keep you moving forward.
- If you feel overwhelmed by the idea of reconnecting with your writing and/or genuinely have no energy available to set up tracking and accountability, join us for a free 14-day summer writing challenge (you write and we provide the support, accountability, and online tracking software).
- View your experiment with daily writing from a perspective of compassionate curiosity and see where it takes you.
If your post-tenure pathway requires you to move from minimal to a much higher level of productivity in your writing, acquisition of external funding, and/or publication record, then developing a daily writing habit is an ideal first step.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore