Dear Kerry Ann,
I just finished my first semester on the tenure-track. I’m so grateful to have a job but I feel totally exhausted and completely overwhelmed by the amount of work. Last semester I worked all the time, but I didn’t make any progress on my research and none of my writing projects moved forward. I thought I could get caught up over the break but with the holidays, travel, and family commitments, that didn’t happen. The new semester starts Monday and I’m already having nightmares. I don’t know how to make things different and live without constant anxiety about what’s not getting done.
Does it get better? If so? When and how?
Dreading the New Term
Most of the emails I’ve received in the last two weeks have been from tenure-track faculty members who are finding themselves exhausted so you’re not alone. In fact, lots of new faculty members are coming to the conclusion that waiting for large blocks of uninterrupted time for their writing is an ineffective strategy (because no such blocks materialized). And since this is the season for resolutions and change, I’ve also been inundated with requests for which resolutions people should make to get control of their work life (so many that the email above is a composite so as not to reveal individual details).
Trying to change lots of things at once rarely works. So I’m going to make the bold suggestion that you only need to make one resolution: start a daily writing habit. By “daily writing” I mean scheduling at least 30 minutes each morning to complete the myriad tasks that occur between the spark of a new idea and sending a manuscript out for review. I’m suggesting this one resolution because it’s the one behavior change that is most likely to increase your productivity, decrease your anxiety, and re-orient each day around the intellectual work that you love.
Starting a daily writing practice sounds so simple, but many people struggle to do so. Here are a few concrete suggestions for getting started and making the new habit stick.
Start With A Supportive Team
The reason that most people fail to keep their resolutions is because they rely on willpower to fuel behavior change. Trust me, it doesn’t work. Instead, I suggest adding what researchers have shown works consistently: community, support, and accountability. Specifically, find another academic writer (or better yet, a group of academic writers) who are committed to: 1) writing at least 30 minutes every day, 2) supporting one another in the new habit, and 3) tracking their progress in a visible format. It doesn’t have to be fancy, expensive, or time consuming. It can be as simple as creating a shared spreadsheet where everyone collectively tracks their writing time and setting up a Google hangout that you keep open to encourage one another. There are all kinds of different ways you can structure an accountability group, but what really matters is that you’re all committed to daily writing for a specific period of time.
I recommend starting with a 14-day experiment with daily writing. That means block out your writing time for the next two weeks first thing in the morning. That’s right, I mean put your writing time in your calendar just like you would a meeting with someone else and treat it with the same respect you would a meeting with an important colleague: start on time, get down to business, and end on time. In addition to the time, try designating what specific tasks you need to accomplish in that time (i.e., draft an abstract, insert 2 tables in the findings section, revise 2 pages of the introduction).
Recognize the Battle of the Moment
When the time comes that is in your calendar, you will have a powerful urge to do anything but write. I call this “the battle of the moment” because you will inevitably face resistance when you try to establish a new habit. You will either win the battle and jump into your writing or you will lose the battle and end up on your email, Facebook, the phone, (or whatever seemingly urgent but unimportant activity is demanding your attention). You are most likely to win the battle of the moment if you write with someone else (either virtually or physically), if you physically set a timer, and if you recognize the battle for what it is.
Rethink Your Approach to Writing
Most people have a laundry list of beliefs about why daily writing won’t work: I can’t get anything done in 30 minutes, I need long blocks of uninterrupted time, I can only write when I feel inspired, I can only write when there’s an external deadline looming, etc…. I’m not asking you to change your beliefs, I’m asking you to figure out what they are and treat them as hypotheses to be tested during your experiment with daily writing. In other words, at the end of the experiment (two weeks of daily writing), you can take a look at your tracking data and ask yourself: Are my beliefs about writing true? Are my beliefs about writing moving me towards my goal of winning tenure? Are my beliefs limiting me or are they creating possibilities? If they no longer work, then it’s time for a new way of thinking about your writing.
Ultimately, the reason why daily writing is the only resolution you need for the new year is because the practice of doing it will bring to the surface all of the internal reasons that keep you constantly working but not moving forward on your research: fear of failure, the impostor syndrome, putting others needs before your own long term success, lack of priorities, bad habits that have carried over from graduate school, or not knowing what you’re doing. I’m not sure what the undercurrent will be for you but I encourage you to welcome whatever comes up.
I hope the simple approach of of having one (and only one) resolution for the new year and surrounding yourself with a supportive community and accountability feels like a huge relief. As always, I welcome your questions, comments and concerns on my Facebook page (or via email at DearKerryAnn@FacultyDiversity.org).
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore