With a Little Help From Your Friends

Eszter Hargittai describes how a writing accountability group can help you meet your goals over the summer.

June 29, 2018
 
 
Istockphoto.com/uzenzen

Every academic has high hopes for the summer. It is the time to catch up on writing that kept being pushed to the bottom of the to-do list during the academic year. Come classes in the fall, however, many are disappointed in their lack of summer progress.

I am here to share a strategy that I believe can help you avoid that end-of-season disappointment. Some friends and I started a writing accountability group in January 2017, and it has been fantastically helpful. Below I describe how the group came about, some of the logistics of setting up such a support network and some lessons learned from our experiences so far.

It started with a friend from graduate school asking on Facebook whether anyone was interested in becoming a writing buddy, something she thought would be helpful as she geared up to work on a book. I responded enthusiastically, as I had been looking for some form of social writing accountability. While I have been consistently good about publishing since my early graduate school years, I had never established a routine and was regularly frustrated by my writing projects relegated to the bottom of task lists.

Tenure and promotion can certainly result in less anxiety about productivity, but it also means increased service loads with yet less time for research. One of my main reasons for pursuing an academic career was to do research, so I wanted to figure out how I could make it part of my everydays. I have now managed to achieve that, and I give lots of credit to our group. For one thing, 2018 has seen me publish more peer-reviewed journal articles than any other (seven journal articles in some of our field’s top journals, with others already accepted for publication), with lots of other work in the pipeline. While there are probably other reasons for this as well, the group has been instrumental in keeping me on track.

We had one explicit criterion for members: they had to be outside our own research field. That may seem counterintuitive, but the purpose of the group is not to help each other with the writing but rather to be accountable about regularly doing our writing. We figured it was imperative that we feel completely comfortable sharing not only our successes but also our struggles, and we felt that we might do that more easily with people who had no professional links to our work.

We also thought it would work best to have everyone be at a similar point in their career -- in our case, tenured -- because people at different stages may have other considerations as they struggle to fit writing into their daily routine. We ended up abandoning that particular criterion, and it has worked out fine -- so not all our initial rules have proven to be necessary. I still appreciate that we are in different academic worlds, however, since that way we are not distracted by certain details that are largely immaterial to our central goal: daily writing.

Finding people who are not in your field may not be trivial, of course. We managed by drawing on friends from graduate school and local contacts (although mostly at different institutions) who are in various fields. We cover the spectrum of academic fields, from the humanities to the social sciences and engineering. Clearly, different fields have different writing traditions. Again, that is not central to our main goal of encouraging daily writing.

At this point, it is worth reflecting on what should count under the rubric of writing. Not everyone will be at a point where they are at the writing stage of a project, and depending on the discipline, actual writing will make up varying portions of the research process. While we put a premium on words typed and edited, we also focus on other parts of the research process: grant writing, study preparation, data collection and data analysis. It is important to see those steps as integral parts of the research process and recognize explicitly that they, too, take considerable time and effort. We want to acknowledge progress on such tasks, as they are similarly easy to relegate to the bottom of to-do lists.

Because life always happens -- moving houses, moving jobs, the observance of different holidays, the death of a loved one -- it is a good idea to have no fewer than four or five people in such a group so that you are not left on your own writing updates to yourself in the absence of others. While that can itself be a strategy, we have all found the social component -- both the accountability and the support -- made a notable difference. Indeed, on the rare occasion when we have found ourselves alone posting updates (again, life happens to everyone), the effect of doing so was markedly different.

In our group, we are all women. I do not think that was a conscious decision up front, but the group developed that way, and given that research has shown gendered aspects to research productivity, this may be a helpful component. The number of children in our members’ households ranges from zero to three, from toddlers to teens. Some of us live with a partner, and some live without one. Clearly, we deal with different daily circumstances. What unites us is a keen interest in making research part of our daily lives and supporting others in achieving the same.

How We Work

So, what do the day-to-day logistics of all this look like? Every morning, we post an update to the group with our goals for the day and then check in later to say what we have accomplished. We also comment on each other’s progress regularly.

We initially started by creating a private Facebook group, but we soon realized that going on Facebook was too distracting to be a helpful productivity tool. Instead, we set up a Slack group. You may very well not be familiar with that service -- other than me, none of the members of our group had ever used it before, so rest assured that no prior familiarity is required. It is a very user-friendly platform and has web-based, mobile and desktop versions.

For each group member, I created a Slack channel. Everyone posts their own updates in their own channel. Everyone is a member of everyone else’s channel and so can read and comment on others’ updates, an essential part of the support and accountability.

We’ve come a long way in organizing how we post, both in terms of content and regarding formatting. On Mondays, we now post weekly goals, and then each morning we add daily goals. The weekly goals are more general, such as “Make progress on chapter four” or “Submit X paper to Y journal.” The daily goals work best when they are appropriately “chunked,” as we have come to call the process of narrowing down tasks to specific action items.

Productivity guides will tell you that having manageable and concrete steps is essential for making good progress on projects. For one thing, they help determine your specific next steps; for another, you get to cross things off your list regularly, which creates a sense of accomplishment. Accordingly, in our daily goals, we try to be as specific as possible when it comes to progress on a particular paper or other research task. Instead of saying “Edit Y paper,” the item would say “Revise results section of Y paper.” Or instead of saying “Make progress on Z paper,” the item would say, “Get back to co-author about next steps for analysis on Z paper.”

In terms of formatting, we started with a narrative style but eventually realized that numbered lists make it easier to refer to tasks without repeating the long descriptions. For example, instead of saying at the end of the day, “Submitted Wikipedia contributions paper to journal,” we can just write “Did 2,” which refers to “2. Submit Wikipedia contributions paper to journal” on the day’s list of goals.

Having been doing this for almost 18 months, you’d think we have refined the system as can be, but we still innovate. Just recently, I suggested adding check marks next to the items on our lists when they are done, offering a helpful visual summary of accomplishments. We do not edit out things that we did not manage to do; those remain on the list, as it is best to be honest with ourselves and each other about what we had planned and what we ultimately accomplished. Our updates reflect on what went well, what did not, what hiccups we may have encountered, and what next steps will be. To that end, having items on the list without check marks (we use a different symbol) helps us know what awaits us the next day.

Writing these lists every morning has proven to be extremely helpful. Rare is the day during the academic year with large time blocks for writing. Having the list ready to go, I can just pull up Slack whenever I have time to go back to research after a meeting or a class and immediately see what is on my to-do list. Having already put the mental effort into figuring out the day’s tasks in the morning, I do not have to expend effort on that process again. Even if I do have a large chunk of writing time, it helps to know what specific writing tasks I had planned to tackle that day.

Sticking to the plan requires focus. Lots of seemingly or supposedly urgent tasks land in our inboxes all the time. It is crucial not to let those take over your day if they are not genuinely urgent. I do not have email notifications enabled on any of my devices, so I only see incoming messages if I make a conscious decision to check email. I also do not have various social media tabs constantly open -- I check them periodically when I am up for a break. That approach allows me to maximize even smaller chunks of time.

Despite serious efforts, it is easy to get to the end of the day without much done by way of writing. That is perhaps where the accountability has been the most helpful. I never want to post and say that I accomplished nothing on my planned list. So, on days when that may happen, I end up pushing through on a to-do item even if I am more than ready to call it quits. Without the group, I would just move it to the following day and then the day after that. It is not that any of my friends would be critical were I to say that I got nothing done; the support in our group is remarkable. It is that I do not want to have to type out that I accomplished none of my plans. That has made a noticeable difference in my ability to make progress on my writing and research.

On the whole, the group helps me be much more organized than I ever was before. It showers me with encouragement, and I also get to revel in my friends’ accomplishments on a daily basis. Most important, it has allowed me to accomplish my goal of making writing and research part of my everydays.

Bio

Eszter Hargittai is professor and chair of Internet Use and Society in the Institute of Communication and Media Research of the University of Zurich. She is a past fellow of the OpEd Project.

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