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We’ve all heard the research productivity mantras that float around academe: write daily, even if you have only 15 minutes. Ensure you have projects operating at multiple stages of a research pipeline. And don’t forget to participate in a writing group for accountability.

Those strategies work well for many academics, and with good reason: they’re tried-and-true methods to engage in ongoing, systematic production of scholarship. But what about those of us whose work lives are less, shall we say, systematic? As we struggle to balance complex teaching, service or administration workloads or serve as caregivers to others, it’s unlikely we can engage in a daily writing practice or commit time to an accountability group.

The two of us tried for years—and failed—to reproduce the lockstep writing and accountability processes we’d read about. And then in a workshop on research productivity, writing coach Kathleen Vacek invited us to reflect on how we could dip our toes into an accountability relationship. Did we have time for more meetings or supporting multiple writers in a group? No. But could we send a few emails? Yes, that we could manage.

So for more than a year now, we’ve been communicating about our research goals through weekly email. At each week’s start, Sarah emails Ann her goals for the week, and Ann replies with her own. At the week’s end, Ann emails a recap of what she accomplished, and Sarah replies in turn. Each semester, we start a new email chain. Keeping our goals modest, focusing on wins and allowing for change has made our process successful—and here’s what we’ve learned.

Be realistic. We each had sizable long-term goals for the year—book chapters and articles to write, conference presentations to deliver, a book to edit for one of us, and new data to collect for the other. But week to week, we set manageable goals to make it more likely we’d reach them.

We followed Cathy Mazak’s advice to break projects into one-hour tasks to ensure we avoided nebulous plans like “finish article.” In some weeks, our goals were measured in time: to spend two hours on research or to touch a project on three separate afternoons. In other weeks, goals were measured in deliverables: to send important research emails, request library resources or change a manuscript’s citation style.

Modest weekly goals meant we regularly earned small wins; they also helped us plan ahead. When our weekly calendars were particularly heavy with meetings and teaching obligations, we set smaller goals rather than pretend we’d have more time for research, only to be disappointed later.

Be flexible and honest. When we began our accountability process, we expected to achieve what we considered to be manageable goals. But we quickly discovered that wouldn’t always be the case. If working with students has taught us anything, it is that sometimes life gets in the way of our best intentions, so flexible deadlines and changeable priorities are occasionally needed.

We also found that we became as accountable for not meeting our goals as we did for meeting them. It was in sometimes falling short that we found the value of honesty and friendship. In a writing group with acquaintances, we might be tempted to impress colleagues or reluctant to admit what we viewed as failure. But being friends made it easier to be honest with each other when we didn’t or couldn’t meet our goals.

Such an admission invited the other one of us to offer encouragement—which could provide the window for meeting the goal in the following week instead. Being candid about not meeting goals also allowed us to view the next week’s goals with an authentic understanding of our priorities.

Stay positive. Being equally accountable to unachieved goals as we were to achieved ones proved valuable, as each of us encountered stretches of time when we didn’t meet our goals due to work or personal challenges. During those weeks, we were tempted—often successfully—to feel frustrated with failure. We reminded each other that not reaching goals is part of the accountability process and that a period of time when scholarship takes a back seat to administrative or teaching responsibilities is temporary. It will pass, and we’ll return shortly to the research.

We focused on the positive: the goals that we’d already accomplished during a semester or an academic year, not the goals that we hadn’t met in a particular week. That strategy allowed us to see the accountability process evolve from recaps that merely noted what we accomplished in a week to acknowledgments of circumstances or situations that challenged us. Positivity also provided the opportunity to lift each other up with encouragement and keep moving forward in our commitment to ourselves and each other.

Recognize unexpected benefits. We thought our accountability process would be a checklist of accomplished tasks, but we ended up helping with and learning from each other’s research and writing processes. When Ann had a manuscript desk rejected, Sarah helped parse the editor’s feedback and identify how to revise it before sending it out again—support Sarah could offer because she had followed the project from when Ann began data collection. Conversely, when Sarah was invited to propose an edited book, Ann helped brainstorm ideas for the collection—support Ann could offer because she was familiar with Sarah’s previous scholarship that led to the invitation.

We advised each other on research methods and passed along articles relevant to each other’s work. We also offered professional advice on department politics and teaching when those contexts shaped and began to impose on our research work. Ultimately, supporting each other’s processes helped us deepen our own. We were no longer writing in a void, unsure of whether other scholars faced the same hurdles we did. We had real-time evidence of how another person encountered and made it past such hurdles, and we could draw on each other’s strategies to bolster our own work.

Create community. Interested in starting your own email accountability process? First, find a partner who shares your goals and priorities. It doesn’t matter if your research areas overlap. What matters is that you share a vision for what you hope to gain from the accountability process.

Second, find out if your institution has an account with the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity. If so, sign up for Monday Motivator emails and check out the center’s webinars on writing productivity for small doses of helpful advice you can access at any time.

Like many academics, we can’t reasonably write every day or participate in a time-intensive group. Yet in Mazak’s view, accountability isn’t the issue. She argues that what we really need is community: the support of others while we navigate the process of holding ourselves accountable to writing and research excellence. And, indeed, it is not fear of having to report failures in our email chain that drives us to engage with our scholarship. It’s the encouragement found in our friendship—the fact that we each have a research cheerleader who will support us no matter how much we accomplish—that keeps us moving forward.

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