I’m often asked: what is the secret to helping academic writers move from paralysis to productivity? Having worked with thousands of faculty over the past few years, I’m clear that getting people unstuck involves some combination of developing a daily writing habit, aligning time with priorities, consciously planning the semester and the week, and getting connected to a community of support and accountability. That sounds pretty simple, but the hard truth is that changing behavior serves as the mechanism to force whatever is really holding a person back to the surface. In other words, while 30-60 minutes of writing every day will make you more productive than not writing at all, what comes up to try to stop you from writing is even more important.
For the vast majority of people I work with, their inability to write for 30-60 minutes each day boils down to perfectionism, fear of humiliation, criticism, harsh judgment, or failure, and/or a very long tape of negative messages that plays in a continuous loop whenever they sit down to write. Such paralysis is pervasive in the academy and can keep people from starting (or finishing) their writing projects because nothing is ever good enough. At times, some writers can't even get a word down on paper because their perfectionism, fears, and that negative tape have already deemed their thoughts worthless before they even hit the page.
While internal forces can paralyze academic writers, it's also the case that the structure of the academy often exacerbates perfectionism, fears, and triggers the negative tape to start playing. By that I mean whenever we publish or present our work, it's guaranteed to be vigorously critiqued, evaluated, and critically engaged. In a healthy environment, this can be invigorating! But too often, the experience falls short. Colleagues exaggerate any minor error, pounce on the slightest flaw in logic, and make both personal and substantive attacks for the purpose of their own ego-aggrandizement. And if a young scholar’s work challenges dominant paradigms, methodologies, and/or existing structures of power and privilege, perfectionism and fear can stem from feeling that their work has to be beyond reproach in order to endure the extra scrutiny such work routinely faces.
While it's my job is to help new faculty move through their paralysis, it does not mean that I am immune to it! In fact, last year, I was so paralyzed by my perfectionism that I stopped writing entirely. To kick-start myself, I joined the Academic Ladder's Writing Club for one month. At the end of our writing time each day, we had to not only report what we had written, but also describe our negative self-talk. Lots of people in my writing group left the latter question blank but my response took me five minutes to complete every day because I was deluged with negative self-talk! My negative tape was often vicious, self-critical, angry, judgmental, and downright nasty. It was as if I had a hyperactive inner critic on steroids! For me, it was a profound experience to become consciously aware of my inner critic's nonstop negativity. Recording the content of it each day, and reflecting on the patterns in that content, made me realize why I dislike writing so much (who would want to face that every morning?).
Before I participated in the Writing Club, I was fully aware that I live in a world where my presence and ideas were routinely devalued, dismissed, and openly disrespected. But I always imagined that those voices were "out there" and had not penetrated my inner world. Yet every day of the Writing Club I became increasingly aware of how deeply and thoroughly I had internalized the negative messages around me. So much so, that I had been unconsciously reproducing them in my own mind and allowing them to successfully shut down my productivity. But becoming aware of the negative tape allowed me to question the messages:
Are they true or are they false?
Where did they come from?
What positive messages could replace them?
The point of this story is to let you know that if you find yourself paralyzed, you’re not alone! As a short-term intervention, consider trying a quick behavioral experiment: set aside 30-60 minutes each day this week for writing, first thing in the morning, and get clear what exactly you need to do during that time in your Sunday Meeting. Then see what happens. If the writing is no problem, great! If you experience an intense desire to procrastinate, avoid writing, or check Facebook, ask yourself two important questions: 1) Why do I feel the urge to do this now? 2) Does this matter to my long-term success? If you need a trick to get started, try Write or Die, freewriting, or mind-mapping. And if perfectionism, fear, or that negative tape start up, imagine yourself pressing the pause button and replacing your negative thinking with one of Gina Hiatt’s Positive Affirmations for Academic Writers. Then at the end of your writing time, try selecting a community for accountability that will support your growth. If you can make it through the week of daily writing, you will begin to experience the benefits of this practice and that positive energy will carry you into the next week.
This week, I want to challenge you to do the following:
- Recommit yourself to 30-60 minutes each day for your writing.
- Block that time out of your calendar during your Sunday Meeting.
- At the end of your writing time each day, record your progress, your negative self-talk, AND what you are proud of accomplishing that day.
- At the end of the week, take a few minutes to look at the daily log of your negative self-talk to see what patterns exist.
- Patiently and lovingly ask yourself: what's up with that?
- Begin to imagine an alternative, loving and accepting dialogue to replace your negative self-talk.
I hope that this week brings you the determination to write every day, the awareness to recognize your negative self-talk, and the strength to start a new and supportive inner dialogue!
Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore
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