December 2, 2009

Write or Rest During Your Break? Here’s a Plan!

Aaah – The holiday break. For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s time to sail away to an exotic location*, or more likely to collapse and then visit relatives.

But many academics are torn about whether and how much to write during the holidays. On the one hand, they’re exhausted from the semester, and need a rest. They want to spend time with family and friends. Yet they know that the holiday break may be the best time to get some writing done.

As usual, I’m talking about the long-term writing projects that must be done in order to advance your career – either finishing your dissertation or writing articles/books towards tenure or promotion. These are the projects that get pushed to the back burner because their completion really only matters to you.

Write or Rest -- How about a Compromise?

Which should you do during your break -- write or rest? Well, here’s a compromise plan (with a 9-step or 10-step option) that has worked for many people.

  1. Give yourself some time off. There’s no point in being unrealistic and deciding to force yourself to work when you’re exhausted, unless you have a grant proposal deadline or something of the sort. The reason for not forcing yourself is that no matter what you decide to do, you probably won’t do it, and then you won’t fully enjoy your time off because of the guilt.
  2. Decide several days ahead of time on which day you’re going to start writing, and put that in your calendar. You can also decide which days you will and won’t work and write those days down. By doing this, you will be more likely to bypass the repeating “I’ll start tomorrow” syndrome.
  3. While you’re at it, if you can stand this degree of regimentation, write down what time you’re going to write each day. In general, especially if you’re staying with family or friends, first thing in the morning works the best, for two reasons. First, you’re more likely to actually do it, before other interesting distractions come your way. Two, you won’t spend all day dreading and avoiding the writing time that is waiting for you. For some people, there is a third reason – you may work best in the morning. If only that were true for me.
  4. Decide how much time to spend writing each day. This is the biggie -- it will determine your success in following through on the entire plan. Note: When I discuss writing in this context, I’m referring only to writing, editing, revising, or in some cases, statistical analysis. I’m not referring to time spent reading and researching. Those are necessary tasks, but people do not tend to avoid them as they do the actual writing. Hence this plan.
Before I suggest what to do in this step, I’d like to explain why this is so important.

If you’re like some people who have long days of vacation ahead of them and who want to accomplish a lot, you will eagerly say to yourself, “I’ll have all day, so I’ll plan on 3 solid hours of writing in the morning and 4 hours in the afternoon.” Here’s what happens to the majority of these people:

They spend miserable days staring at their computer, with long “warm-ups” of checking emails, reading their favorite political bloggers, or looking up Britney Spears’ latest weight, followed by anxious staring at a blank page, followed by a break involving checking emails, writing emails, and playing computer Scrabble (yes, that’s my latest – there’s an app for that).

They can’t believe at the end of a long day how little they actually wrote, if anything. After a couple of days of this, they give up on writing during their break. This is not a conscious decision, but one that is made by default, gradually, as they find a “good reason” each day that they can’t work that day.

They do not enjoy their holiday break at all, because they know at the bottom of their heart that they are making a big mistake by not writing. At the end of the break they are completely guilt-ridden, panicked and mortified that they have accomplished nothing.


How do you avoid this terrible fate when carrying out your own writing plan? There are two options here, and which option you follow depends mostly on how much writing you need to get done.
  • Option 1: Follow this option if you have a busy holiday schedule, don’t have a looming deadline, or probably wouldn’t tend to write at all over the holidays without this plan. It also works well if you’ve been blocked.
  • Option 2: Follow this option if you either must write a fair amount (based on deadlines, such as grant proposals, book editors demands, or demanding dissertation advisors) or you are the rare bird that can write for more than an hour a day when you don’t have a deadline hanging over your head.

Option 1: Steps
  1. Decide the previous day what you will specifically be working on. I’m assuming that you’ve done any reading or research that is needed in order to write the next day. If you haven’t been writing for a while, you might need to get your document ready and open.
  2. The previous day would also be a good time to find a timer, either at home or on the Internet.
  3. Eliminate all possible distractions or the chance of interruptions (e.g. email program off, sign on door, letting your family know that you won’t be available for the next 15 minutes).
  4. Do NOT set a goal of number of pages written, or how much of one section you will finish. Your only goal is to write for a certain number of minutes.
  5. Set your timer for 15 minutes.
  6. Start writing, (or editing and revising, if you’re in that stage of the project). When the timer goes off, STOP.
  7. For many of you, that is all that you will have time for that day. That’s fine. You did more than you would have without this process, and you may have more reading to do to prepare for your next writing session.
  8. Make sure you write down what to start on tomorrow.
  9. If you feel like working a little more, set the timer for a 10 minute break, then repeat steps 1) through 8).

Option 2: Steps
  • Steps 1) through 4) follow steps for Option 1 above.
  • Step 5) Set your timer for any amount of time up to 45 minutes.
  • Steps 6) through 9) are the same as for Option 1.
  • Step 10) Because you have a looming deadline, you will probably spend more time writing. Always take as refreshing a break as you can – walk, dance, make a snowman. Then after 10-15 minutes you can go back to your writing. Repeat this as often as you can throughout the day. Ideally, you can do 2 or 3 productive writing sessions, then do some reading and preparing for your next writing session, then go off and enjoy your day.
The aim for both of these options is to:
  • Have a reasonable, doable, time-oriented writing goal that you won’t put off because it fills you with dread.
  • Allow you to accomplish something during the winter break.
  • Allow you guilt-free time each day to enjoy with family and friends, or to take a long nap.
  • Enjoy your time off!

I hope that with this simple plan, you’ll be able to actually do what seems impossible: get some writing done AND relax, rest, recreate, rejuvenate, and enjoy the break!

Warmly,
Gina

* Digital painting, "Anna Near Naples," by Gina Hiatt © 2009.

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