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You Are The Experiment; Your Behavior is the Data

 Last week I gave 5 talks in 4 days; two to faculty at UC Berkeley and two to graduate students at the same institution.  The fifth was a talk at Stanford to the engineering graduate students.  Although it sounds like a marathon, it turned out to be a perfectly delightful experience, because of the people in the audiences and their enthusiasm for what I had to say.  This is one of the phrases that I ended up saying to them repeatedly in response to certain questions:

“You are the experiment; your behavior is the data.”

Let me explain what I meant by that.  But first, for you non-science types, let me review with two sentences.  Every experiment involves a hypothesis.  You test the hypothesis by getting data.

For example, you wonder which food ants prefer; honey or sugar.  You may hypothesize that they prefer sugar, because ants don’t want to get stuck in the honey.  You put out the honey and sugar, and count the number of hungry ants that run to each food.  Their behavior is the data.  It’s not bad or good, it’s just a fact.  (I actually have no idea which one ants prefer.  If they’re on a diet, they eat Stevia.)

Most people see their own behavior as good or bad.  “I didn’t write, therefore I’m bad/lazy/unfocused/good-for-nothing.”  This is not good for you.  Instead of judging yourself, I’d like to help you see your behavior as data, just like the ants’ behavior was data.

Why does it matter how you see your behavior?  First of all, what you say to yourself about your actions influences how you feel.  If you say that you’re unfocused, write poorly, and should never have gone into academia; those thoughts produces anxiety and perhaps feelings of depression.  And those unpleasant feelings are not conducive to writing.  As a matter of fact, they are the kinds of feelings that lead to writer’s block.

Secondly, people are always asking me “How long is an optimal writing session?”  What I’ve been telling them is “It depends.”  People are so different from each other.  Some thrive on longer sessions (by a session, I mean a period of time spent writing without stopping to check references, read, find a citation, or read email).  A long session would be an hour and a half with no break. 

I usually recommend 45 minutes at the most, although I know of no research reason for recommending this exact length of time.  We know from Robert Boice’s research (Professors as Writers) that writing for several hours actually burns you out and causes you to write less in subsequent days, resulting in a lowering of productivity in the long run.  Stopping and taking breaks with shorter sessions works better, and limiting yourself to 3 or 4 of those sessions a day is usually the most anyone should do.

However, some people simply cannot write for 45 minutes straight. Some can only write for 15 minutes at a time, and some for even less.  After all, there are stressful periods of one’s life, there are parts of the writing that are particularly daunting, and there are people with shorter attention spans!  It doesn’t matter why they can’t write more.  What matters is that people attempt to write regularly in relatively short writing sessions.

The problem is that many of us say to ourselves, “I should write for 45 minutes a day,” or even “I must write for 45 minutes a day.”  But what if we just can’t?  Should we beat ourselves up and hate ourselves?

A much better way to look at it is: You are the experiment and your behavior is the data.  If planning a 45-minute session resulted in your not writing, then you were planning too long a session.  Back it up to 30 minutes.  If you don’t write the next day, back it up to 15. 

Sometimes a session must involve one small, but actually quite difficult task, such as:  Open the document.  Writing can cause such anxiety that this simple action is enough for one day.  That’s a fact; it doesn’t mean the person who feels this stuck is bad.  The next day she/he/you can read over what you wrote and make a few notes.  The next day you elaborate on those notes.  Each session lasts for only 5 minutes, once a day.  Then, over time, as it becomes easier, you can lengthen the amount of time.  So you go to 10, then 15-minute sessions.

In other words, you pay attention to your behavior as if you cared about yourself.  After all, if every time you ate a certain food it resulted in you becoming nauseated, you wouldn’t eat that food.  The same is true here.  You’ve done the experiment.  Write down the data and keep track.  If you’re writing successfully for the length of time that you like, then stick with it.  If your session time stops working, experiment with it, note what the data is, and change the variables.

But most of all, be kind to yourself.  It’s just data, not a court of judgment. 


  1. Gina,
    I read with interest your latest hypothesis regarding this living experiment we are all part of and the data we are supplying to this evolving theory.
    The reason I found it so interesting is because I started writing about 3 years ago, I write from late October to early May with about a month off from mid December to mid/late January. I start around 5.30 am and finish 4 or 5 hours later. I begin by reading what I wrote the day before this helps me to get back into the groove and I continue from there. The final hour will be given-up to correcting what I wrote earlier on and will occasionally include rewriting a tract I'm not happy with.
    I will admit this is not morning after morning, however, it could be up to 5 times a week with 3 being the average and 11 the longest consecutive writing run. I could not envisage doing what I do any other way. I don’t take breaks unless you consider revision and rewriting as deviating from the task, personally I would consider them to be part of the overall process.

  2. Anonymous11:28 AM

    What a nice approach! It's strange how merciless we can be to ourselves, whereas if a friend was seeking our advice on how to get unstuck with his/her writing, we would treat him/her as you describe, without judgment. Now we just have to do unto ourselves as we would unto others! :)

  3. Well, for us university people, writing itself is not scary, because most of us have been writing for years, but it is the fear of rejection by the journals we submit our work to. You work on an experiment for like a year, or advise some graduate student on it, analyze the data, you have the results, but you cannot bring yourself to writing it. That is mostly because you fear that you will be rejected. Whenever you are in a hot streak of acceptance from the journals, your writing speed hits the sky. I think it is important yo recognize why you do not "feel like" writing, then a solution usually follows. It is only when we discover why we do what we do, that we will be all we can be :) Ancient folks would call this knowing thyself...

  4. Raymond, congratulations on your successful technique. I tend to work with people who get seriously burned out when they work that many hours in a row. Everyone is different (I guess that's really what my theme for this post is), and if you have a way of working that is successful, then you have your "data."

    It's not that most people can't do one or two days of writing as you do. It's just that they can't keep it up. I think they may be the majority of academic writers, but I've never seen a study on that. I can surely tell you there's a huge population who would love to be able to do what you do, but who can't, either because of constitutional differences, or because their life doesn't allow such long blocks of writing time. For example, if I had to get up at 5:30 two days in a row with less than 8 or 9 hours sleep, I would be dead within a few days. :)

  5. Anonymous, you're singing my song. I always tell people to monitor their negative self-statements, and turn them around by talking to themselves as they would their best friend.

    I love your take on the Golden Rule. Maybe that should be the Platinum Rule?

  6. Hi akin,
    I can see that you get the experimental approach -- watch yourself, have some curiosity about why your behavior is changing, think about it consciously, then make whatever mind changes or behavior changes that you can.

    And you're so right that the fear of rejection is what stops people who used to write without any problem. Academic can be a harsh world to someone who is used to being the smartest person in the class. It would be a harsh world for anyone.

  7. Thanks so much for this "experiment" - "data" Thesis.It has helped me today as I try to proceed in my writing. I think the conclusion that data is not good or bad is very mportant to the feeling I get when I have not achieved my days plans.

  8. I'm thrilled that my metaphor of experiment and data (which I really believe is true) has helped you not to be judgmental of yourself or your progress. Progress goes up, down and backwards, sometimes. It's all part of the research and writing process, for better or worse. Yay for Nelly!


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