Book writers face two obstacles. First, they plan to write their book as if they aren’t working on anything else. Second, they work on everything else at the expense of writing their book. Here’s what I mean:
You’re writing a six-chapter book, and you give yourself nine months to complete it, from start to finish. Let’s say that in March you decide you’d like to have the first full draft to send out for review in December. What you don’t take into account is that you’re also writing an article that must be submitted for a special edition of a journal, working on a complicated revise and resubmit, and preparing a conference presentation. These three projects are going to take a considerable amount of time away from your book writing. While you tell yourself you’ll have at least 20 hours a week to work on your book, in reality, it’s closer to 10 because you’re diligently working on the other three projects. Even though you’re touching your book regularly, you’re not working on it for extended periods of time. Suddenly, nine months is really more like five or six months.
Or, you work on these three projects and barely think about your book. You repeatedly put it on the back burner in favor of these deadline-driven tasks. As you work on them, you tell yourself “I’ll sit down and think about my book when I’m done with these. Then, I can give the book my undivided attention.” Unfortunately, these projects end up taking way longer than expected. Fast forward a few months and your book still doesn’t have your undivided attention.
Two different scenarios with the same outcome – you keep punting on your book. But how do you make consistent progress on a project when you have so many other competing obligations? How can you keep your book on the top of the pile, so to speak, when its deadline seems so distant?
I’ve seen many writers struggle with this issue, especially tenure-track scholars who must produce a book and a series of articles. They know they have to manage multiple projects of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty, but they haven’t figured out how to piece together the productivity puzzle. Here’s one suggestion I give them:
Schedule deep work for your book, even if it’s infrequent.
When working on your book (or any writing project), frequent short sessions are incredibly valuable. I agree with Jo Van Every and Raul Pachego-Vega when they advocate for 15-minute writing sessions to both start and sustain an academic writing practice. These writing sessions are essential because they keep you connected to the topic and make it easier to jump into longer writing periods.
No matter how many short sessions you complete, longer sessions are essential. Those longer sessions, however, don’t just magically appear – you must create them. This means that at least once a month, you should schedule a day for deep work. This will be a day-long work session devoted to your book. You might have to lock yourself in your office, attend a virtual writing retreat, or meet with a writing partner. Whatever it takes, get yourself in a chair and stay there for the bulk of the day (with breaks to stretch, of course!).
Let’s face it: you’re never going to have a series of uninterrupted months to give your undivided attention to your book. You’re lucky if you have a series of uninterrupted days. Even so, you can devote sustained attention to your book project without distraction – but you must create that opportunity. This is not merely an issue of scheduling, however. It’s also a matter of mindset. You may have to give yourself a dose of tough love and remember that we can all make time for things that are a priority. Also, it’s worth the effort (and initial discomfort).
So, how do you get started? Pull out your planner and identify 3 dates over the next month that you can devote to half-day or day-long writing sessions. Then, mark yourself as busy in your online calendar system. That way conflicting appointments won’t become excuses to put off your writing. In time, these sessions will feel more regular, and you’ll begin to schedule them without even giving it much thought. Deep work will become a normal part of your writing routine.