Many, many years ago I had a complicated surgery. Thankfully, my surgeon was a badass. He traveled the world giving lectures and worked at one of the most prestigious teaching hospitals in the country. In addition to pioneering surgical procedures, he mentored residents and published prolifically.
Now, I’m not writing you to brag about my surgeon. Instead, I want to tell you about a conversation about my case I remember having with him. He told me he was stumped. “I sat in my office with the door closed for four hours. I just thought about it,” he said to me, referring to my surgical procedure. At the time, I remember thinking he was some sort of maniac. Who sits in a room and thinks for four hours? Shouldn’t he be in surgery? For years, I couldn’t shake the sense that this seemed bizarre.
That thinking clearly paid off (after all, I’m here writing a blog post!). I’ve been thinking about Dr. Awesome Surgeon’s thinking time a lot lately, especially when I hear one lament in particular from my clients. They’re upset they aren’t getting enough words on the page, that they’re not “producing.” When I ask what they’re doing instead, I hear that they’re
- Cutting sections of manuscripts
- Making decisions about how to frame their argument
- Brainstorming new ideas and exploring new literatures
- Reorganizing huge swaths of prose in chapters or across chapters
All of these activities are essential, but for some reason, we’ve decided that they aren’t productive and that productivity can only be measured by words on a page. Yet, those words come from somewhere, and it’s not out of thin air. They come from you, sitting silently, thinking about how to put words together. This is not glamorous work. You’re not wielding a scalpel or finally hitting submit on an article, but you’re performing the labor that enables that more exciting work.
I think we resist this thinking work for two reasons. First, it’s hard to quantify, so we don’t feel a sense of achievement. We aren’t closing our documents and triumphantly declaring how many words we wrote. Instead, we’re “just sitting there.” Second, we believe that if we think for too long we’re stupid. Clearly, we should all be solving these theoretical puzzles as soon as our fingers hit the keyboard. Each moment we spend thinking feels like an indictment, as proof of our intellectual inferiority.
Both of these reasons are garbage.Your process is just that – yours. Which means your only concern is making steady progress no matter what form it takes – not comparing your process to others’. Nor is your concern displaying your process as something about which you can be judged.
So what should you do now? Go, and take some thinking time. Think about your work, about something you’ve read, or about what you’d like to work on next. You have no reason to feel bad about it.