Summer’s finally here (at least in the Northern Hemisphere)! The weather’s warmer, the lemonade is flowing, and it’s time to get sh*t done.
If you’re an academic writer, your summer work plan probably includes more than one project (keep in mind I consider each chapter of a book as a separate project). Between writing, preparing conference presentations, course prep, and conducting research, your plate is full. Keeping track of all your work feels like a full-time job!
With all this work, should you focus on one project at a time or work on a few at once? This is a question I hear a lot. While it’s especially relevant for summer work when you have extended periods of time for intense focus, the principles I’ll share here will be useful year round – because we’re always busy, right?
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to planning your workflow, but there are a series of questions you should ask yourself to determine what will work best for you.
What do you mean by “at once”?
Do you mean work on every project every day, or work on every project over the course of a few days? Similarly, when you say you’re only working on one project, do you mean it will get your full attention until it’s finished, or that you’ll devote your full attention to it on Mondays and Tuesdays?
Why do you want to work on multiple projects at once?
Academics face constant pressure to “move projects forward” and get things off your desk. Some of these pressures are real, but some are based on our anxiety about what we’re supposed to be doing to be a good academic. Think about why you have the urge to do everything at the same time. It might be that:
- You feel anxious if you don’t touch a project for a long time.
- The projects have the same deadline, so you should work on both at once.
If your answer is the former, consider the source of your anxiety. Do you think you’ll be punished or judged if you focus your attention on a single project?
If your answer is the latter, then answer this question:
Are you good at breaking down projects into actionable tasks and estimating the necessary time commitment?
You need the same amount of hours for a project no matter how many projects you’re juggling at once. However, unless project management is your zone of genius, you may not know how many hours you need to complete tasks. Here’s an example: say you have two projects due on July 1st and you’re starting them on June 1st. You could give two weeks to one project and another two weeks to the other project. Sounds easy, right? Maybe – if you can predict how much time you’ll need. If either project takes more than 2 weeks, you might end up in a pickle. It might make more sense to start them at the same time so you can get a sense of how much effort you’ll need to put in for each one and then adjust your time commitments accordingly.
Figuring out how much time you need isn’t easy. A quick Google Scholar search reveals that there are entire bodies of research devoted to what’s called the planning fallacy. One strategy that will help you estimate the time you need is staging your projects. I think Matthew Lebo’s article on research pipelines is incredibly useful for identifying what stage your project is in. Once you identify the stage, you can determine which stages tend to take you the longest. My opinion: it’s difficult to work on two projects at the same stage at the same time. It’s mentally draining and before you know it you’ll be asleep at the keyboard.
Is context switching difficult for you?
If you work on more than one project at once you’re in danger of digressing into multi-tasking, which does. not. work. Attention residue is real. If you find that it’s hard to focus on your second project of the day, then it might be worth considering whether your day should include a second project.
Also, much of the intellectual work we do requires our sustained, focused attention. If you’re at a stage in your research or writing where you’re developing theory, working on complicated models, or trying to decode confusing feedback, for instance, an hour-long session may not cut it.
Managing your time won’t feel as hard as solving a Rubik’s cube after you answer these questions. Self-reflection is essential to developing the time management strategies that work for you.
If you’d like more planning advice along with structured support to stay on track with your writing, consider joining my online group coaching program, Simple Productivity. It was designed to help you develop a writing plan and stick to it! You can learn more about the program by clicking here.