How can you effectively manage your writing time when you don’t have a lot of it? For many writers, short periods of writing time are particularly challenging. Yet, short writing sessions might be your only option.
Academic writers romanticize long blocks of uninterrupted writing time. Very few scholars, however, can devote an entire day to writing on a regular basis. Sure, there might be some opportunities for writing retreats or the occasional meeting-free day. You might even clear your calendar for binge-writing before a deadline. Whether your long writing sessions are pleasurable or painful, these opportunities are few and far between.
Perhaps it’s because these days are so rare that we hold them as the ideal. We avoid work by convincing ourselves that it’s not worth it unless we have an entire day to devote to our writing. If the day isn’t only writing, then the day should have no writing. This isn’t realistic. What would happen if you applied this logic to other areas of your life?
- I’m hungry, but I only have half a sandwich and I want an entire sandwich. I’ll just starve.
- I only have time for a quick coffee with a friend instead of a long, leisurely brunch, so I’d rather not see them at all.
- If I can only afford one pair of shoes, I’d rather go barefoot.
If you heard one of these three arguments, you’d probably roll your eyes. They sound like pouting. Yet, this is the position many of us take when it comes to our writing time.
Writing is an essential part of an academic’s career, even when there isn’t enough time to do it. The irony is that it’s likely the most important when you have the least amount of time to do it! In my work with clients, I find that they face two challenges when facing limited writing time: their mindset and their skillset. In order to get that writing done, you have to first overcome your resistance to short writing blocks, then learn how to use them effectively.
One reason it’s especially challenging to work in short writing sessions effectively is that nobody teaches us how to do so. In graduate school, you often spend hours at a time working on your dissertation. Those may be long, sleepless nights as you rush towards a deadline, but they’re longer writing sessions nonetheless. It comes as a shock when you start a job and you realize just how limited your time is.
I’ll never forget a professor telling me during my last year of grad school that if I wanted to finish any outstanding research for my current project (the dissertation I intended to turn into a book), I should do it before I defended and started my tenure-track job. At the time, I thought that advice was silly. Then, I started my job and realized I rarely had more than an hour of writing time between teaching, course prep, committee work, commuting, and being exhausted from those activities.
Telling a young scholar this will happen isn’t the same as preparing them for when it happens. In reality, many academics simply don’t know what to do with 30 minutes of writing time (Read this blog post for some tips). That short amount of time can be more paralyzing than a half-day of writing. We’d rather avoid it or dismiss it than do the work to make it worthwhile.
Two Ways to Use Make the Most of Short Writing Sessions
I teach my clients two different types of writing to manage their time effectively: disciplined writing and opportunistic writing. Disciplined writing is scheduled and intentional writing. This might be a thirty-minute work session first thing in the morning (before email!) or two hours of editing. The goal is to create a task that you can accomplish in the writing time you have – not a goal that’s to be continued. Disciplined writing requires advance planning and an understanding of what work needs to be done in your manuscript. One of the benefits of disciplined writing— in addition to helping you write in short spurts — is that it forces you to really think about every detail of your writing. I find that writers who outline take to this type of writing easily because they’ve already broken their arguments down.
Disciplined writing prepares you for opportunistic writing. This is the writing you do when you have some unexpected writing time. Despite our most fervent wishes, unexpected free time doesn’t present itself in four-hour chunks. Instead, it’s a canceled meeting or an office hour that students don’t attend. If you’re already a disciplined writer, this free time is a great opportunity because you know what you’re capable of doing in the time that you have.
You can also take advantage of opportunistic writing when you lose writing time. For instance, you might have a writing day planned when suddenly your child is home sick. Your day of writing turns into a few thirty-minute sessions you can complete during naps. If you’ve already mastered the skill of writing in short sessions, sure, you’ll be disappointed but you’ll also be able to put together a new plan with little hassle. No matter what writing opportunity comes your way, you won’t spend time floundering, wondering what you can do.
There’s one caveat to all this advice. The neoliberal university demands that we’re productive all the time. This means squeezing work into every free moment. Ten minutes between classes? Check some email. Waiting for your kid at soccer practice? Whip out an article and start reading. If you take this time for a real break (or to, you know, watch your kid play soccer), you’re not using your time effectively or even worse, you’re lazy. This is a message we’ve internalized. My belief is that our brains need to rest if we want to work at a high level – especially when we’re doing that work in short periods of time. So use some of that unexpected free time to take a nap. It’s when you find the right balance between rest and work that you’ll see real, sustainable progress.
If you’d like more guidance on what exactly you should be doing when you have thirty minutes to write, please read these blog posts:
Short Writing Blocks are Worth It
Conquering Overwhelm in Writing: Start Small https://upinconsulting.com/blog/conquering-overwhelm-writing-start-small/