"A meek endeavor to the triumph" by Sampath Jayarathna

Sunday, August 02, 2015

[Monday Motivator] Writing Rocks - June 8, 2015

This is an excerpt from the Monday Motivator Program of Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. Please find the original document here. The National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity is an independent professional development, training, and mentoring community of over 71,000 graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members.

During the summer months, I receive lots of questions about when to write, how to organize an unstructured day, and – once you better understand your resistance -- how to maneuver around it on a daily basis. These are great questions! In this Monday Motivator I'll describe my own personal system in hopes it will give you some ideas to model, adapt, experiment with, and improve upon as you answer these important questions for yourself.

My approach to writing has always been guided by a search for empirically-documented best practices and a spirit of experimentation. This comes from the fact that I’m a social scientist by training anda skeptical person by nature. In other words, I am only willing to try writingskills and strategies that have been empirically tested and repeatedly found to be effective for most people, under most circumstances. But I also constantly find myself taking the strategies that work generally and putting my own spin on them so they work for me. For example, I learned early on in my career that dailywriting, using a timer, and alternating periods of writing and rest are the keys to developing a consistent, sustainable writing practice and increasing research productivity. But no matter what results other people get, I only believe what works for me and I adapt it with my own flavor.

Over the years, I’ve taken those core skills and developed my own personal way of using them that is designed to address my particular forms of resistance. I’m going todescribe it to you to encourage you to experiment with best practices, illustrate how to take your own unique form of resistance into consideration,and validate those of you who like to customize the skills and strategies youlearn here at the NCFDD. I call my system WritingRocks. It's quite simple! There are three types of writing rocks in my system: pebbles, stones, and boulders. Those terms are really just symbolic ways that I think about my writing time. The pebbles are 15-minute blocks of writing time, the stones are larger 30-minute blocks, and a boulder is a whopping 45-minutes of uninterrupted writing time. Let me describe each in a little more detail so you can understand how they relate to my resistance.

Pebbles are designed to address my primary level of resistance. I don’t know about you, but every morning when my writing time rolls around, I just don’t wanna write! I would rather doanything (check email, fold laundry, etc..) than write. That’s because my biggest problem with writing has always been getting started. Once I get started and get into the writing, I’m just fine. I sometimes even lose track of time! So for me, the challenge is all about getting mybodyguard to relax so I can get my butt in the chair and fingers on the keyboard. What I do is strike a deal with the big guy: I’m only going to write for 15 minutes. For whatever reason, this feels like such a tiny amount of time that it eases any fear and anxiety. What could happen in 15 minutes? To get started, I set my timer, drop down into my writing, and keep going until the timer goes off. And everyday, I’m freshly shocked and delighted by how much work I can get done in 15 minutes (I typically plan easy, concrete, and discrete tasks for my first pebble of the day). When the timer goes off, I stop immediately and give myself a 5-minute break. And here’s the key: I set my timer for the break! I know it sounds crazy, but my resistance can flare up during the breaks in the form of procrastination and avoidance. The timer going off tells me the break is over and it’s time to get back to work.

Once I’m warmed up, I move into a longer block of writing. I call these stones and for me, they are 30 minutes of concentrated writing, followed by a 10-minute break at the end. On most days, it’s this second block of time where I get into the more intense thinking and writing work. For me, it’s best if I have a SMART goal for that time block (SMART = Specific, Measurable,Attractive, Realistic, and Time-Framed). An example would be: I will draft 3 ugly paragraphs of my introduction by 10:00 am.

Now, I know my resistance quite well and once I have the nerve to start a longer block of writing, my bodyguard ramps up into high gear. He will throw anything and everything at me in rapid succession, each of which is designed to take me away (physically or mentally) from the writing task at hand. For example:
  • I’m hungry
  • I’m thirsty
  • I have to pee
  • I’m cold/hot
  • I have to track down that citation right now!
  • This isn’t the right music for the mood, let’sgo to iTunes and look for something more appropriate
  • Maybe I should email ________ to get some additional clarity on this issue.
  • Here’s a great idea for a completely different paper, maybe I should write on that nowinstead of this boring piece in front of me
  • Maybe I should stop and go read the latest news/research on _______ before I waste time writing.
Sound familiar? I keep a pad of paper next to my keyboard and simply write down each diversionary thought as it occurs. If it’s truly important, I can act on it after the 30-minute block is complete. As you can imagine, once I’m done with my writing and it’s time for a break most of those seemingly urgent needs no longer feel pressing. Again, I reset the timer for my break and I can do whatever I want until it goes off again.

Every once in a while, I drop a 45-minute boulder (followed by a 15 minute break) into my writing routine. It’s rare for several reasons: 1) big blocks of writing time activate the greatest resistance for me, 2) long writing times make me cranky, and 3) my busy schedule rarely allows for big chunks of time to write. That said, I do occasionally have either a lot to accomplish in the face of an immediate deadline, a task that could be complete in one slightly longer writing period, or extra time in my week that can accommodate a big block of writing time.

One thing I know for sure, boulders have a way of bringingout my inner-critic. For me, longer periods of time activate a qualitatively different kind of resistance than I experience in shorter periods. It’s uglier, it’s more below-the-belt and it’s typically aimed at undermining my confidence and self-worth. In other words when my inner-critic sees a boulder in myschedule, she slams a red bull and comes out swinging fast and furious: Who do you think you are? Nobody is going to publish this crap, so why bother? And even if you can fool someone into publishing it, do you really want everyone who reads it to realize how stupid and silly you are?

Ugh! Because of my inner critic’s drama, I know that the only way I’ll get through a boulder is to have another human being waiting on the other side. Whether it’s a call from my writing buddy, reporting in to the nag, or a mid-day group chat with my Faculty Success Programcrew, I won’t make it through a concentrated 45 minutes unless I can run screaming into the presence of someone else at the end of that writing time. For me, it’s both an accountability mechanism and a lifeline. Whoever I’m talking to knows to ask me how my writing went and I’m motivated to give a positive report (when I finish a boulder, I call myself a "rock star”!). With all of these requirements, you can understand why I often prefer to shoot for a pebble and a stone rather than head straight into a giant boulder that will trigger greater and uglier forms of resistance as well as require more organized external accountability.

Needless to say, the whole reason I enjoy the image of various sizes of writing rocks is because I understand writing as a slow, long, and gradual process. I’m currently working on a book manuscript and it takes lots of time and sustained effort to complete a draft. But I want to feel good about completing each step of the process, not just the end product. Imagining my daily time as writing rocks provides me with a visual image that each day matters, each day I take an important step forward, and each 15, 30 or 45 minute writing rock contributes in a concrete way to the cumulative end product.

The thing I love most about my Writing Rocks is that they help me understand my time differently. Getting accustomed to writing in small blocks means that I feel empowered to block 60 minutes out of each day knowing that I can get a lot done. I also enjoy the flexibility it gives me to choose how I will spend my 60 minutes based on how I'm feeling on any given day. Maybe it will be a pebble and a stone or maybe I'll go straight in for a boulder. And finally, having varying sizes of writing blocks means I can write anytime I have even as little as 15 minutes. In fact, I finished drafting this Monday Motivator while I was sitting in a waiting room. How? My esthetician was running 10 minutes late and I arrived 5 minutes early: 10 + 5 = 15 unexpected minutes in my life. That was just enough time to bang out a little pebble instead of staring out the window, eating or drinking something just to keep myself busy, or mindlessly checking Facebook with my phone. Isn’t that great! With writing rocks, an annoyance turns into an opportunity!

I frequently hear that the specificity and detail that we provide in our NCFDD materials are helpful to imagining what might work forYOU! I’ve described my Writing Rocks as a way to stimulate your thinking and ask yourself: what is my current writing process? Is it working for me? Do I have realistic expectations? Have I tried short bursts of writing or do I assume that writing requires long and agonizing hours at a time in front of the computer?

The Weekly Challenge
This week, I challenge you to:
  • Write every day for 30 – 60 minutes (in whatever configuration of pebbles, stones or boulders suit your fancy).
  • Ask yourself: what is the relationship between the length of my writing time and my resistance?
  • If you don't know the answer, try tracking your resistance and your writing time this week.
  • Once you observe your own patterns of resistance, try experimenting with different blocks of writing time and accountability mechanisms to see what works for you.
I hope this week brings each of you a spirit of experimentation and compassionate curiosity yourself for all the things you have accomplished this summer, a sense of curiosity about your own patterns, and the renewed energy that comes from planning a new semester.

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