Alice Cooper (and the Muppets) capture an important sentiment: YESSSSSS!!!!!!!!!! The academic year can feel exhausting at the very end, and now that we’ve hit summer there’s a usual, and totally necessary, impulse to celebrate, then relax and unwind. I know I plan to do just that.
At the same time, summer is also the time when many of us count on the time away from teaching and meetings to get some of our most serious research and writing done. And that’s where we run smack dab into a familiar irony: we can often be our least productive when we have the most unstructured time. Faced both with the perennial “there’s so much… where do I start?” problem and the aforementioned impulse to chillax, we can perceive the expanse of unstructured free time ahead of us, observe, “that’s OK, I’ve got plenty of time,” and then hit the beach, the bookstore, or the Netflix binge.
…and then it’s mid-August, and the next academic year looms. Oops.
Facing this condition right now (spring grades were turned in yesterday, YESSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!), I happily came across this piece by Indiana University’s Kelly Hanson in Inside Higher Ed‘s GradHacker blog (which is a great resource you should check out, even if your grad student days are behind you). It’s a good reminder of some concrete steps we can take to keep our writing moving forward by adding some structure and intentionality to our summer free time.
Kelly Hanson is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. She loves grad school because even though she gets older, her dissertation just stays the same age. You can follow her on Twitter at@krh121910.
Summer is upon us here in Southern Indiana, and in between barbeques and long weekend bike rides, I have some epic plans for my dissertation this summer. The trouble? The lack of semesterly structure makes me feel like I am untethered. Summer, for me, is one of the most difficult times to write. My summer productivity has been hit or miss in the past. But this summer, I am ready to get this chapter done.
During the semester, I have found the most effective way to get writing done is to create a daily schedule with scheduled and measurable goals. In the summer, this is even more important for me because when my schedule is so open I feel like I can just always write later. Creating a summer calendar to match my goals is the only way I can get writing done during the summer. We’ve written before about the transition between summer and the semester, but today, I offer some techniques for transferring your writing projects from the regimented time of the semester to the amorphous and unscheduled expanses of summer break.
In some ways, my summer plan is a spin-off of David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the productivity bible so many academics swear by. But it is also an extension of many of the principles put forth in Wendy Laura Belcher’s Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks. From both of these writers, I have learned the necessity of breaking my work into small, manageable tasks that are not simply hierarchized, but also immediately scheduled.
My plan for summer writing, which I will outline below, combines many of these two methods and works towards sticking to small writing goals in order to achieve larger goals. For me, this involves writing my second chapter (an immensely large and unwieldy goal) with smaller goals that I can actually schedule into my iCal.
1. List All of the Things!
I begin with a large and unwieldy to-do list. What do I want or need to do during the next three months? I try to list all of the goals—writing, personal, professional, etc.–that I have for the entire summer. Mine are focused on summer teaching and writing my second chapter, but maybe you’re preparing for the job market, or reading for exams, or trying to churn out that elusive chapter. Regardless, in making a to-do list, I find the key is to move from big to small: begin with the big goals, and then break them down into smaller tasks. The items on my to do list range from “edit topic sentences” to “insert a footnote on Kristeva,” and everything in between. The smaller and more schedulable, the better. I try to set goals that take less than an hour to complete—I find this a good way of measuring if the goal is too large to schedule, or if it needs to be broken down further.
2. Schedule It on a Calendar
The key to making the long and unwieldy to-do list useful is to make it quotidian. Electronic calendars like iCal, Google Calendar, the calendar available in Microsoft Outlook are excellent, but it can also be fun to get creative and make your ownwall calendar. Profhacker has also recommended using a calendar app for academic scheduling, which might offer a helpful way to itemize all the different types of writing-related activities.
This summer, I am using a combination of a DIY butcher paper calendar for the big picture and my iCal for the day-to-day. These calendars helps me stay on track each day, but also keep me connected to the longer-term deadlines I have set for myself. Each week, I use the paper calendar to schedule my larger summer to-do list into small, manageable chunks on my computer calendar, which then syncs with my iPhone.
While I’m using this to schedule dissertation work, I’ve found the method useful for other writing goals, like article submission. If, for example, you have a goal to send a polished article out for publication on, say, September 1, then the calendar allows you to work backwards and schedule all of the things you want or need to do to to prepare that article. This may include larger issues like revamping the entire argument or adding new sections, or it may include smaller goals like adding footnotes or updating the lit review. Using a calendar to schedule writing time for this would include scheduling these small and specific tasks on your calendar. The task “write for 2 hours” is too vague to be useful. Instead, something like “draft introduction” or “work on section transitions” or “incorporate this [specific] source” offer schedulable tasks. I find it helpful to schedule these tasks on a weekly basis, as scheduling something as precise as “topic sentence revision” seems hard to predict 2 months out.
3. Create a Daily Work Schedule
Of course, the most difficult part of writing and productivity isn’t the larger scheduling or the pretty calendars: it’s turning intention into reality. I think of this as the “in the trenches” aspect of writing, the gritty hours where I sit and actually write words on the (electronic) page. I find it most useful to set a daily writing schedule where I schedule writing time every day, at specific times and places. Setting up a consistent daily schedule around unavoidables (childcare, dog walking, summer teaching) and sticking to it is the best way to make bridge the gap between intention and productivity. Even with the schedule and calendar, I still find that using productivity apps like Pomodoro to be helpful in sticking to my schedule.
4. Remember that “No Man is an Island, Entire of Itself”
As much as I advocate for finding quiet and private workspaces, I also find writing can be isolating, especially during the summer when I’m not on campus and running into friends and colleagues every day. Writing with my friends and talking about my work is a necessary aspect of the writing process for me, and a really important factor in making my summer productive. As much as writing seems to be a monolithic individual task, it is always already collaborative–and I find that working with my colleagues helps me generate my best work. Sharing writing weekly, monthly, or perhaps even daily is a great way to stay on task. Between boot camps, weekly writing groups, or a daily accountability buddy, there are many ways to share writing with others and have accountability.
5. Enjoy the Break!
As much as I want to get work done during the summer, I also just want to go biking, watch Dazed and Confused, and sing Alice Coooper at the top of my lungs. Summer is a great time to focus in on research away from the hectic schedule of the semester but it is also summer break. Let’s not forget to make time for leisurely activities: go on a hike, take a vacation, and enjoy the sunshine.
One, none, or all of these apply to your summer break. How do you transition from semester to summer?
[Image by Flickr user Dan Geisler used under creative commons licensing.]
Inside Higher Ed