Saturday, May 22, 2010

On writing, from ProfHacker

Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Planned Obsolescence) has a good post up at ProfHacker, "The First Half-Hour of the Morning":
This is a lesson that I've had to re-learn repeatedly. I'll find myself, about mid-semester, having a hard time squeezing any writing into my schedule, and it will only slowly dawn on me that the situation is being worsened, if not created, by the fact that I'm starting my day in crisis-management mode, which is a mode I can never get out of once it's set in.

On the other hand, if I start my day with thirty minutes of writing, I'm far more likely to be able to return to the project in some random free block of time later in the day.

So I discipline myself: I climb out of bed, brush my teeth, feed the cats, make the coffee, and then sit down at the computer -- and do not open my email. Instead, I open whatever document I'm currently writing in and set a timer for thirty minutes. And I spend that thirty minutes focusing exclusively on that document.

Because whatever new crisis my email is going to bring me that morning isn't going to get any worse in the next thirty minutes, but getting my focus back once I've allowed the crisis into my morning simply will not work.

This post has stuck with me, even though a lot of bloggers (myself included) have talked about setting aside writing times before. Although some of the commenters say that you can block out any 30 minutes in a day, it's not as easy to shut off your mind as it is to close the office door and turn off the internet.
Fitzpatrick's post reminded me of this study:
She [Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life] recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption. (For more advice, go to
I've noticed this, too: my attention span shortens throughout the day, until it lengthens again in the evening and I can concentrate once again.

A side note: I like ProfHacker, although my reaction is often "hey, I wrote about that a while back/have been doing that for years." What ProfHacker posts on productivity do, though, is remind me of this: if you've written about this before, why aren't you following all those precepts you've been writing about for years?

Application fail.


Julie Meloni said...

...and if you'd like to write something for PH, just ask your friendly neighborhood editor. :)

Professor Zero said...

YES, it's true about starting first. I like the 30 minute plan as it will work on any day. And: working out is next.

Why one doesn't always practice such things: well, getting assigned university activities that last until 8 or 9 PM, and getting assigned classes that start at 7:30 AM. Then, being tired. Not being in a POSITION to manage one's time as one would. Not being the one who gets to make decisions about how one's day will go. That's why. Although I try and am about to try harder.

Anonymous said...

I resonate with this: I try and read first thing in the mornings, rather than write, because there may well not be other times in the day when I can, but it's the same trick. Also, an important part of my identification I think: when I get up, who am I, a wage-slave or an academic? Bike to work or book to desk? The answer is important to me. (Just as well work don't much mind me being consistently late though!)

Jason said...

I think about the "Application: Fail" bit a lot--in fact, I sometimes talk about ProfHacker as a site that's basically about failure, and the constant attempt to reset.

@Professor Zero: 7.30am classes . . . ? Bet those are popular. :-) Our collective bargaining agreement restricts how one can be scheduled--so, for example, if you have an early-morning class, then you can't be scheduled the prior evening without your explicit approval.

undine said...

Thanks, Julie Meloni! You should know I'm not being critical of ProfHacker, which I treat like an external conscience.

Professor Zero, those are terrible hours--7:30 a.m. classes? The chair should put a stop to your 12-hour days. Do you work out first or write first? That's been a problem for me, since I'm too antsy to sit still if I don't work out.

tenthmedieval, I like that idea that taking that time is a good part of "who am I, a wage slave or an academic?" Can you do both (bike to work AND book to desk)?

Jason, I never thought of ProfHacker that way, but yes--it gets backsliders to get themselves back on the wagon. I wish there was a real reset button in our heads, but PH does a good job of that.

Anonymous said...

I do try and do both, but to do it thoroughly would mean, urg, getting up earlier, and this comes very hard to me.

Anonymous said...

7:30 AM -- we have to because there aren't enough rooms to hold all classes in the middle of the day. But it's not every semester for every person. Weirdly, students love it because you can come off the graveyard shift and go straight to class, or alternatively put all your classes in before noon and then go work the swing shift. Late afternoon/evening classes, those are popular with people who work the day shift. Classes that would be at traditional hours also exist but are the most likely to get canceled due to low enrollment, so, even though the intention isn't to have peoples' days fragmented like this, it can happen. We're working on some more failsafe preventive strategies.

This in particular is why I like TenthMedieval's point, am I an academic or a wage slave? One has to remember that question every morning, because if not it is too easy to be led astray, truly.

Hm. This feels like therapy. I see now that I've told myself "get used to it, you are being paid for this and it isn't Wal*Mart, other people manage it" too many times.

Anonymous said...

P.S. What I have been doing is, drink coffee first, read the news, and go to the office to work on classes.

What I want to do is write first, work out next, then go to the office to work on classes. That means having left early enough the day before, going for a walk and coming home and eating a relaxed dinner, getting the office grisgris off, and reading in the evening or doing something intellectually nourishing even if it is recreational -- as opposed to simply try to recover from departmental politics, weird students, and so on. You have to have an adult life and as a non academic friend perceptively points out, it's hard to remember how when you have so large a daily dose of "kiddie world."

Anonymous said...

OK, I am still thinking about this question, why one does not do what one knows works, it strikes a chord.

I think TenthMedieval really puts his finger on it with the question, "Am I an academic or a wage slave?" -- this covers everything. It goes to the point whereas wondering which neurosis causes it or what practical situation are all red herrings.

I like ProfHacker because they have practical solutions to fit all situations. So: you say, "I am an academic" and you then go for a practical solution that really works in your ACTUAL situation (and doesn't just try to replicate what worked in another situation, which is an erroneous strategy I often try to use).

Anonymous said...

I'm slightly frightened by the uptake of my rebellion slogan here. I should say that I do occasionally analyse that reaction and wonder whether I'm just hiding from the real world. But mainly I just take a long time to wake up and a book helps me get in gear.

Anonymous said...

Yes, tenthmedieval, you hit a nerve, I say be proud, I even made a post title about it, because I think your phrase is very clarifying.


I also think scheduling in a way that works is everything, a good rhythm is everything, and even being able to imagine a schedule you'd like best even if you can't have it is liberating.

I'd like 9-1, M-Th WRITE. Then fit everything else around that, any old way. After lunch you work out and then go prepare classes and teach at twilight. You could fit in two 1-1/2 hours classes each evening, which would be a load of 12 hours, so one wouldn't be slacking. Then after class you'd go to an art gallery or to the movies or to dinner. Then you would sleep from midnight to 8. In this scenario Fridays would be for meetings and correspondence, and weekends would be for going hiking and things, and/or for getting ahead (not catching up) on things left over.

Notice how this schedule seems vacation like but involves as much work as any other.

undine said...

profacero, I see why 7:30 a.m. classes could be popular. It's easier once you're already up to go to class--to add one more thing to your day--than to get up for that. I taught at 7:30 one summer and didn't mind it. Either the students really wanted to be there and participated, or they didn't and hence wouldn't get up for it; the latter dropped the course.

undine said...

Tenthmedieval, I like your book solution. It also has a calming effect (for me, at least) that tames the "you haven't done this yet!" voices so that I can actually do what I'm supposed to do.