Is it familiar that a moment when you sit to write something, all of a sudden everything else becomes more attractive, be this checking emails, cleaning the house, feeding the cat or calling your mom?! You happen to remember at this particular moment that the plants have not been watered for weeks and that a colleague asked you to return her book this morning. Welcome to the club of procrastinators! No pain — no gain, that’s how writing works, at least for me. It takes discipline and daily struggle to get things written, but the outcomes are terrific — written work that is shared, discussed, timeless if in print and often makes a difference. One should of course enjoy writing, but to get going and motivated, it is all about concentration and self-discipline. There are a few tips which have helped me in my years-long struggle with the blank sheet of paper or rather, a blinking mouse cursor. Below are three golden rules which I found most useful.
Secret 1: Designate writing time and keep it!
First of all, make time for writing only. Initially, I would block 2 hours every morning for writing, that is between 10 am and 12 pm I would not check my emails, answer phones, receive anyone in my office or worry about anything else. I would just write. It is easier said than done, but if you force yourself to do that for a few mornings, you will actually be looking forward to that moment of peace and self-time. This advice came from a senior colleague at a Dutch University who is an accomplished writer and authored hundreds of peer-reviewed publications.
Secret 2: When working on one thing, do not worry about other things
Another very important advice came from a personal coach. There was a moment when I had a lot of papers in my head and none actually in my hands. I would worry a lot about all of them and that would prevent me getting the first finished and progressing further. My personal coach, in what became a break-through meeting, told me a simple truth that I should not worry about anything else when working on a particular subject. Just do one thing at hand. And the coach asked me to promise that in the coming weeks I had only 1 major paper to work on. I promised, and I made small progress. Eventually, I learned that it is better to focus on one paper than write several at the same time, and that time may be very productive if you actually write and do not worry about a myriad of things.
Secret 3: Use a Pomodoro timer!
I think I heard about this from a skype update of a colleague, Googled and started using myself about 2 years ago. I am now writing almost always with my pomodoro clock ticking, which most of the time helps me to focus. This is a personal thing: some people will like the fact that it is only 25 minutes that one must focus before a 5 minute break, and get a lot done in that time. Others may find that too rigid and a bit stressful as there is a timer and you have to follow rules…But it works for me. At least it helps me to get going and sometimes when I wonder off on Facebook or the Internet, a quick look at the clock reminds me that I should be focussing on the paper. As a former chess-player who had his games timed, I find this a good system and the one close to my heart.
Of course, successful and productive writing is not just these three tips. A lot depends on the larger time and project management. Below you can find a few documents and links which I found useful in my career.
Producteev – an on-line system of project management, akin to Omnifocus in APPLE
Getting Things Done — an excellend book by Allen, something for anyone interested in personal efficiency
The balanced researcher — for anyone struggling with writing, science and building social life, especially as an expat. I loved it!
Macademic Blog— a blog run by my former Ph.D. supervisor Prof. Aleh Cherp from the Central European University. There is a lot on productive scholarship, but the focus is on Mac.
I wish you productive writing!