This is a belated addition to the Making Decisions series that begins with Managing the energy you use to make decisions, published in August 2021. You might want to read the introductory post first. You can also find links to other posts in the series in that post.
There are different kinds of decisions you need to make about writing.
One is about prioritizing time for writing. I’ve dealt with that elsewhere in You need a writing practice and in my book Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing (A Short Guide). The decision here is about the relationship between writing and other aspects of your job.
This decision then sets a constraint on the other type of decision about writing: what will you write? That’s what I’m going to focus on here.
There are 2 variations of this decision. I’m going to focus on the more common one I encounter: how to prioritize when you have too many options. This is more common because for a lot of people new projects start before older ones finish, so there is always something (often too many things) in progress.
Some people finish a project and then have to figure out what to do next. This situation is both exciting and daunting. It deserves a post of its own as the context and approach are very different. I’ve added it to my list of possible future posts.
The importance of values and meaning
As with all decision making, your goal is to make decisions you can keep. You want to be confident that you’ve made good decisions. You also want to be motivated to actually work on the projects you’ve chosen, during the time you’ve managed to protect for writing. Parts of the writing process are difficult. Sometimes writing brings up emotional stuff you need to deal with. You want to use your cognitive and emotional resources to advance your project, not to question why you are doing it.
Meeting external requirements for hiring, promotion, or other external reward can be one element guiding your decision. However, your lack of control over the final stages of the process make it risky to rely solely on this. You may be clear on why you chose to do this, but that won’t prevent you from wondering why this kind of thing is required in the first place.
The main thing you want to use to guide your decisions is your vision for your academic career. This is partly an identity question:
- What kind of an academic are you?
- What kind of a [insert discipline here] are you?
- What expertise do you want to be known for?
This vision provides the context in which you can make decisions about individual opportunities and options. Each individual project, talk, and publication contributes to this bigger picture of who you are. That means that no individual project, talk, or publication fully defines you. Your research trajectory is not linear. Furthermore, as you progress in your career, your answers to these questions will evolve. As such, this vision is more like a guiding star than a goal.
This vision is only partly about things like the topics you focus on, how you investigate those topics, and which readers you want to reach with your work. It is also about other values that guide your relationships with colleagues, students, research participants, and readers.
Academic citizenship isn’t just for committee work!
- Your values around mentoring may lead you to prioritize projects in which you collaborate (or coauthor) with junior colleagues.
- Your commitment to your particular bit of your field may mean you prioritize a publication that lays a foundation for future publications (yours and/or others), even when it’s not the most interesting thing you could write.
- Your commitment to social justice may mean that you decide not to write about certain topics, at least right now, because you know the wider context in which it will be read may lead to it being used in ways contrary to your deeper values.
Taking the time to make (and review) decisions about the big questions that interest you, the areas you no longer want to be actively involved in, the balance between collaborative and solo work, the types of people you want to collaborate with, and so on will help you respond better to the opportunities that arise.
You don’t have to defend your values and vision to anyone else. Spending time articulating them for yourself will help you make difficult decisions, stick with them when the going gets tough, and work out when you need to change your mind.
When you need to use your criteria and make decisions
One of the issues I raised in the Spotlight on Saying No is that you never get all the options laid out in front of you to pick from. You have to decide on each opportunity individually. It’s hard to leave slack in your schedule, but necessary to make space for better things that might come along. But you can only leave so much slack.
You need to consider the specific opportunity on its own merits, and in relation to the other things you’ve already committed to. If you say yes to this, what needs to be adjusted so you have time and other resources to do it well? You also want to consider what conditions might make it easier to deliver if you say yes: deadlines, processes (like feedback on drafts, or a co-author), funding, etc.
Even if everything you are currently working on is aligned with your goals, sometimes you end up committing to more things than you feel you can do in the time available. You’re scrambling to write that conference paper. You’re missing deadlines. Or you feel that you’re letting people down.
It is not uncommon for decisions about individual projects and opportunities to add up to a set of commitments that feel out of sync with your bigger goals. As I said earlier, no one project, publication, or whatever is going to meet all of your criteria. You may have the time to work on your current projects, but feel like something important is missing from the mix. In this situation, you may want to seek out or create an opportunity that meets specific criteria which fill that gap.
Step one: Make time to decide
The first thing to do is to give yourself time to apply your criteria, before you make a decision about a new opportunity. I cover this in Before you can say no, but the title might be misleading. You need to do this before you can say yes, too, no matter how excited you are about whatever this opportunity is.
This is even more important if you feel like you don’t have enough time. Taking the time to make a decision will save time and energy. Time working on things that really are a lower priority. Time and emotional labour spent second guessing yourself. Energy spent transitioning between too many things. Time and cognitive energy spent making a lot of smaller decisions that would be more obvious if you sat down to really consider your priorities properly now.
If you feel like you’ve committed to too many things, or gone off on the wrong track, do not waste time and energy diagnosing how you got into this situation. Trust that the decisions Past You made were good. Circumstances have changed and things are no longer working. Prioritize making new decisions.
Plan to review your project priorities every quarter as part of your planning practice. You can also make decisions as part of your monthly review and planning practice, especially if things are taking more or less time than expected.
You might also notice when you are dropping balls, spending time in self-doubt, or having difficulty motivating yourself. These are all signs that stopping to review your priorities might be a good idea.
You might change which projects you are working on, or how much time you allocate to each project. You might re-motivate yourself about that one project that’s giving you trouble and see a way to unstick it. Or you might identify simple things that would make things easier, like renegotiating a deadline, or getting some feedback.
Step 2: Make an inventory of Work in Progress
Trying to remember what you’ve committed to and when everything is due uses cognitive capacity that could be better prioritized. Make a list:
- On the whiteboard in your office
- In a notebook
- In a spreadsheet
The important thing here is that you can easily consult the list and see the crucial information like deadlines or which co-author is currently working on it.
If seeing the whole list makes you overwhelmed and leads to questioning your decisions about priorities, keep the big list of everything in one place and make only the current priorities visible in your workspace and short term (weekly/daily) plan. Adding a review of your priorities to your monthly and/or quarterly planning practice means you won’t drop important projects, even if you forget about them temporarily while you are focused on something else.
Taking things off your list: Finish something
One way to get things off your list is to finish them. This may sound obvious, but it’s only really a strategy when one of your projects is so close to finished that it’s worth just pushing through the last stages. If you estimate how much work is required to finish your projects, you can sort your list by Closest To Done.
Create a detailed plan to finish it, and block time to work on that plan. It doesn’t have to be all of your writing time but it will be one of your top priorities. When it’s finished you can slot in another Close To Done project, or add the time to one of your other priority projects.
Make the list as detailed as possible. You want at least a few things on a list that you can do immediately without thinking more about what they will involve. Some of these things should be feasible in small amounts of time. This is particularly helpful if you have another project that needs longer focus sessions and more heavy intellectual lifting. Being able to work on this Close To Done project in time that isn’t much good for something else means they don’t compete.
Your list will probably seem overwhelmingly long, but the ease with which you can tick stuff off in time you didn’t think would be useful for writing will counter that. End each writing session by checking that there are a couple of easy things to do, and breaking down some of the more abstract things on the list into this kind of easy-to-action item.
Using a highlighter to cross things off the list means your list gradually becomes a highlighted list of accomplishments with an ever decreasing list of stuff to do. Or, think of other ways to make sure you feel like you are making progress and are thus motivated to keep plugging away at this.
Taking things off your list: Quit or backburner a project
The work you’ve already done will not be wasted. You had to do the work you did to make a decision about whether there is really a contribution there, and how the potential contribution fits into your overall programme of research and publishing strategy. You may have discovered something else you’d rather write. You may need to shelve this while you do more research before deciding what to write.
Whatever the ins and outs of making this decision, it is always worth checking in with yourself about whether a project needs to be finished at all.
The last thing one of the Studio members published before she retired was something she’d originally written as a doctoral student and not published (for reasons out of her control at the time). She realized it would still make a contribution to her field and decided to take the time to update it and publish it. Other things on her never-finished pile she let go.
Journaling prompts to help you decide
Journalling is a kind of writing that can be helpful when making complex decisions. Getting things on paper where you can see them can help you see connections and contradictions. You can also determine whether the stories you are telling yourself about the risks and benefits of particular options are actually true.
This kind of writing is for you. Use a form that feels comfortable. Bullet points. Mind maps. Freewriting. Paper. Electronic. Sticky notes you can rearrange. A white board.
“What if I didn’t write this at all?” can also be a useful way to figure out why it is worth finishing.
Write down the first reaction you have to considering not doing it. You can also write about all the reasons you can’t drop it, or whatever else comes to mind. It will be helpful to know what popped into your head first and what seemed most intractable.
“What would I write instead?” If there were no consequences for wiping your slate clean, what would you most want to write/publish?
Despite my reassurances that the work you’ve already done is not wasted, you probably will still find it difficult to decide not to finish it. Time and energy are finite. Comparing projects to each other will help you prioritize the most important projects. Is there anything that has been poking you but that hasn’t been getting your attention?
Write as much as you can about this even if you don’t quite know where you’d publish or present it.
Being strategic is difficult but worthwhile
Writing is an important part of your job. Being strategic about what you are writing has multiple benefits.
- It makes a difference for external rewards like hiring, promotion, and funding.
- It reduces the feeling that you never have enough time for writing.
- It helps increase the proportion of meaningful work in your workload.
The Academic Writing Studio provides support for a planning practice and protecting time for writing. It includes regular group coaching sessions to help you with the difficult decisions and confidence wobbles.