Given how hard it is for most academics to find time to work on their writing, and how difficult it is to know how long some stages of the process will take, I advocate establishing a regular writing practice and trusting that this will produce the outputs you need.
Academic writing projects are all long projects, though. How do you motivate yourself to write when the finish line is so far away? And how do you deal with the gremlin that tells you all this work isn’t actually getting you any closer to a publication?
In other words, how do you stay motivated and develop a feeling of accomplishment?
Motivation and action items.
Motivation is not some magical thing. It’s just the thing that enables you to take some kind of action. You want to look at a thing on your project to-do list and immediately know how you would get started on that. “Work on the article about bees” is too abstract to reliably motivate action. You want something specific enough that you don’t have to wonder what you meant.
You’ll need to experiment with how specific your action item needs to be. If you have an outline, you might get away with something that is basically “turn this section of the outline into paragraphs”. Sometimes you might need something like “Re-read the comments the reviewers made about the analysis of emotion and make a list of possible actions.” If you look at something on your list and think “Yes, I’d like to do this but I’m not sure how to start” then your first action is to break that item down into smaller pieces. Just listing the steps involved in “write the introduction” might reveal a smaller action step that you know how to start right now.
Not all actions involve creating or deleting words on the page. Sometimes the action you need to take is making a decision. There may be other work you need to do to enable you to make a decision. Some of that work will be intellectual. Some of that work will be emotional. Acknowledging decision-making as necessary to the process, and accepting that it may require you to step away from your draft in some way, will enable you to keep moving.
Action motivates more action. All you need is one action to get started. Then you can allow that action to lead you to another one. The best place to start in any given writing session is probably the task you intuitively want to start with. You may have gremlins that will immediately start questioning your choice and suggesting whether something else would be better. I can guarantee you that hosting gremlin debates in your head about the best place to start does not motivate action or momentum.
The line between motivating and overwhelming.
Although you want to break things down into steps that make the action clear, breaking things down too much is counterproductive. If your list is too long, it’s overwhelming, and overwhelm often makes you freeze. Because action motivates action, you don’t need a long list. You just need a specific place to start. Once you’ve got started, momentum will usually keep you going. In theory, you can identify one action and then take action.
In practice, it will probably be helpful to have more than one specific thing on your list though. Three to five items is probably optimal. You need enough to take into account your mood and context on a specific day. If you rebel against being told what to do, even by Past You, 3 to 5 items give you enough options to feel like Present You has a choice. Having a few specific choices also means that if you don’t get enough momentum to last through your whole session, or you get stalled somehow, you have action items to get you going again.
Err on the side of too few items. Notice how that works for you. Adjust as you go along to figure out the optimal number for you.
Feeling like you are making progress.
Academic writing projects, even the ones that are considered short in academia, are long projects. Most of your writing sessions will be relatively short. It’s rare to be able to focus exclusively on a writing project for long periods of time. Motivation is all about getting started. Action inspires more action which gives you momentum during your session. How do you sustain that momentum over time?
The momentum that keeps you going in a writing session can work against you in the longer term. A good writing session often feels like you’ve lost track of time. Your alarm goes off and you are amazed that you’ve been sitting at your desk writing for 60 or 90 minutes. We call that feeling “flow” or “hyperfocus”. Sometimes we are optimizing focus for flow. (Not always, but that’s a whole other conversation.)
Time perception is intimately linked to memory. What we call “flow” is when you’ve been so absorbed in what you are doing you haven’t noticed the specifics that would allow you to perceive time passing. That’s why setting an alarm can help you optimize for flow. You aren’t making decisions, you are letting the momentum of action-leads-to-action carry you.
Memory is also what makes you feel like you are making progress. If all you’ve stored in memory is “Wrote for [x amount of time]. Not finished yet.” it won’t take too many sessions to start to feel like all that time has been wasted. Pointlessness is one way we experience meaninglessness. The only memory you’ve stored about what you actually did is “Not finished yet.”
You can’t judge your progress by whether you are finished yet. The project is too big. You can use the larger phases of the process to create more finishing points (often called “milestones”), but that only gets you part way. Each of those phases of the project also takes many writing sessions. You are still going to have way too many “Wrote for [time]. Not finished this phase.” moments.
Hacking your memory with a “ta-da list”.
The easiest way to fix the problem of feeling like all this writing you are doing is pointless, is to take a moment at the end of each writing session to write the detailed to-do list that you didn’t want or need to get started. In A Meeting With Your Writing, I give the prompt:
Notice what you did and how it moved your project forward.
I don’t remember who I learned the term “ta-da list” from. I didn’t invent it but I like it for the way ta-da resonates with “to-do” and the way it feels celebratory. Even if what you did in your session involved a lot of hard thinking (while pacing or staring out the window) as you worked towards making a decision, you took action that moved your project forward. That’s worth celebrating, even if only with a check-mark or a “ta-da”.
Your objective, when writing a ta-da list, is to store memories of this writing session in a meaningful way. You absolutely want a long list of action items you can tick off. What would be overwhelming in future tense, is reassuring and helpful in past tense. It doesn’t matter that you haven’t finished, or haven’t reached a major milestone. It matters than you took actions. Plural. Each of those actions had a beginning and an end, which means as you write the list, the time you spent will start to feel more substantial. While you are in it, it’s nice to feel like no time has passed. Once time has passed you want that time to feel substantial.
Go beyond word counts. They can also be counterproductive on their own. What did those words do? Messy, first draft words get ideas out of your head and onto the page. You might have added words to make something clearer. You might have only written a small number of words but you took a lot of time thinking about which specific words and there is something important about the specific words you wrote.
Maybe you rearranged words on a page. Or started with a blank page and wrote an outline that used what you learned when you wrote a lot of words in a previous session to clarify the structure that will guide future writing or revision. Maybe you cut words that don’t advance your argument, thus making your writing clearer for your eventual reader.
Notice what you did and how it moved your project forward.
Write it down.
I encourage you to actually write out this list. Writing is another way to hack your memory. I’m sure you have experienced forgetting your grocery list at home and still remembering what was on it. It won’t take that long.
You may never look at this list again. The primary objective of writing it is to store memories. However, during the period that you are working on this project, you will probably have days where you despair anyway.
Even though you do this practice. You will be frustrated at how long it takes. You will wonder if you are any good at this job at all. On those days, you might appreciate that stash of notebooks. You might look back over these notes about what you did in specific writing sessions and allow yourself to be overwhelmed by just how much is involved in producing an article.
When you do, you will be reminded that you can do this job.
My done-diary by Katherine Firth on Research Insiders gives an example of one way you might track things.
Review your scientific writing year – my guest post on Dr. Anna Clemens blog
From the Studio:
More in the Short Guide Series:
- The Scholarly Writing Process (e-book) (paperback)
- Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing (e-book) (paperback)
Read more about my Short Guide Series here.