This post is part of a series on Optimizing Focus. Finding it hard to focus is normal. Self-flagellation does not work to improve your focus. Furthermore it takes time and energy that takes you away from your writing; it is another distraction. I firmly believe that you can approach your work compassionately rather than violently. You do not have to go into battle in order to write. The first one, 3 elements to consider, covers the basics. Links to other posts in the series are in the Optimizing Focus Spotlight.
One of the elements that effects your focus is the context in which you are writing today. When I say context, I mean what’s on your mind generally as well as any aspects of the physical environment that might support or distract you. I have written about grading season focus. Sometimes it’s personal stuff like a relative who is sick or dying. Sometimes it’s the political situation. Or maybe just the general mental load of being a parent or the person in your household who keeps track of housework, etc.
Sometimes, what’s on your mind is other writing projects. One of my clients realized that part of what she’s dealing with is too many writing projects and research commitments.
- How many projects do you consider active right now?
Pause and think about that right now. Make a list. If you have committed to delivering any of them to someone else by a particular date, add the date next to the title/description on your list.
If you have no more than 3 things on your list you are probably fine. I’ve got some tips on how to juggle that below. If you have more than 3 things on your list, you need to cull your list no matter how much you feel like you don’t have time for this. That’s the bulk of what this article is about.
You juggle a lot of things. During a summer break or a sabbatical you are juggling fewer things because you’re not teaching and have drastically reduced administrative responsibilities, but you still have a lot going on.
Furthermore, each of the writing projects you have on the go is complex. The thinking required to do your writing takes a lot of effort and energy. Switching between tasks or projects requires additional cognitive work (which uses energy).
You need to be like a circus juggler and limit how many things you are trying to pay attention to at once to reduce the amount of energy and cognitive capacity you devote to switching.
You don’t have to go down to one.
Focusing on only one project at a time can also have drawbacks. Sometimes a change is exactly what you need to help you optimize your focus. The trick is to ensure that the type of work required is sufficiently different that switching counts as a rest from one project. That might mean working on something emotionally demanding for a short while and then switching to something more straightforward. It might mean working on a really intellectually demanding section of one manuscript and then switching to a more routine task for another one (e.g. creating and formatting tables, checking footnotes and references, etc). You might even be working on revisions of one paper and reading in an exploratory way for another.
If you have more than 2 or 3 projects in rotation, the restful element of switching will be counteracted by the effort required to keep track of what’s going on. You will occasionally panic that you’ve dropped one of the balls you were supposed to be juggling and it’s rolled under the sofa.
- Panic is not the best state to write in (see Meditation as practice & metaphor for focus).
- Panicking about a project that isn’t the one you are trying to focus on right now is even less helpful.
- Avoiding the panic will require devoting cognitive resources to keeping track of all your projects.
You can only hold so many details in your head at a time. All the extra energy and thinking you spend switching between projects, remembering where you are and getting back into a project, and panicking about forgetting things is energy and thinking you are not devoting to your writing projects. Second guessing your plans, worrying about being behind and not meeting deadlines, and beating yourself up for not being able to focus take even more cognitive resources away from the projects on your list.
You have to make some difficult decisions and you may need to engage in some tricky negotiations about deadlines. You cannot do your best work with too many things on the active list though. Make a more realistic plan.
How to choose what to prioritise.
There are multiple ways to do this. As you do, keep in mind that your 2 or 3 projects should ideally need different kinds of work so that switching is restful for part of your brain.
First, if you have anything out for review right now, one of the spots on your active projects lists needs to be available for revisions. Assume you are going to get a revise and resubmit decision. Assume there will be a deadline for getting the revisions back. Either leave one of your 3 spots empty for it (see Slack: the key to successful plans) or identify which project will be paused when that happens.
If this is summer or your sabbatical, consider prioritizing one project that needs really deep intellectual thought of the sort it is hard to do while also teaching. Reading. Thinking. Analysis. Writing the first draft. Major restructuring of a first draft. Specific revisions that require familiarizing yourself with new literature or theory.
If you are under pressure to get more things published, especially if that pressure involves a contract renewal, promotion application, or similar, you might want to prioritize the project that is closest to done. Putting lots of time and cognitive resources into this project means you can get it submitted which frees up a slot for another project.
If one of your priority projects is difficult in some way (e.g. triggers complicated emotions, isn’t very meaningful but you have to do it, etc) then prioritize another project that balances that out. Make sure at least one of the projects on your active list is something you enjoy working on, find meaningful, get excited about or otherwise is pretty easy to motivate yourself to do. Enjoying it doesn’t mean it’s not work.
Consider your time frame, too. You can prioritize 2 or 3 projects over several months, but do one at a time.
How to take things off your list.
If you have more than 3 things, you need to take some of those off your active list. That doesn’t have to be “I’m never going to do this” but it could be for some of them. Quitting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t have to finish everything you’ve started. This is especially true of sole-authored projects, but can also be true of co-authored ones (if a bit more tricky to negotiate). Go through your list and cross off the ones that you really really do not want to write and have not committed to.
For most of the projects, you are moving projects from the active list to some kind of holding pen. You will write this, but not today, this week, this month, this summer… Making decisions requires cognitive resources so it’s better to assume that it will be a longer time before you get back to them. If you finish something, you can look at this list and make a new decision then. Otherwise, at least a month, possibly the whole summer or semester.
Be honest about your ability to keep your commitments. If you have committed to something recently that now seems ill advised, that will be easier to get out of. Here is some suggested language you can use as a template in this instance:
“I have been reviewing my commitments and have realized that I really do not have the capacity to take on this project right now and do a good job. I’d like to withdraw now while you still have time to find someone else. Thank you for inviting me. The project really is interesting. I just don’t have the capacity to do it justice.”
If you agreed to write a chapter for an edited collection or special issue and getting it written on time requires not only optimum focus every time you work on it and no unexpected intellectual challenges but some kind of additional magic to happen, it is better to talk to the editor now to either renegotiate the deadline or back out of the commitment. Even if it doesn’t require the additional magic, you are not going to get optimum focus and no intellectual surprises. Renegotiate that deadline. If the thought of working on it makes you feel discouraged, seriously consider backing out.
The shame you will build up between now and the deadline will make it harder to talk to the editor and harder to work on the project, a vicious cycle. The longer in advance you talk to the editor, the easier it is for them to find an alternate contributor or rejig the volume. They may be disappointed but nowhere near as angry as they will be if you don’t deliver and then stop communicating with them when their deadline has passed.
If you cannot renegotiate, then recommit. Make it a priority and drop something else. Yes, this will be difficult. No, there is no magic that will make it possible to do everything you want to do right now.
Be kind to yourself. You are not a bad person for having started all these things. It’s pretty normal for things to get out of hand. You are excited about your work. You took on those things for good reasons. The people you have made the commitments with have also been in this situation at least once. They might not like it but they understand. You are now being realistic about what you can do and adjusting your plans. That’s it. You can do this, just not all at once.
Limiting how many projects you are working on enables you to focus better on what you are working on. You will enjoy your writing more. You will probably get more done.
This is difficult.
Making these decisions, communicating with the people you need to communicate with, making reasonable plans for your writing projects, and feeling confident that you are doing enough is really difficult. It is made even more difficult by last minute demands from your head of department, opportunities you hadn’t anticipated, and the ways in which your colleagues may spread their own lack of confidence and fear around. Many academics struggle with this at all stages of career.
You can do this.
My coaching service, Guide for the Journey, helps you make these decisions and implement them so that you develop some confidence and have support as you make adjustments and respond to things that come up.
This article was sent to my newsletter on 14 June 2019. It has been edited. Audio was added and included in the October 2021 Spotlight on Optimizing Focus.