The Hard Way #10: Know Your Own Style

A bunch of my Facebook friends over the last couple of days have reposted an article by Gregory Semenza, on the value of writing for ten minutes each day. I think that’s great advice for some people, but I also think that one’s maximum productivity is about knowing one’s strengths – and one’s limitations. While I’ve never thought of myself as particularly productive (or particularly unproductive), enough people have suggested that I am particularly productive that I thought that maybe I should weigh in on how that came to be – especially since the ‘writing for ten minutes each day’ thing – especially at the start of a project, where I really need some time to be able to think about what it is going to look like.

I do think that its universal that being goal-oriented is important to productivity, but I think it is important to listen to yourself and your strengths and weaknesses to figure out how to best do that. For me, people often suggest that I ‘don’t sleep’ to get the sort of productivity that I have. Actually, I sleep eight hours most nights, and find myself grumpy and unhappy when I don’t get the opportunity. In fact, I find desiring to sleep one of my most effective work-incentivization tools.

So if I don’t write ten minutes every day, what do I do to keep up with work? Here’s some stuff that works for me, though it may not work for you:

  1. I set a realizable research-goal every day. If I have time, it will be writing; the word-goal for the writing will depend on the level of completeness of the thought in my head, where I am in the project, and the difficulty of the writing for me. It can range from 100 words to 10000 – but will always be when I have at least a couple of hours to devote to it. If I don’t, then the research-goal will be reviewing, writing decision letters, making blog posts, cataloging articles on my hard drive, or reading. By “realizable” I mean that it can be reasonably accomplished in the time that I have to devote to it, and with the mental energy I am likely to have. So on days when I am drained from either personal or professional stuff, I choose things that feel less scary to me. On days when I am feeling braver and more secure, I tackle the stuff that is emotionally or intellectually more difficult.
  2. The idea of a realizable work-goal is that it will get done in a reasonable amount of time – such that, if I do it right, I’ll have time to relax and do fun stuff with a least some of my time during that given day along with my other responsibilities. So on days when there is nothing else on my calendar, I schedule something that should last about 12 hours. On days when I have lunch appointments, dinner dates, vets appointments, or teaching, I re-schedule accordingly such that all of my responsibilities should take a maximum of 12 hours. If I do my work diligently, then, I will not only get plenty of sleep, but I will get to do things I find enjoyable in the meantime. If I goof off in the middle, I may lose some of my relaxation time at the end of the day. If I goof off a lot, it may cut into my sleep. While I never punish myself for working hard and the work actually being harder than I thought, I do require myself to stay up to finish research-goals when I have not been diligent. As a disciplinary measure, I rarely need to use that to the degree that it really interferes with my sleep. But when I do, it reminds me for quite a long time to be diligent with my work.
  3. When there is a task I am irrationally afraid of or find ridiculously unpleasant, but cannot rationalize my way out of doing, then I pair it with a second task that I find almost equally unpleasant. One summer, I packed until I wanted to write on a particular project, then wrote on the project until I wanted to pack – as I was moving. My disinterest in one task motivated me to work on the other and vice versa; both got done. Less extreme examples I have used include yard work (which I detest), filing on my computer (which I want done but never want to do), and doing laundry when it backlogs. Though it sounds terrible, I find that pairing ridiculously unpleasant tasks makes it seem like I amĀ getting a break from each, and improves my attitude about both.
  4. Keep a to-do list, separated into short term and long-term columns. The left-hand column of my to-do list has my writing commitments (all of them) on it, in the order I intend to accomplish them. My goal for this summer was unreasonable – it was to clear that backlog. While I will come close, I won’t get it done. The projects that are happening now, though, I have broken down into little parts (sections of articles, chapters of books) so that I can monitor progress. In the right-hand column, I keep tasks that can’t wait until I am at the end of the writing backlog – blurbs, reviews, talks, conference-tasks, journal-editor tasks, etc. I keep my to-do list on paper, because and only because I really like using a big sharpie to cross off finished tasks. It feels good as the list gets shorter, and all the crossed-out items on it make it seem like more can be accomplished. I like the feeling when I have to start a new sheet because there are too many crossed-out items to find space for new ones.
  5. On days when there are long blocks of writing time, I try to break it up into little chunks. This summer, because I have care responsibilities, my writing goals are less lofty then they have been in the past – often averaging two or three thousand words per day. I will then break those up into sets of 500 or 1000, and tell myself that there is some privilege awaiting me at the end of partly accomplishing my goal – taking a bath, watching a television show, preparing lunch, or the like. When I return to the keyboard after that privilege, I feel a little more ready to face the world.

These approaches may or may not work for you. They work for me because they address my weaknesses (I have difficulty paying attention to tasks for long periods of time, and find some research tasks very emotionally challenging) and cater to my strengths (I can get competitive with myself, I am decent at being really engaged and devoted to a project while I am doing it, I like to sleep, and I do well with relatively immediate rewards, however small). To me, ten minutes a day is like a little piece of torture: not quite enough time to engage but enough to get the ‘song’ stuck in your head. I have enough administrative stuff to do that when I can only find ten minutes, something in that world can get solved – and when I can find real time, and real attention – I get the writing done. When Semenza suggests that writing for ten minutes makes writing less daunting, makes you want to write more, and helps you stay in the flow – I’m sure it does – for some people. I’m just not one of them. I think the best professional decision I’ve ever made was to tailor my work flow to my needs, my strengths, and my eccentricities rather than trying to follow someone else’s model. I did make that decision the hard way, after trial and error. And I figured, in the face of all these great templates for how to convince yourself to work, that might be an important thing to think about and remember.

  • Keith Lee

    I like this approach.