Whether you are a college/university faculty member expected to achieve a certain level of productivity before tenure and promotion review, a scholar with a non-teaching role on campus, an adjunct scholar-teacher, or an independent scholar, you probably want to be a productive researcher or creative artist. After all, you pursued graduate training because you loved carrying out research or doing creative work, and you also want to make a contribution to your discipline and community.
So given the importance of research and creative activity, both personally and professionally, it is frustrating that we often feel we have insufficient time to research and write well, or to engage substantively in creative work. Maybe you keep looking forward to a “big block of time” when you can finally be productive. The problem is, “big blocks of time” rarely materialize, and too often we put off our important writing or creative work until “tomorrow.” … And then tomorrow never comes.
After spending too many years waiting for the “big blocks of time,” I realized I had to completely transform how I approach the first part of my day. I’d like to share a few simple strategies that may help you to capture more time to research and write or to engage in creative activities. They have helped me to complete much more writing than I did in the old days of waiting for the weekends or school vacations, and I think they can help you, too.
- Practice an incremental but consistent approach to being productive. If you have found that the “big blocks of time” approach has failed you, try the opposite approach: commit to working a few minutes every day on your major project. Set small goals and complete them, whether that’s two hundred new words, several more footnotes, another phrase of music, several more lines of poetry, or fine tuning a paragraph you wrote yesterday. I know such small goals do not seem like much, but two hundred words per day adds up quickly, and it’s more than no words per day! Be honest: haven’t you logged too many days when all you had at the end of the day in terms of your latest research project or composition were just good intentions? Two hundred words would be an improvement over those nonproductive days. Furthermore, by working a little every day on your major project, you will not lose your momentum as often happens between the “big blocks of time.”
- Work on your research or creative work first. There’s simply no way around this. For years, I worked busily all day on everything except my writing and composing. I was convinced that I’d finally get to the important stuff after I finished everything else. The problem is that the “everything else” is never done, and by the end of the day, I was too tired to concentrate on the important work—my writing and composing. So flip your day! Commit to an incremental but consistent approach to being productive and set aside your first 30 minutes each day to work on your research or creative activity.
- I can hear the push-back: “I cannot write for the first 30 minutes, I have to teach a class first thing in the morning!” But that’s simply not true. Even if your first class or your first meeting or your first deadline of the day is scheduled at 8:00 AM, you can work from 7:00 to 7:30 on the really important stuff! You just have to commit to go to campus earlier! I know, that sounds awful, but it works. I am not a morning person, but when I moved to Tallahassee, I decided to get up (consistently) much earlier than I had since the last time I taught 8:00 AM freshman music theory. I have been arriving on campus most mornings between 7:30 AM and 7:45 AM. On mornings I practice first, I arrive on campus by 7:15. The impact on my productivity has been amazing. How? Well, fewer people are on the road at 6:50 AM, and I am saving 10 to 15 minutes on my morning commute because of that. Yes, I am leaving an hour earlier than I would really like or really have to, but it is worth it. Second, by arriving earlier, I start my work day before others begin to call me or email me. If you are an independent scholar working from home or commuting to a non-academic job, the principle remains the same: start the day earlier, get a jump on the commute, and get some writing or creative work done before others begin to demand your time.
- Keep your email application closed until you have completed one or two small, manageable components of your current research or creative project. You know as well as I do that once you start to read email, your daily productivity drops! So consider waiting until 10:00 or 11:00 AM to begin checking email. On days that you arrive early and do not have early morning classes or meetings, waiting to check email until 10:00 AM means you’ve had nearly three hours of uninterrupted productivity. Even if you only spend the first half hour of those three hours on your writing or creative work and the rest of the time on other tasks, such as grading, class preparations, or committee work, you will find that you make a much bigger dent in your daily task list than you normally do when you begin to check email too early in the morning. Once 10:00 or 11:00 AM rolls around, then you can spend the rest of the day answering questions from your students, staff, faculty, or administrators. There is nothing quite like the feeling of knowing you actually completed important work before the pressing need to answer emails began to drag down your productivity and transformed your “to do” list for today into your “should have done yesterday” list for tomorrow.
Following these strategies will improve your productivity; 30 minutes each day will move your important writing or creative projects forward. The first step, however, is deciding to stop waiting for the elusive “big block of time” to arrive.
(originally posted on October 26, 2015)