Time Blocking for Academic Writing
Strategies for making the most of your (summer)time
Hello Writers! Congratulations on making it through what felt like the longest academic year to date!
Before we get to the writing tips, take a moment to thank yourself for all of the hard work you did to get through this semester. If you taught online, celebrate. If you made any sort of progress on your projects, celebrate. If all you did was survive this year, celebrate! (The power of celebrating small steps is real. This article offers a personal story and guidance on this strategy if you want to learn more.)
Now let’s face it: summer arrives as a huge contradiction for scholars. It promises fewer teaching and service responsibilities, entices you to change up your schedule and maybe even travel. Yet somehow, all this extra time also lets loose feelings of anxiety as you unconsciously start to crunch productivity numbers.
The extra time you could use to give yourself a *deserved and much needed* break quickly gets cannibalized by the voracious work monster. In the spirit of celebration and wanting to reserve at least some of the summertime for rejuvenating or just chilling, what can you do to fit in relaxation and meet your writing goals? One strategy is time blocking.
You might have heard of this before or run into it in other contexts, but the strategies I discuss below are geared especially towards academics whose work requires extra amounts of focus and mental energy in addition to long periods of time.
What is time blocking?
But more importantly, how does it help you reframe your relationship to time?
The simple answer is that time blocking refers to a method of organizing your schedule into chunks of time and assigning certain tasks to each of those chunks. For example, if I want to write 9-1pm every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I reserve those four chunks of time for that activity alone and refuse to do anything else during that time.
The transformative potential of this method though comes from the way it asks you to think about the tasks you need to accomplish. Instead of trying to stuff your workday with unrealistic expectations of productivity (what appears to be the norm for most academics, workers, and pretty much everyone at this point), this strategy asks you to consider how much time you want to dedicate to a given task. It forces you to evaluate the importance and priority of each individual task before dedicating time to it. It also makes you set a cutoff time to every activity you put on the schedule, which means you are “done” whether you like it or not.
This idea of a cutoff time has helped me exert more control over my weekly schedule and feel more accomplished at the end of each day. So even when there is more to do on, say, a chapter, I can honestly tell myself that I completed a whole time block dedicated to that single task, which feels like completing at least a little step towards my goal. While this method can give you a healthier perspective on time and how you use your energy, there are some things to keep in mind before and as you begin time blocking your way into the future. Here are some tips to make it work for you.
Find the best time to do your hardest work.
Tackle the tasks that consume the most brain-power when you feel the most awake and alert. This may not be first thing in the morning! It takes some experimentation to figure out when you’re at peak mental capacity and creativity.
Academic work takes an enormous amount of mental energy, not only to do the difficult thinking through of tough questions but also to focus on that train of thought for hours at a time. Your mind needs a break from this kind of activity in order to keep functioning at its best. This shouldn’t be a surprise but I’d bet that the majority of people reading this issue can relate to the compulsion to keep working even when your body starts sending you signs of fatigue. Let’s not forget that our eyes take on an extra burden when it comes to screen time and all the writing and researching we do on the computer or in texts.
Schedule your exercise, grocery run, or errands when you are mentally drained and when you know your mind needs a break.
Be adamant about your schedule and don’t change it for anything.
Treat it like any other high-priority commitment, like a doctor’s appointment or date night (things that should go on your schedule too). One of the problems with academic writing is that these projects take a very long time to finish and have multiple stages. You might take months to convert your chapter into an article, and then still have to move on to the next phase of updating references or responding to peer review comments. Because the work takes so long and you are only accountable to yourself, it’s easy to fudge on deadlines. After all, nothing bad will happen if you spend more time on preparing your lecture or conference paper instead of taking the first stab at article revisions…
You’re right: no one is going to get hurt. But you will be no closer to publication or submission, and that’s no fun. Instead, give your teaching, service, and conference preparation their own blocks and keep those tasks inside that time frame. Because the truth is, nothing bad is going to happen if those tasks aren’t completed on time either. By putting your own work and career first, you will have made progress towards your goals and most likely feel more motivated to do work for others afterwards.
Practice and reflect.
You will not master this in one week or even see changes in your productivity for a few weeks. I’m sure you know this objectively but there’s some part of you that still thinks otherwise. But that doesn’t mean it’s not working. I find it helpful to check in with yourself after at the end of your work week and take stock of how you feel about the way you spent your energy. The great thing about writing your time block schedule down is that you have a record of how you spent your time, so that at the end of the week, reflecting on how your time management is going is much easier.
This kind of mapping out of your tasks and energy can also show you patterns that you might not have realized before. I found out, for example, that I take about an hour to “get into” writing, meaning that I spend the first hour of my “writing block” getting my thoughts together and free writing instead of actually producing new words that might end up in the final draft. This insight allowed me to readjust how much time I allot myself for writing each day and helped me set more realistic goals long term. (I also discovered free writing as a way to begin when I feel exceptionally stuck!).
Here are some tools that I’ve personally found to be lifesavers in my switch to time blocking and approaching time differently:
The Time Block Planner
Cal Newport released this journal of sorts to help scholars like himself and others integrate the time blocking strategy into their workflow. (I’m not getting paid in any way to mention this, but I would recommend it if you want an easy, guided way into this planning method). I use it to keep track of my writing habits and map out my weeks around what tasks absolutely need to get done and how much time I estimate those will take.
This method has helped me plan better and over longer periods of time. It’s also a really great way to keep track of how much time you are actually spending on any given task/project, which makes it easier to see patterns and change them (if necessary).
This mini contraption was suggested to me by another editor at random and I absolutely love it. I use it to track my working hours as an editor and to track my researching/writing hours as an academic author. This eight-sided cube has helped me identify trends in the way I spend my energy and build habits to meet new goals.
Why it works for me:
- A physical block that sits on your desk. This might seem trivial but the fact that I can just flip the block to the appropriate side and it starts tracking that new activity—it’s like magic. No need to open an app or find the right setting, just flip it so that the activity you want to track faces up!
- Simple and fast switching between tasks. There’s no time wasted since you just have to flip the block over to the activity you want.
- Time tracking without the block. If you’re out and about or sitting at your favorite coffee shop, just open the app on your laptop or phone to track your work!
- Reminders to be nice to yourself and take breaks.
*I may receive a portion of sales made if you use purchase your Timeular through the links in this newsletter, but that’s not why I recommend it. I recommend it because it reminds me to take care of myself and refill my coffee.
This feature is especially important if you are one of those power writers who can will your way through eight hours of deep-thinking, back-aching prose-production. While you might feel accomplished for getting those words onto the page, your body will likely take it out on you later if you haven’t given yourself time away from the screen or breaks to walk around and stretch.
- Customizable activities to track. This feature caught me by surprise in a really good way. It made me think concretely about what is worth tracking. Since there are only eight sides, you have to be strategic about what you want to record. It might make sense for you to track how many hours you spend on Facebook if you want to eventually cut those hours down. For those of you who want to cultivate more calm and equanimity, you might want to track the amount of time you dedicate to meditation or exercise.
I hope these tips help! If you have questions or want to hear more about other writing/revising strategies, let me know in a comment or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.