Scheduling writing

Many of my clients (most of my clients) (all humans everywhere, probably) lead busy, full lives. There are a thousand things competing for their attention and writing can sometimes seem like the least urgent thing in the room. But, there's a difference between urgent and important.

Urgent: things that need to be completed soon or there will be dire consequences. Urgent things are often public, and they often impact other people. These are the fires you're putting out on a daily basis. 

Important: things that have a high value. It will matter if you do not do them. They're the big goals, the huge milestones, the end of the road. 

But the two aren't always together. For example, if your cat escapes from your house, locating them would be both urgent and important. Submitting grades on time for your students is both urgent and important; it impacts your students (and your evaluations) if they're late, and doing well in your teaching assignment can have a long term impact on your career. 

It's easy to understand why urgent and important things have to be prioritized. But if you're running your schedule solely by what is urgent, things can fall off your plate. Long term projects, far away deadlines, and your overall goals can slip out of focus when you're only dealing with the tasks and roles that are demanding your attention day to day. 

Writing tasks often fall into the important, but not necessarily urgent, category. How many of us have put a conference submission deadline on the calendar months in advance, only to wake up that morning without an abstract? I struggled during semesters where I was teaching, working, and being a human to prioritize my writing - there were simply too many other things to do, and those deadlines were a long way off anyway. But then, a therapist introduced an idea to me that changed my life: 

Schedule your writing. 

As part of a "Dissertation Stress and Anxiety Management" support group, we were asked to track our activities and moods for a week, down to the half hour. If you spent a half hour checking Twitter, you noted it. If you slept for 12 hours, you wrote it down. It was eye opening for several reasons, but most of all, it exposed a fatal flaw in my own scheduling.

You see, I went into the exercise feeling confident that I would "do well." I was busy! I took care of important tasks and kept multiple projects up and working all at once. I rarely spent whole days procrastinating (or resting, but that's a subject for another time.) But what I realized, when I looked at the week written out, was that I spent all my time dealing with urgent tasks as they came up. I worked to the deadlines, letting others' schedules dictate my time. And I wasn't writing. I wasn't moving any of my long term goals forward. I was busy, and productive, but I was avoiding the writing because it was big, and scary, and not due yet. 

So the therapist shared how she balanced her own dissertation writing with her clinical hours - she blocked out 3 hours, twice a week, as her "Dissertation Class." She was great, she reasoned, at making meetings and seminars - she would never schedule over that commitment. So, why not treat the dissertation work the same way? 

She put it on her calendar, and she respected it. She didn't schedule meetings over it. She wouldn't move the time around, even by an hour, no matter how busy or behind she felt. And if she ever felt compelled to skip, or move it, or otherwise not work during that time, she would run the "class" test. 

"If this were a class, with other people in community with me, would I skip it?" And if the answer was no, then she went to work. Having just six hours a week blocked off made a massive difference in moving her writing forward. It gave her time to focus on important things, not just urgent ones. 

Make it work for you.

Maybe you have plenty of time for writing - but by the end of the day, you're too tired to work out. Maybe you're blocking plenty of time for your academic goals, but your professional development and career planning is falling by the wayside. You can use the same principle! Make a list of the things that are important to you, and work backwards to block time off to work on them.

  • Sign up for conferences or workshops around your professional development - having a commitment "on the books" can support your growth.

  • Look at your schedule for time you're not using as well as you could - would scheduling in a fitness class or walk around the neighborhood that you treat as immovable help you be more active?

  • Take an inventory of your life in its totality - where are you hitting your goals? Where could you put more focus? Does your schedule give you protected, dedicated time to work on your long-term objectives?

It can be hard to focus on important things when they aren't urgent - but eventually, they become urgent. Your dissertation chapter is due in a week. The conference abstract is due today. You are graduating next month. Your health is suffering, or your mind is anxious. Blocking time off, in the amounts and places where it works for you, in advance will help you focus on both the short and long term picture. 

Plan out your time mindfully. Respect the time you set aside - you are a priority. The urgent things can (sometimes) wait until you're done.