For many years, I have observed new faculty members devote enormous time to their teaching, neglecting their research. When I recommend putting a greater priority on research, they listen appreciatively but postpone action until “things aren’t so busy” — a time that never comes.
Then, in early 2008, I came across a short, punchy book by Tara Gray titled Publish & Flourish (Gray, 2005). It spells out a 12-step plan to become a prolific academic author and cites research to back up the plan. Gray’s plan enabled me to support faculty and graduate students to become much more productive.
The foundation of Gray’s 12-step program is quite simple: write for 15 to 30 minutes every day. Yes, that’s it: the core requirement is daily writing, at least five days a week, preferably seven.
Gray draws heavily on the work of Robert Boice, who studied the habits of productive new academics (Boice 1990, 2000) and found that daily writing is the key to success. Should this be surprising? Coaches expect their athletes — swimmers, runners and so forth — to train daily. Junior athletes are expected to show up for training every day, at the same time. Swimmers put in the laps and runners put in the miles. This sort of training enables dedicated high school athletes to achieve times better than world champions a century ago.
So what were top athletes doing back then? Those were the days of amateurs, usually from the upper class with spare time and access to facilities, who trained when they felt like it, typically on weekends. Very gentlemanly. But their performances weren’t outstanding by today’s standards.
What about writing? Most academics seem to be operating like the gentleman athletes of the past. They wait until they feel like writing. That usually means when they have a big block of time, or are forced to meet a deadline.
Boice found that aiming to write in big blocks of time is not a good approach. The first problem is finding a big block. An earnest academic might say, “I’ll wait until the weekend … or until teaching is over … or until I’m on sabbatical.” Some never get started at all. Then, when the putative writing times arrive, it is all too hard to actually write.
The second problem is that a big block of time for writing makes the task seem onerous. Some writers are able to overcome their inertia — often when a deadline is looming — and push themselves into a marathon session of frenzied writing. This is exhausting. When finished, there’s little energy left for writing on following days. It takes a while to recover before mobilizing the mental strength for another lengthy session. Weeks can go by with only a few days of actual writing.
This pattern is analogous to a weekend athlete who is physically exhausted after a long workout and takes days to recover. Boice calls this pattern binge writing. It’s analogous to drinking or eating too much — you feel terrible afterwards.
Most academics learn binge writing from doing assignments in high school or undergraduate years. Bingeing becomes increasingly dysfunctional as tasks become larger. Writing an essay overnight is possible, but completing a 300–page thesis requires planning and sustained work.
Boice’s alternative is simple: brief regular writing sessions. For academics, the easiest regular pattern is daily. A daily writing session might be for half an hour, or even less.
Many academics, as soon as this option is proposed, begin a series of objections. “It takes me quite a while to get started — to get myself immersed in the subject.” “I can’t just turn on inspiration at will.” True enough. If you write infrequently, it does take a while to get back into the topic. If you write in binges, you won’t feel like doing it again soon.
Regular sessions provide a solution to these obstacles. When you get used to writing every day, you don’t need as much start-up time because you were dealing with the topic yesterday. The result is greater efficiency, as memory is primed and maintained more easily.
As for inspiration, Boice (1984) found that waiting for good ideas simply doesn’t work very well. Writing is the crucible for sparking ideas, rather than ideas being the trigger for productive writing.
The core of Boice’s and Gray’s prescription for productivity is daily writing — but not too much. The idea is to make writing so inoffensive, over so quickly, that doing it doesn’t seem like such a big deal. When expectations aren’t so high, it’s easier to overcome your internal censor, that little voice that says to you, “What you’re writing is no good. In fact, it’s crap. Give up and wait for a better time.”
Perfectionism is a deadly enemy of good performance. It’s like being judged every time you write a sentence or paragraph. It’s far better to go ahead, make mistakes and learn from them. Rather than expecting great output from a burst of frenzied inspiration, the idea behind Boice’s brief regular sessions is to work with moderate daily expectations, knowing this will lead in time to better results.