Time is that quality of nature that keeps events from happening all at once. Lately it doesn’t seem to be working. ~ Anonymous (Ailamaki & Gehrke, 2003)

How can you manage your time to become a more productive writer? How can you find time to write for several hours a day?

Well, how do you find time to do the other things you do every day? Eat. Sleep.  Attend to physical hygiene. You do these everyday because you have to, because they are important. So is writing. It’s important…if you intend to finish your degree, to be a writer, to be an academic. You have to write. So you must find time to write each day, perhaps for no more time than you spend eating or exercising. Here are some suggestions that might help:

  1. Brause, in her book Writing your Doctoral Dissertation (2000), suggests that you make a checklist of all the steps you need to complete your paper, manuscript, thesis, or dissertation and develop a plan according to the time needed for each step. It’s good advice. In my first few years as an assistant professor, I worked with a dozen students who were writing their theses and dissertations. I asked each student to make a list of the major steps in their research and writing and to predict how long it would take so they could make a plan for completion. After each student finished the thesis, I asked another question: “How long did each step actually take you?” Invariably, for all the students the entire process took twice as long as they had anticipated. A four-month plan became eight. A 12-month plan became two years. Why? You likely know: Some things just take longer. Some steps, particularly the ones the students were doing for the first time, i.e., every single piece of the thesis or dissertation, were scary so the students didn’t start working according to their plan schedule but started only once they were not afraid to attempt the next step. And even when the students stayed on schedule, their advisor (me) and their other readers (my colleagues) often took longer than planned to read and return their chapters with comments. Research took longer, data collection took longer, advisor feedback took longer. The more elements that are out of your control, the more likely that surprises (and delays to your schedule) will occur. So my advice is to make a plan that has enough flexibility that you can adjust it when things take longer than you anticipate (and they will) without suffering dire consequences. Dire consequences? Like your funding runs out, your housing lease ends, your spouse/partner threatens to leave you, your advisor leaves the university or (heaven forbid) dies. One other tip for making your plan and schedule: Set your own deadlines in advance of your advisor or publisher imposed deadlines. Then when things require more time, you are facing your own wrath or disappointment, not the wrath and disappointment of others. Never miss a deadline set by your advisor.
  2. Be aware of the steps that seem to take more time, not because they actually do, but because you did not start early enough on them or work more quickly. This sounds simple. But how many times have you said to yourself, “I’d be done with this darn _______ [section, chapter, paper] if I had started a week ago. Or if I had written every day. Or if I had written for more than 15 minutes each hour instead of _______________ [your favorite procrastination activity].” Take control of your time and your writing. “If you cannot take control of your time, you will never finish” (Brause, 2000, p. 83).
  3. Remember Silvia’s suggestion from the second posting: Write regularly (Silvia, 2007). Schedule it on your calendar as if it were a class you were taking or teaching. When I was an untenured faculty member, I would schedule time to write. And when colleagues were trying to schedule yet another committee meeting (area committee, undergraduate committee, curriculum committee, executive committee, mission statement committee, calendar committee – yes, even that, to plan the academic calendar), they would see “research” or “writing” written on my calendar and say, “Oh, you can do your research or writing anytime. We can only meet as a group at [the exact time I had planned to write]. That was so-o-o unfair, manipulative, harsh for a junior faculty member trying to find time to write. What I heard was, “Your time isn’t important.” So commit to your writing, schedule it, and stick to your schedule.
  4. Kendall-Tackett (2007) suggests you can minimize procrastination and manage your time better if you plan a start and an end time for your writing. Tell yourself that if you start at 8, then you can stop at 9:30. When the time is up, you can stop…or not, but you must start on time.
  5. Kendall-Tackett (2007) also suggests using procrastination to your advantage by planning multiple projects.  She describes dreading grading papers (specifically “really dreadful papers”) “Suddenly I couldn’t wait to work on my manuscript. I would tell myself, ‘I’ll just work on one chapter….Before I knew it, I had taken a first pass through two thirds of the book” manuscript due in a few months (pp. 38-39). Procrastinate writing your chapter introduction ONLY if your delaying tactic is working on another section or paragraph. At least you are writing.
  6. Schedule your writing as smaller projects. You might be more productive if your schedule for working on chapter three looks like this – work on introduction from 8:00 to 8:30, write five paragraphs on relevant literature from 8:30 to 9:30, and draft a concluding paragraph or section for chapter three that provides a transition to chapter four from 9:30 to 10:00 – rather than this: work on chapter three from 8:00 to 10:00. Either way, plan a do-able goal for the time you have available to write, and work to meet that goal. Work on chapter three is NOT a specific enough goal!
  7. Another suggestion is the writing cloister (Rogers, 2005). This is time when “you do nothing but write and sleep” (p. 48). You are tough with both yourself and others, especially when deadlines loom. “Banish distractions, have timed writing times and break times, and beware of the hazards, which are times you can anticipate you will have difficulties such as when you usually eat, check e-mail, have tea.” This is a hard-core approach, and Kendall-Tackett (2007) and Rogers (2005) suggest it especially for when you are having some difficulty.  It’s not a long term strategy, but if for half a day this helps you produce, then try it. [We’ve conducted our own writing cloisters at Columbia in the form of Dissertation Write-In days and Dissertation Writing Boot Camp weeks. Some of the suggestions I’ve shared with you come from our Boot Camp experiences.]

Please understand that you don’t really have time to write a dissertation, or a book, or even a manuscript today. But you do have time to write a paragraph today. Or a page. Or two. And that’s all you need to do today. (Unless you waited far too long to start, and then maybe you do need to write a manuscript tonight. We’ve all been there.) The more you write today, the faster this will go. The more days you write, the sooner you will finish. And the more you write, the better writer and editor you will become. I promise you.

Ailamaki, A., Gehrke, J. (2003). Time management for new faculty. SIGMOD Record32(2), 102-106

Brause, R. (2000). Writing your doctoral dissertation: Invisible rules for success. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Kendall-Tackett. (2007). How to write for a general audience: A guide for academics who want to share their knowledge with the world and have fun doing it. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rogers, B. (2005, November). Cloistered writing: When you need a dose of discipline, take a writing retreat – at home. The Writer, 15-18.

Silvia, P. (2007). How to write a lot. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. 

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Some of the information in the BreakWriting postings is drawn from previously published work, and I have tried to properly attribute the ideas and work of others. If I fail to do so, please tell me so I can clarify and correct (Graduate Mentor).