Academic Writing: Use a Timer to Make Yourself Write
Yesterday’s teleclass had over 30 lively participants, including new graduate students, “All-But-Dissertation” students, and professors on the tenure track.. One of the tips that I gave that was popular among attendees, was to use a timer. I thought I’d share the details of that tip with you.
Why use a timer?
Dissertation writing can be painful. And if you’re a new professor, the idea that you could get an article published while coping with your teaching, meetings, grading, and overwhelm, may seem like a joke.
Now if you’ve followed the advice I’ve given before, you should be scheduling a time to write, and deciding ahead of time how much time you will spend writing. If you’ve been blocked in writing recently, choose a very short period of time, such as 15 minutes. Don’t schedule more than an hour – that’s like running a marathon without doing any training.
If you set a timer, you will be able to look at it periodically to see how much time you have left. This can be inspiring. When I’m at the gym, the elliptical trainer sends me messages, “You’re 75% done!” As silly as this is, it makes me feel that I can actually hang in there and finish. The timer can do the same for you.
Being able to see that you’ve worked for 20 minutes, for example, can show you that you’re actually doing something. It suggests that you’re making progress.
The timer serves as a reminder that you are working on writing. Not checking emails, not reading, not getting a snack, not chatting with colleagues or answering the phone. You’re just writing, until that timer goes off. When I use a timer, I’m amazed at how often I realize that I’ve gotten off task. I do better, more focused work when I’m being watched by the clock.
A timer tells you to stop. If you have promised yourself that you will do 30 minutes of writing daily, you will not believe yourself if yesterday you actually did 90 minutes. One part of you may be thrilled that you wrote for 90 minutes. But the rebellious, or perhaps more reasonable part of you is saying, “You expect me to do that every day? You’re nuts! Let’s go shopping.” If you keep to the amount of time you said you would, you are paradoxically more likely to want to write the next day, because you have built up trust in yourself that you will stop when you said you would.
When you plan to write a certain amount of time, and the timer goes off, you can legally say that you did the task on your list, and you can cross if off. It’s not just a vague sense of having worked for a while, with a feeling that you haven’t done all you could have done. You said you would work for 30 minutes, and you did it. Case closed. Congratulate yourself and move on to other, non-writing tasks.
You can now get on with the rest of your life, without guilt. At least until it’s timer time tomorrow.