Have you ever struggled to finish something you had to write?
Perhaps an essay or thesis back in your college days? A presentation, business plan, blog or an article? Perhaps something creative like a short story, a children’s picture book, or a novel?
There’s more opportunities for us to write than ever before. Platforms are proliferating – from Wattpad, Medium to LinkedIn.
And there’s more pressure on us. Content is king. Long form is trending.
Everyone is a thought leader in waiting. You need to write for your personal brand, your career, your business, to be your best self and fulfill your creative potential.
Meet Professor Mid Life Crisis
If you struggle to write, you are not alone.
Writers of all types and experience struggle to keep going. And there’s one group that suffers this problem more acutely than others. I’m talking about academics.
For instance, meet Prof. Mid Life Crisis. He’s 49 years old. He has 20 years teaching and research experience at major UK universities. He’s an internationally recognized expert in his field with over 200 journal articles to his name.
And he’s blocked & stressed out by writing. Here’s what he told us.
“Sometimes I sit there and think, ‘why the hell would anyone want to read this? This isn’t important — this isn’t interesting.’ You wonder why anyone would want to read what you’ve got to say. It’s a mid-life thing. You lose confidence — you lose your nerve.”
And he’s not alone.
Meet Dr. Do Too Much. She is 35 years old, and a rising star. She is juggling her early career with family and her super exciting research interests. She’s just taken on more student responsibility. They need her time and support, as well as her teaching and admin.
She’s desperate to write, to meet her REF targets, but there aren’t enough hours in the day. She told us:
“I found it easy to write my PhD but now I’m teaching, it’s far harder – when you have two hours in-between classes you can’t get down to anything. I’m contracted to write three books but I’m stalled. I feel completely swamped by my workload.”
They are two different writers with a similar problem: they lack a writing strategy.
As part of my research on writing productivity I conducted several large scale studies. What I’m sharing here is part of some recent research: A small, qualitative study, a deep dive into the writing practice of academics.
We interviewed 23 scholars from 4 countries with 6 months to 27 years of experience. We asked them how they write, when, what they struggle with – their pains and gains.
From the interviews emerged 6 clear strategies that productive academics share.
1. They use time blocking and scheduling
Scheduling is never going to be sexy. But it works. Productivity is at its core, making the most of the time you have. We all have the same number of hours in the day, yet some people seem to achieve more than others.
Here’s what one author told us about time blocking:
“I use big gaps and spaces in my calendar as writing time and I just get it into my head that that’s what I’m going to be focused on at that time. I don’t have to physically write ‘writing time’ in my diary – but I know it’s coming up and that’s the important thing.”
Authors who use this technique prioritize what they have to do. They schedule time to make it happen. And they stick to that schedule.
2. They set artificial deadlines & have pre-defined milestones
This habit is another scheduling trick: setting artificial deadlines. If you’re familiar with the planning fallacy you’ll know writers – being human – suffer from optimism bias.
“I’ll use conferences as deadlines in terms of when I need to have the next thing ready. I know the research – I’m a psychologist. I use artificial milestones to keep me motivated.”
We all have a tendency to under estimate how long it takes to write. Even when we’ve written similar things in the past.
One trick is to set milestones and deadlines. Another is tracking.
3. They deliberately seek a ‘flow’ state (but are accepting when they can’t find it)
Flow state is amazing. It’s a wonderful experience of full immersion in a task. Being in the zone, when time falls away, you’re absorbed, focused, engaged, invigorated.
“When I’m in the flow then it’s great but I’ve learned not to push myself either. If it’s not coming then I stop. It’s frustrating but trying to write when you can’t is damaging. You have to accept!”
Have you ever felt it? I’m not sure I have, so don’t worry. It exists and it might happen, but you don’t need hyper-focus to be able to write.
In fact, many writers I’ve spoken to have said when they re-read their work, they can’t tell the difference between the days when they were writing in a state of flow and the days when every word was like getting blood out of a stone.
So the days where it’s really not working – stop. Just turn up at your next scheduled writing session.
4. They design accountability structures around themselves
Accountability is an interesting one as there are so many different ways to build an accountability system.
If you’re an intrinsically motivated person all you might need is a promise to yourself, a goal, and a personal deadline. Other people need a lot more. Like when I was doing my finals and my flat mate asked us to physically tie her to her chair.
There are less punishing approaches. Rewards are great. So are writing groups, writing buddies, writing contracts.
“I use co-authoring as a psychological trigger. When you have to deliver to someone else it really makes you get your butt in the chair – disappointing someone else is a lot tougher than disappointing yourself.”
There’s a flourishing of approaches within universities. Starting with formal structures like supervision, REF targets and articles in top tier journals. But what’s more exciting is the informal stuff – Shut Up and Write, advice from the Thesis Whisperer, writing days and retreats. The important thing is to figure out what keeps you motivated and on task.
5. They use small steps and short deadlines to tackle big projects
I love the psychology of small steps as it’s so effective. Tip toeing past your amygdala to not freak out your chimp brain and its ancient fight or flight instinct.
“Sometimes when you’re at the start of a new project it feels like an enormous mountain. You really need to cut it into small pieces in order to conquer it – otherwise you never start. First write the literature review or do part of the data – that is easier.”
The work of BF Fogg from Stanford is brilliant. He designed the Tiny Habits programme.
In it you set a goal so small it’s impossible to not do it. If you want to start running, on day one you just put on your trainers, for flossing you floss one tooth, and writing – well just pick up a pen and write one word.
It’s so unfrightening and easy to achieve you do it again and again, and build up time, until before you know it you have a habit.
6. They write their way out of being blocked
Our final writing habit concerns the much debated writers block. Many writers say it doesn’t exist – until they experience it.
A lot of blocks are caused by feelings of overwhelm, lack of confidence, or pressure. For some it’s being tired and exhausted.
We found that talking to later career academics they experienced something we named Crossing the Chasm – when they get stuck between research projects.
Becoming a beginner again knocks their confidence. They lost their mojo.
“My advice to PhDs is to avoid the gaps in-between research because it’s in those gaps that you lose confidence – you have to keep writing. If it’s only just smaller articles. You have to keep going and keep engaged.”
Sometimes you need to figure out your why – reconnect with your writing. Sometimes you need to take a break and recharge yourself for the hard task of writing ahead.
Sometimes you just need to keep writing. Writing smaller things, blogs, papers, keep your hand in.
There’s great research from Dr Robert Boice on the effectiveness of free writing – check out his work on Procrastination and Blocking. I also think academics can learn from creatives and follow Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
Find your inner writing rockstar!
Your writing strategy is as individual as you are. Some tactics will work – others won’t. And productivity is personal, too. There is no one size fits all solution to doing more with your time and achieving all your writing dreams.
One thing we’ve found with habits and that reading about people’s habits – especially the need to develop a daily habit for writing – is that it’s very demotivating. It makes people feel bad that they are falling short. And feeling bad is enough to start a crisis of confidence that leads to blocks.
So don’t believe the gurus on Medium telling you to get up at 5am, meditate and drink lemon water. Just because that works for them doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Instead, I believe that each writer needs to find his or her system. Many of them already have systems – they just hadn’t figured them out.
It’s a learning process. The key is to track your progress, because it’s only by tracking, monitoring & experimenting that you’ll improve.
Good luck with your writing!
PS: Are you an academic author? Please take our short survey to help us better understand how academics write!