March 10, 2010

Writers: Know Your Limitations and be More Productive

To be a productive writer, it is crucial to find the time to write, even if it is just for 15 minutes. But, what about those rare moments when you have all day to write? What is the best way to handle that?

I have found that my writing productivity dips after two hours and crashes after four. Even though there are 24 hours in the day, it turns out that I cannot use all of them to write. And, trying to do so is tremendously unproductive. I have learned this through trial and error.

In 2007, when I was on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), I had nothing to do but to read and write. This turned out to be frustrating, as I often found myself with the intention of writing all day, but, in reality, spending time surfing the web and staring at the wall. I decided I needed to come to terms with my own limitations. To do this, I needed to try and write as much as I could, but stop when I couldn’t.

I did a little experiment. I had a paper to present at the LatCrit conference in Miami. I had planned to use an old presentation, but decided that I would try and present a brand-new paper. Two weeks before the conference, I took out my interview transcriptions and started coding and writing. I was able to spend four hours a day productively engaged with writing the new manuscript, and up to three hours reading background information and coding. I churned out the conference presentation in one week.

The following week, I went back to the presentation to edit it. I found that I could not concentrate. I had over-worked myself the week before, and had crashed. Fortunately, I had a decent enough draft to present, and was able to give myself a break.

I also learned an important lesson – it is not productive to over-exert myself when it comes to writing. I can write for up to four hours a day, but will have to take a break afterwards. To maintain a healthy writing balance, I need to write for two hours every day. I can sometimes sneak in four hours one day a week and get away with it, but I can’t do it on a consistent basis.

I doubt that my personal limitations apply to everyone. However, I am pretty sure that everyone has their own limitations. Also, I am convinced that you can become a more productive writer when you know your own limitations.

Once I figured out what my limitations were, I could use my sabbatical in the way it was intended – as a time to be productive but also to get a healthy respite from the demands of the tenure track.

I woke up each morning and traveled to my office at UIC or to a coffeeshop where I would write for two hours. Then, I would gather reading material for the afternoon, have lunch, and spend my afternoons reading.

That schedule allowed me to spend my evenings guilt-free and enjoy Chicago with my family and friends. It also allowed me to finish my book manuscript and to draft another.

As for that conference presentation, it recently was accepted at a journal, after many revisions, and will be in print later this year.

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