Many academics use the summer break as a time to relax, unwind and finally get that writing project done. However, is setting aside large chunks of time over the holidays the best way to approach academic writing? Chris Smith argues that writing during these periods can be effective, but should be approached thoughtfully. Whereas, the summer may seem to present a large spell of unbroken time in which to write, the way in which you approach and manage this time is just as important as its duration.
Whilst the summer might seem like the perfect distraction-free time to throw yourself headlong into a stalled writing project, our research amongst academic authors suggests otherwise. Before embarking on a summer writing binge you should carefully consider your approach – here’s how.
Between 2018 and 2019 we surveyed the writing patterns and publishing productivity of 600 academic authors. We wanted to understand more about how scholars write, the pressures, blocks and barriers they face, and how satisfied they feel about their writing and publishing across the course of a career.
One of the areas we explored was scheduling and how scholars find the time to write. We asked whether they typically write every day, take a time-blocking approach and schedule-in chunks of time to write across a week or a month or, whether they preferred to write in long, unbroken periods of time – such as on summer breaks or sabbaticals.
Daily doer vs time blocker
The first thing we discovered was that academics rarely choose one method and stick with it. Scholars choose different scheduling techniques at different stages of their career – depending on other life and work factors.
For example, whilst early career authors favour daily writing, at around year seven of a career, things switch. The daily writing method falls away to be replaced by the time-blocking techniques, as professional and family responsibilities start to pinch.
We also find that whilst daily writing is linked to satisfaction, it isn’t linked to high productivity. The most productive authors of all use the time blocking technique – something that contradicts most academic productivity books which tout daily writing as the gold standard.
Whilst other forms of scheduling have their pros and cons, one finding was clear. The authors whose main approach was to book out long, uninterrupted times to write report the lowest levels of satisfaction and the lowest levels of productivity.
Those academics who predominantly write on holiday or on sabbatical are more stressed and more anxious than those who use any other technique. They also tend to get far less written and published overall – and by a pretty large margin.
With no students to interrupt, no meetings to attend, no admin to distract and no colleagues to gossip with, why do academics struggle to make the most of the summer months? And why does it stress them out so much?
Whilst answering these questions thoroughly is another study in itself, our work in helping over 10,000 writers to get unstuck and the qualitative data gathered in our research leads us to propose a few speculative reasons.
Beginning burned out
First of all, some holiday or sabbatical writers feel burned out before they’ve even started.
Perhaps driven by perfectionism, some authors spend so long clearing the decks at home and at work creating the ideal writing holiday that when the time comes – they’re tired and depleted. They’ve set expectations far too high.
“I leave writing to blocks of holiday time, which is never really enough. Everything then happens in a rush it’s a nightmare.”
Second, many appear to overestimate what they can achieve and their ability to stay focused for such long periods of time. Unrealistic goals can then trigger feelings of blame and self-doubt which can send the most experienced writer into a spiral of negative thinking.
“I am paralysed by procrastination, especially in the face of large blocks of time. I play ‘chicken’ with deadlines.”
Holiday writing essentials
But what should you do if you’re planning to complete a writing project over this summer? First of all, don’t worry, all is not lost!
Holiday writing can be an effective method if you approach it right. We find these five tips prove the most effective for writers embarking on long intensive projects.
1. Start small. Concentration is like a muscle that strengthens over time. If you haven’t been writing for a while, ease yourself into it slowly. Break your project down into small steps and be careful not to overwhelm yourself too soon. Racking up some small wins at the beginning can help you keep motivated long term.
2. Manage your brain energy. Neuroscientists say that writing is a higher brain activity – understand that it can be physically tiring and don’t fight it. If you’re feeling depleted, you will not write at your best. Make sure your brain has enough fuel. Get enough sleep and rest and be realistic about how long you can write for without a break.
3. Use constraints. Sometimes, having too much time to write is just as bad as having no time. If the days feel too long and endless, you’ll end up procrastinating so try shortening your writing session or using a method like the Pomodoro Technique to write in punchier, more productive periods.
4. Track, reflect and experiment: After each writing session ask yourself: What went well? What didn’t go so well? What will I do differently next time? Over just a few days, a picture of your writing process will emerge. Experiment with different techniques, do what works for you and don’t feel wedded to a specific approach.
5. Not working? Don’t force it. Even if you’ve spent months prepping your perfect writing escape, don’t blame yourself if the words don’t flow. Forcing yourself to write when you’re blocked is damaging long term. Schedule in break times and exercise to clear your head and use methods like freewriting to get back on track.
What’s your writing personality?
If you’d like to find out your scheduling type and receive advice on how best to manage your time, take our quick quiz. It’s free, fun and will take you just a couple of minutes. We don’t require an email and no personal information is captured.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below