Quick question: What should you be doing right now? Your answer is “God, I should really be writing!”? Congratulations. You’re an academic.
As @AcademicsSay eloquently sums up time management in academia:
But here’s the truth: You should probably NOT be writing right now. (unless you have to write 2000 words or more till tomorrow, in which case, what are you even doing on my blog? Go write; Godspeed.)
Don’t believe me? Ok, let me show you the math. Then I’ll show you that not only should you not be writing right now, thinking that you should be writing all the time is really dysfunctional and about as useful for your productivity as ridiculously restrictive diets are good for your figure or health.
So, let’s assume you’re a PhD student who has to hand in a 90,000 word thesis. Now, let’s say you’re ambitious and you also want to publish 2 original papers (written from scratch, not lifted from your thesis) of 7000 words each during your PhD. You’re really fucking ambitious, so you also want to give 5 original conference talks. So: 90,000 + 7,000*2 + 2,500*5 = 116,500 (approximately, where’s the calculator on this machine? Dammit Jim, I’m a humanities student not a computer).
Ok, so, say you’re a leisurely writer and if you’re actually writing (rather than procrastinating or guilt-tripping) then 500 words takes you about an hour (if I am actually in the writing zone, I write 500 words in 25 minutes but use whatever number seems appropriate). This means in order to do all your writing (thesis plus publications) you need 233 hours of pure writing time. If you have an 8 hour work day that means you have to spend 29.125 days writing (found the calculator). No one can do 8 hours of writing academic prose per day. But it still breaks down to roughly sixty 4 hour days. Roughly 120 days of 2 hours each. Roughly 240 days (= less than a year) of 1 hour writing per day.
If, like me, you are in a three year program, then, on average, you have to spend roughly 18 minutes a day writing – weekends and holidays excluded (if you wrote every day it would be roughly 12 minutes or 109 words per day).
Realistically speaking, you should spend most of your time during your PhD NOT WRITING.
Now before you start throwing pens and keyboards at me, I am not saying you should not write. All I am saying is that there is a complete disconnect between the time most PhD students (and many full-grown academics) think they should be writing (all day, every day), the time they should actually spend writing (12-20 minutes a day or roughly 90 min per week or 6.5 hours per months), and the time they actually spend writing (in the last two weeks, I did not spend a single second writing academically, though I spent all the time thinking I should be writing).
I also think that how much we think we should be writing and how little time we actually spend writing are directly related. In other words, if we aimed to do what we need to do, instead of riding some permanent writing guilt trip, we would actually get our shit written with ease and enjoyment. More importantly, instead of wasting our time thinking we should be writing, worrying about writing and procrastinating to avoid writing, we could spend it with all the things we actually need to do, like reading, researching and editing, which is really slow work.
Of course, our collective obsession with writing makes a lot of sense. In the end, we have to hand in a piece of writing, not a piece of thinking or planning or editing. So it might seem that writing is the only thing that is truly essential to finishing the PhD. This is obviously an illusion. Researching, thinking and editing are just as important. The fact that you have to hand in a piece of writing doesn’t mean writing is necessarily the most important task, just as a metal welder does not an aeroplane make (engineers and other scientists are also kind of important; no one boards a plane that wasn’t engineered; no one gets a PhD without research or editing).
But, yes, writing is an important task and we should do it well. Unfortunately, one’s ability to do things well seems to be inversely proportional to the amount of negative feelings that surround the task. In other words, the more dysfunctional your relationship with writing is, the less well and fun the actual writing.
And truthfully, writing is really fun. Unless it scares the shit out of you or makes you feel all kinds of guilty. But when it’s just pouring out of you word after shiny word like a smart and witty string of pearls, it is the best.
Have you ever been on a diet? If you have, you know that nothing makes you crave chocolate and crisps more than thinking you can’t have chocolate and crisps. Similarly, nothing makes you dread writing more than thinking you should be writing all of the time.
So, let’s stop thinking that. It’s simply neither true nor helpful.
Instead, let’s think about when we actually should be writing:
1) If you have a deadline tomorrow and are still missing words, yes, you should be writing.
2) If you have a fantastic idea and really want to write, go for it! Have fun, you rockstar.
3) If you’ve done some research and have a bit of info or argument that you could be writing now and it’s during your working time not while you are meant to take a break, you should probably jot it down, lest you forget it.
4) If you haven’t written for a really long time and are becoming anxious then set yourself a 10 minute timer and do some furious free writing, then chillax and think about how you should manage your writing obligations in the future so you don’t reach peak panic again.
But here’s when you should not be writing and when you should especially not think that you should be writing:
1) During your leisure time. If your hanging with your friends, family, loved ones or netflix, you should not be writing, nor should you be thinking about writing.
2) If you haven’t got a faint idea what to write, you should not be writing. You should be reading, thinking or planning (unless writing is how you think, then go for it).
3) If you spent the whole day thinking you should be writing without actually writing, then you should definitely not be writing. Feeling guilty about writing is really hard work (I am not being sarcastic; it’s the pits). You need to take a break. And then tomorrow, or after a nice weekend you need to wrap your mind around how you want to manage your writing and give up some crazy idea of writing all of the time. That way madness lies.