**I want to share that I drafted this piece prior to the stay at home orders related to COVID-19. I believe that these tips and techniques can still apply or be adapted to be useful at this time. However, I want to encourage you to be kind to yourself and not to put too much pressure on productivity during a pandemic. I have to remind myself of this often.**

Here are some techniques that I use to get into the mindset and the physical environment that helps me write.  The most important way to get writing is to understand your own writing process, so you are welcome to take or leave any suggestions or follow only some of the steps. Just focus on whatever works best for you!

Step 1: Create a Schedule

Here is an exercise to help you find time to write. Download or print out an hourly-format weekly schedule. Alternatively, you can use another format, like one with weekend days.

  • Fill in the non-negotiables first. These could be standing meetings with your lab or advisor, data collections, classes, work, or even self-maintenance like meditation or going to the gym.
  • Next, think about when you write best. Some people write best in the morning. Some are more ready to take on writing in the afternoon or evening. If you don’t know yet, why not try out a few different time slots and choose what works best?
  • Decide how often you need to be writing. I’m pretty far along in the dissertation process, so I try to write 4-5 days a week. Some people want to build a habit, so they write for 4 or 6 days. Some people are just starting the process, so they set a goal of 2 days. 
  • Block out an hour of writing time on your schedule. I like to pick times where I have more than an hour of total space, in case I get in the groove once I start writing.

Here is an example of my schedule. I color-coded mine by non-negotiables and writing time, but you might also color-code by type of activity, or just fill out the calendar in a single color. I like to write in the mornings, but my current schedule doesn’t allow me to set a consistent time, so I did my best. Be reasonable with your expectations. Setting unrealistic expectations is a recipe for negative self-thoughts and quitting, and your goals are to be positive and productive!

Weekly calendar with daily time blocks for non-negotiable items and writing time
An example of my (pre-COVID-19) weekly schedule. My non-negotiables, like class and lab meeting, are marked in blue. Writing time is marked in green.

Step 2: Gather Your Tools

Here are a few things I consider when setting up for writing:

  • Environment: where can I go and be productive? My home office? A local coffee shop? The school or community library? Or, with the current pandemic, what can I do to make the space I have a productive environment?
  • Drinks and snacks: think about what signals work-mode to your brain: coffee, tea, water? Some people like the relaxation that comes with a beer or a glass of wine.
  • Writing medium: most students grab their computers, but have you considered going back to a pen and paper? Going back to writing in a notebook, and even spacing my writing out to every other line à la elementary school, changed my life as a writer. I went from being unable to form fluid sentences to writing multiple paragraphs without stopping, and the science backs up my personal experiences [1]. One of my writing fellow colleagues prefers using blank printer paper. If you are trying to be more environmentally friendly, you could try out a tablet or reusable notebook. Experiment with your medium and see what works best for you!
  • Background noise: some people love the sounds of their environment, the birds chirping, barista steaming milk, or dull chatter of the people nearby. I can’t focus with that kind of noise. Some people listen to music or sound effects like white noise. My top two picks are piano covers of popular music and math rock. Math rock is an often lyric-free indie rock genre characterized by its complex, atypical rhythms and dissonant chords [2]. Even as a neuroscientist, I can’t explain what it does to my brain, but it helps me focus in this weird way that I never expected.
  • Magic rituals: these are about whatever helps you focus best. I like to always use the same notebook, the same gel pen. Some people use the same coffee cup or chew a distinct flavor of gum. What are your magic rituals?

Step 3: Keep Track of Time

I set a timer with a measurable goal. Recently, I’ve been trying out the Pomodoro® Technique [3]. Fun fact, the referenced pomodoro was originally a tomato-shaped kitchen timer that Cirillo had on hand, but you can use whatever you have. A kitchen timer, an alarm clock, or a timer app on your phone or computer will suffice. I use an app called Forest, which can be configured as a phone app or a web browser extension, and has the added benefit of encouraging you not to use your device while it keeps time. If you leave the Forest app, the tree that your timer is growing dies, but if you complete your time goal, you are rewarded by growing a virtual tree. If you grow enough virtual trees, you can trade the coins you earn to plant a real tree! Environmentally conscious and productivity inducing, you can’t beat that!

Although the Pomodoro® Technique involves a full method of working, tracking, and revising your process, the crux of the technique is to work in uninterrupted blocks of 25 minutes at a time. After a 25-minute block, you take a 5-minute break, then start another 25-minute task, and after every fourth 25-minute block, take a 15-minute break [3]. This technique need not only apply to writing, I am now working it into multiple aspects of my workday. You can modify the amount of time for sessions or breaks, there is no shame in writing for only 10 minutes or getting sucked in for 3 hours, all progress is progress!

Step 4: You Did It! Stick with It!

If you sat down and wrote for one measured chunk of time, congratulations! You did it! Take a moment to have gratitude for yourself. This is positive productivity, and you proved to yourself that you can write that manuscript, grant application, or dissertation. All you have to do is take one writing session at a time and repeat. As with many things, practice makes the product.

I keep a log of my writing time, and I can go from averaging an hour of writing time a week up to 4+ hours simply by following the steps above. Imagine what you could accomplish by writing for 2-4 hours a week or more!

I’m a scientist, so I think almost everything is a data collection opportunity or experiment. Feel free to try one or two modifications–listed or unlisted–and then reflect on what worked and what didn’t work. Then try something else, until you optimize your own writing practice. This optimal practice may need to change over time or as you progress in your career, and that’s okay. Also, if you find anything that I haven’t listed that you’d like to share, please let me know!

References

1. Konnikova M. What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades. New York Times [Internet]. 2014 Jun 2; Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/03/science/whats-lost-as-handwriting-fades.html

2. Math Rock [Internet]. Wikipedia. [cited 2020 May 16]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Math_rock

3. Cirillo F. The Pomodoro Technique [Internet]. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Currency; 2018. 147 p. Available from: https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique

Coffee image above by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay.

The opinions, but not all ideas, expressed in this post are my own. I tried to cite where I could find evidence. Much of this material is based on lectures given by a great writing professor of mine, Mickey Schafer, PhD.

One Thought to “How to Get Writing and Stick With It”

  1. […] writing course a few years ago that totally changed my writing process. See my previous post on “How to Get Writing and Stick with It,” many of the tips I picked up came from that class. One thing that we did in that course was peer […]

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