Five months ago, I was worried about not writing enough, and atrophying my creative writing muscle. And I guess it really was true. Since October 2020, my days were filled with running up and down different facilities at different locations and managing different experiments with the team. For five months in a row, that meant running climate chamber experiments in the local phytochamber facility, with the final harvest being – if I remember correctly – on the first of March this year. Somewhere along the way I noticed that I rarely wrote anything because I didn’t have time. If I did, they were emails or Slack messages. (Still a substantial volume of writing, because I ramble all the time – not my problem, live with it!) I also spend considerable time and effort going through manuscripts led by others, because I am still in that stage of my career where I want to know and understand what is being presented in the papers that I am a part of.
It struck me that in a year’s time, I rarely wrote anything of substance. Anything new. I used the Christmas holidays and some evenings in January to write an invited views piece. Although I managed to submit it and it was (I think) in good shape, I struggled with it big time. The idea was there, but somehow the words wouldn’t always flow. Because it took me a lot of time, I always got sidetracked by other things. It was clear that I needed to work on my efficiency. I want everything to be efficient. Given that at the time I struggled with finding time for writing, I thought it would be a good idea to at least write in the evenings. Write about whatever. So that’s what I’m writing now, and what you’re reading now. I have in the past month received several remarks about my daily blogging. Not so much about content (who cares man), but more about the consistency of churning out a post every day. People seemed impressed by that. But I think it looks more impressive than it really is. I think everyone could carve out 30-60 minutes each day. It gets (much) easier with time. Especially if writing is part of your work, you will reap the benefits of what you sow, and the positive vibes will come quickly.
Very recently, since three weeks or so, I also took some ‘aggressive’ steps to defend my own time during the work day. I have implemented structured question hours for students I teach, and people in my team. I have started saying no to people. I have started implementing writing blocks (and avoiding writer’s block). This is something I had already started doing earlier, say, a year ago, but without succes. I simply blocked things in my schedule and labeled them ‘writing’, but every time a procrastination appointment came up, I would take it with great desire. The label ‘writing’ wasn’t specific enough. Unspecific commands lead to unspecific output. In other words, with such an approach you don’t get shit done. I have revised this strategy. Now I make each writing block super specific (i.e., yesterday I wrote the introductory paragraph to a paper I am starting with colleagues (specific), this afternoon I finalized the introduction to my grant proposal (specific), tomorrow afternoon I will work on the first full draft of a manuscript led by a former Chinese colleague (specific AND exciting results!). The past three weeks have yielded similar results, whereas the year before that, I was basically just trying to do EVERYTHING at the same time. Making planning highly specific also (perhaps unintentionally) creates the positive pressure of a deadline. I mean, wouldn’t it be fantastic if you finished that specific thing in that specific block? It works for me.
Check! Crossed off the to-do list. Erased from the mind. It’s great. (It’s even better if you can use a big fat red marker to cross something. I sometimes even write stuff on a list after I have done them, just to make me feel good about what I have done in a day – ECR life saver tip 😉 )
So these three simple things, writing every day, defending blocks of time for writing, and going from a ‘vague’ planning strategy to a ‘highly specific’ planning strategy have greatly improved my work flow. I now feel in control – at least concerning my writing tasks. Words flow more easily. I think there are still things that can be made more efficient in my daily planning (for instance, I could – and should – say no more often, still).