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If you’re an academic, you’ve probably set some ambitious summer writing goals for yourself. For months, you’ve fantasized about diving into projects you didn’t have time for during the academic year. Now that grades are in and the break is here, you’ll be free to write at last (and maybe even to relax a bit, too). Of course, come August, you may find yourself wondering where the summer went and why your projects have gone nowhere.
For years I clung to the delusion that if it weren’t for the demands of the school year I’d have ample time to write. So I’d postpone projects until June, and then feel overwhelmed by everything I had to do in the space of a few months and frustrated and guilty when I failed to complete it all by September (not to mention exhausted from trying to do it all at once).
My problem was that I thought I had more time than I really had, so I didn’t develop a realistic schedule or plan. What I now know is that it’s possible to have time for writing and for rest in the summer, but that neither rest nor writing materialize magically.
You have to set goals, then schedule your time and protect it. It’s also important to safeguard your space and energy, and get help from colleagues when necessary. If you do those things, you can meet your writing goals and end your summer feeling renewed and refreshed.
Don’t fall for less-effective strategies, like the “workhorse plan” -- a draconian model that involves writing many hours a day, for weeks on end, in order to meet unrealistic goals -- or the “clear-the-decks plan” -- a form of procrastination that involves putting off writing until the detritus of our busy day, week, month, or year is safely “out of the way.” Both of those approaches can backfire. Remember, workhorses are miserable, decks will never be clear, and thoughts of unfinished work keep us from truly relaxing. Every academic needs and deserves a vacation.
Here’s a more sensible plan:
1. Start with realistic scholarly and relaxation objectives. Don’t try to cram a year’s worth of writing into three months.Get a calendar and count the days you have for summer writing. Block out the time you’ll spend on conferences, family vacations, and course preparation. Give yourself at least one day off a week. Then consider what you can accomplish in the days and weeks left, and set reasonable and precise targets for your academic writing and for your personal well-being. Yes, you need to finish an article and three book chapters, but do you also need vacation days? Time with family? Ten hours of sleep? Do you want to take an art class? Put it in your planner. Whatever personal goals you have for the summer deserve to be carefully scheduled, along with your writing goals.
Of course faculty who are teaching summer courses or serving on committees will have to be even more careful about scheduling specific time for relaxation and research. It’s usually best to say no to summer teaching and service assignments but that may not always be an option.
2. Deploy basic productivity techniques. Write for at least 15 minutes a day, create a project box, or use the ventilation file whenever you feel stalled or find yourself going off track.
3. Secure writing time, space and energy. Identify the times of day when you’re most creative and productive, and save those periods for your writing. Don’t write for more than three to four hours a day. Create an organized and inviting work space for yourself, and make sure you have all the materials you need close at hand. Spend your less creative times on less demanding or more restorative tasks.
4. Keep a personal log and create an accountability system. Consider starting or joining an academic writing group as a way to stay on task, and don’t skip out on the meetings. Keep a record of how much you get done each day, so you’ll be able to see the progress you’re making (or not) toward your various goals and can make adjustments as necessary.
5. But cut yourself some slack. Don’t beat yourself up if you’re not accomplishing all that you’d planned. Being too attached to goals and putting pressure on yourself increases procrastination and stress. Maybe you won’t complete that 1,000-page manuscript, climb Mount Kilimanjaro, learn Chinese, and teach your daughter to fly fish by summer’s end. But you might finish several key chapters, squeeze in some much-needed family time, spend a week at the beach, and return to campus in the fall feeling rejuvenated. After all, isn’t that what summers are for?