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If you’re like most academic writers, you don’t pay much attention to the way your energy levels fluctuate as you work. Instead you just keep pushing yourself to get through the day.
What you may not realize: Protecting your energy is key to academic productivity. Sure, it is important to use techniques to connect effectively with your project and to schedule frequent, low-stress, high-reward times to write. And it helps to have an inviting, orderly workspace with “a door that closes.” But once you’ve tamed your project, and secured writing time and space for it, you still need to learn how to make the most of those periods of the day when you tend to be most productive.
In his book on academic writing, The Clockwork Muse, Eviatar Zerubavel says: “Just as you optimize your other writing conditions, learn to identify the best times for your writing.” He suggests that you spend a week keeping track of when you feel most and least productive, and then use that knowledge to identify your best hours for writing.
Call your most energetic hours A time. Your goal is to devote your A time to writing and protect it from being filled up doing a lot of B and C tasks. B tasks require alertness and focus, but not necessarily your very best energies. C tasks are mostly rote—work that doesn’t require much creativity. Start valuing yourself enough to assign A time to A tasks, B time to B tasks, and C time to C tasks.
Recently, a colleague told me she doesn’t really understand this ABC stuff. She just goes flat out every day, and then collapses. She does the same the next day and the day after. She is a dedicated professor in the midst of writing yet another book, does more than her share of university service, and has two young children. Her strategy was mine for many years: Pour energy into everything and hope that a decent night’s sleep will get me through the next day.
The problem with that strategy: You start to feel like a horse straining to pull a cart that is getting more and more loaded down. A work-until-you-drop pattern keeps you from recognizing that your academic responsibilities actually vary in what they require of you. And it keeps you from honoring how your own creative energies fluctuate. Setting up a system where you give your A time to A tasks, and so forth, means that you get to decide how and when to load your own cart.
Scholarship is the primary requirement for academic success, yet it is also the easiest of our work responsibilities to put off. There is a time-management technique in which you arrange your responsibilities into a quadrant, sorted by urgency and importance. Academic writing is a classic example of a non-urgent but important task; the kind that usually gets pushed aside, because our days are so full of things that need immediate attention. We squander our energies on email, memos, and meetings. And our scholarship—important but not urgent—gets pushed to the back burner.
But your scholarly work deserves A energy. Course work—preparation, presentation, and grading on important tests and papers—usually requires B energy. Email, routine grading, advising, reports, and meetings are mostly C level tasks; they can be done responsibly even when you aren’t at your best. So just like at tenure time, research, teaching, and service come in descending order of importance—not in terms of cosmic value, but in relation to what kinds of energy they require.
My most creative time is early morning, so that is when I try to write. But for years I found myself using that time for more immediate tasks. Because I feared being unprepared and letting people down, I let lecture preparations, grading, and emails leak into my A time. I’m finally learning to protect that time, though the same thing still happens with time-sensitive tasks like committee reports and letters of recommendation. Those feel urgent, and are indeed important, but they are basically B or C tasks, so they really shouldn’t take up my A energy. Email, especially, is a seductive energy rabbit hole. I am learning to wait to check my email until my early-morning writing is done, and my courses are prepared.
So figure out when you are most focused and alert, and protect that time for your most important tasks. Then organize your days as much as possible to match B tasks with B energy and C tasks with C energy. Your scholarship really does deserve your best energies—even if it is non-urgent. There is nothing more important than writing to your academic career.
Another benefit of this system is that it helps you recognize, and detach, from the stuff that drains you. Many aspects of academic life are energy vampires. Office politics, interpersonal tensions, unwise service commitments take a serious toll, especially if you take them too seriously. If you can’t avoid those energy drains, then at least give them your C energy.
This ABC system encourages you to direct energy to the academic responsibilities that matter the most. Giving everything equal energy until we drop from exhaustion doesn’t work. In fact, it sucks the joy from teaching and service as well as scholarship. But once we learn to match task to energy, we give ourselves the chance to experience what is rewarding in all phases of our professional lives.
So figure out how your energy works, and then allocate it appropriately. Yes, you have lots of commitments, but they really do vary in what they require of you. And you vary in what you can bring to every encounter. Respect yourself enough to protect your best energies for academic writing.