Here are Charlotte Frost’s top 10 tips on how to form good writing habits.
1. Have a schedule
If you try and tag writing on at the end of the day when all tasks are done, there’ll never be any writing time. It just won’t happen. So make sure it’s part of your schedule every day.Try and carve out a block of writing time every single day. Plan for it ahead of time by blocking it out in your diary/calendar. Even setting aside 25 minutes of uninterrupted writing time can make a huge difference if you focus for that time. And to be honest, starting small is often best. Add small chunks of writing time to your schedule and build up once you get in the habit.
2. Make a habit of it
OK, so you’ve learned to plan the time and sit down and work. Now you just keep doing that over the next few weeks. These don’t have to be long torturous sessions, it’s best to keep them brief and productive. But keep them going. You’ll peak and trough during that time of course. There’ll be some days when the time flies by and you finish with extreme satisfaction at having written well. Other times even though you’ve only got 25 minutes to write something, it’ll seem like forever. You’ll have trouble formulating ideas and words won’t flow. Well guess what?
A) That was still productive time because even if the words aren’t there, the thinking has been done and
B) you stuck to a routine. And that’s the really important part!!!
If you carried on regardless of the difficulties, it means it’ll be all the easier to sit down tomorrow and get more work done. Try to keep this daily writing routine no matter what else is going on. So, even if you’re traveling, consider setting aside just a small amount of time to do some writing, even if you’re just pecking letters into the notes app on your smartphone. Writing sessions are like rabbits – they breed like crazy. If you put two together, you’ll get a third and fourth and before you know it, there’ll be a whole line of cute furry writing sessions behind you and, look what’s in front of you, a finished piece of work – and that’s even cuter!
Never sit down to write without knowing ahead of time what you’re sitting down to write! Many people believe that writer’s block and or procrastination come from an empty or muddled mind. Even if you’ve set aside some writing time, shut down all distractions, and approached your desk rested and coffeed up, you might still stare at a blank screen for the next 5 hours if you don’t know what it is you’re supposed to be writing. Firstly you can help this by making sure you’re well prepared. It can help to schedule reading time in advance of writing time. Some people find that they write best in the morning and read well in the afternoon. If this is the case, when you have your afternoon reading session, end it by making a brief plan of what you’ll write up the next day. But whatever happens, make sure you keep an up-to-date plan of what needs writing next. If you’re working on a literature review, list the books and amount of writing time you’ll allocate to each and tick them off. If you’re working on another section, divide it up and again allocate portions of time for each.
4. Have a back up plan
Sometimes with the best will in the world you can’t quite wrap your head round your work. Even the worst writing session can pay off if it means you’ve somehow (even without quite realising it) thought something through. You might not have many words on a page to show for it but they’ll fall out of your fingers next time you write. However, if you really think you’re being unproductive or you think it’ll break your writing spirit to sit another minute without having achieved something tangible, go to your back-up list of tasks. This is a list you’ll make of things that always need doing. This might mean doing some research, editing a section, checking footnotes…Have this back up list so you never lose momentum. Although you should only use it when you really need to feel productive, otherwise this will become your procrastination weapon of choice.
5. Limit desk time
As the mighty ‘Thesis Whisperer’ Inger Mewburn says, the less time you have at your desk the more productive you’ll be when you are there. Don’t do all your socialising and online shopping at your desk and then try to work from it too, all you’ll feel is that you’ve been at your desk for hours. Try to use another tool or location for your online life (a tablet, a smartphone) and keep your desk as ‘pure’ as possible. If you have to use the one machine/location for all, absolutely don’t do it in the same sitting. Make sitting down to work a ‘fresh’ thing to do.
6. Limit hours
Even if you can write all day, you can’t be productive all day, so think about how much of that time has been wasted on words you won’t use. Limit the amount of time you work to manageable chunks. Again, it’s the Thesis Whisper who reminds us to be mindful of the 2 hr rule – that you only have about 2 productive working hours in you per day. She urges you to get them out straight away. So sit down to write, and write more or less for 2 hours. That said, it’s also a good idea to keep to brief time slots and refresh yourself in between.
One of the best methods for this is the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro Technique is a productivity method that applies to almost any task. You take a timer (the technique is named after the iconic tomato-shaped kitchen timers), set it for 20 minutes and go full throttle. Stop for five to visit the toilet and get refreshments. This 25 minute slot is called a ‘pomodoro’. If you try to divide your working hours into these tomato-timed units you’ll stay refreshed and productive throughout. And now here’s the thing. When you’re done for the day, you’re done. Walk away. Even if – actually especially if – you’ve reached a thorny subject. Leave it! Even if – actually, especially if – you’ve hit your stride. Make notes for the next day and, leave it! Don’t over do it or burn out because it’ll take its toll in another writing session and erode the habit you’re building.
Apps for timing and counting your progress include:
Tomato timer: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/timer/
7. Limit words
Maybe writing in time slots doesn’t work for you. Perhaps the timer goes off just as you get going. Try instead to set word-count-based targets for yourself. But be kind! Some people can dash off a thousand words in an hour and will go back and edit it later. Other people plan each word on the page and might take an hour to hit 50 words. First, notice which way your write. Then test yourself over a week or so. Record how many words you’ve written at the end of each day, average it and there’s your word count for each day of the next week. Record your results and decide if you need to drop your target word-count to make it easier to achieve or if you can put it up a bit to stretch yourself. Just don’t push too far. Try to stay within the realms of the realistic or you’ll break your writing spirit.
8. Just do it!
If you schedule writing time and sit down ready to write (even if you been doing urgent work email for the last hour, get up, get a quick break and signal your good intentions by sitting down refreshed for this important new task) you must now write. This sounds so easy in theory and it’s so much harder in reality, but block out those nagging thoughts of failure and don’t you dare touch that browser address bar. Remind yourself you’ve only got to get 25 minutes of work done and just do it. Get up, get a coffee. Sit down and do it again. If you force yourself to stick to this simple act of just starting (and remember, starting anywhere is fine) you’ll soon find you can get work done and – crazy as it may sound – repeatedly get work done without much stress.
9. Write anything
Writing regularly is the key. It almost doesn’t matter what you’re writing because regular writing will improve your communication skills in all areas of your work and ward off that dreaded writer’s block. And let’s face it, there’s always writing to be done in academia, whether it’s your thesis, or a paper, or a blog post, a lesson plan or conference abstract. If tackling your thesis is too much to begin with, use your allotted writing time/space to work on anything that needs to be written. Every bit of writing we do helps hone our craft. But as soon as you start to nail your writing habit, phase in some project writing. Perhaps alternate to start with going backwards and forwards between two pieces of work.
10 . Remember that routine?
The single most important slayer of procrastination is having a routine and sticking to it. OK so we’ve all sat down to work, let our minds wander and ended up 2hrs/40 cat videos later feeling like we’re worthless academic failures. Maybe that’s going to happen now again. But if you set aside productive time, and keep it that way, the cat video might never come to call. Keeping to set times and not focusing on one task for too long helps you to make sure you are productive (and then who cares what you do with the rest of your time. Although, ever noticed how a successful writing session kills any desire to search for cat videos?) In fact, have you ever noticed how being productive in one area propels you forwards into being productive in another area. You might find a great writing sessions ends with a bunch of errands run in record time and an evening or a weekend doing something truly fulling.