Reading to write

I found Adam Grant's interview with Christopher Nolan (director, screenwriter and producer, most recently of Dunkirk) to be fascinating. Some of Nolan's words of wisdom could just as easily apply to academic writing:

  • "I don't fret about what I've done in a particular day as long as I've made progress by the end of the week." 
This is something I need to remind myself of, because I have a tendency to feel like I've fallen off the track if a day goes badly, even if the rest of the week went well. That perspective isn't doing me any favors, so I'd like to shift to measuring progress in the longer term rather than daily.
  • On rejection: "You have to cross into this world of just pleasing yourself, just doing something because you want to do it...At the end of the day, all you really have is your own belief, your own passion. You can't ignore the feedback. But you tell the story because you love it." 
At the end of the day, passion is the driver for the work, and this is so important to realize especially when you're facing down a rejection. You want to cultivate an ability to listen to your passionate voice even more at that moment of rejection and let it dictate what happens next.
  • "If you're going to write, you want to read a lot before you write, without any purpose...Just being open to things that might inspire you -- and staying open." 
This last quote reminds me just how connected writing and reading are. I'm not one of those academics who subscribes to tables of contents emails for my favorite journals because I don't want to have all those extra emails to sift through. But reading and writing are deeply connected and I forget how important it is to read more "without any purpose." I'm not signing up for the emails anytime soon, but I will dedicate some time every week to enjoying guilt-free academic reading. 

I often feel guilty when I spend time reading because it feels like it is taking away from writing time, but the truth is, we can't write without reading anyway. I love Notorious Ph.D's idea of "Weekend Stockpiling," reading and taking notes over the weekend so that she's ready to write on Monday morning. I spend a lot of my dedicated writing time doing reading and note-taking where I should just be writing, and it seems like a great idea to carve out separate reading time both for more targeted reading and reading a lot "without any purpose." 

Writing hack: Experiment with work and break intervals

This summer, I tried using the Pomodoro technique to work on a couple of writing projects. At first, it was really helpful to do short poms (10 minutes long) to get into the writing process again after the end of the semester craziness when I wasn't writing at all. The 10 minute poms got me into writing again and after a few days I switched to 25 minutes writing with a 5 minute break, which is the pomodoro technique. After weeks of pomming, I found that just as I was getting in the groove, the timer would go off. I would force myself to take a 5 minute break. It felt too short and I was reluctant to get back to it. I felt like it would have been easier to just keep going when I was already in the groove. Then I read this article and decided to try working for longer sessions before I took a break. I didn't make it to 52 minutes, but I found that 45 minutes is a happy place for me to take a break after steadily writing, and it also gives me a hefty 15 minute break, which is so much more satisfying than the 5 minute break (which goes by before you know it, and doesn't really feel like a break). Now, I'm enjoying my writing sessions much more and making progress on the projects I'm working on. I'm amazed at what a difference this tiny hack makes in my day. What about you? What kind of time blocks do you work in?


Last semester I submitted my third-year review file. It was a tedious process, but it enabled me to take stock of everything I have accomplished so far on my tenure track journey. I realized that I tend to not look back at what I've achieved. Spending a huge chunk of my semester working on the file made me realize the importance acknowledging what's been done so far before setting more goals and moving forward. In a smaller version of this, I want to acknowledge what I do each semester also. Last semester's tally is below:
  1. Completed and submitted third year review materials
  2. Gave three presentations
  3. Progress on a manuscript
  4. Applied for interdisciplinary research grant
  5. Established in-person writing group with peers
This is coming halfway though the summer because I haven't really come up for air since the end of the semester. I've been steadily writing with my new group on a book chapter which I plan to send to my co-author by the end of the week. With people traveling for the summer, the in-person writing group has disbanded for now but I'm pressing forward with the momentum I gained from working with others earlier in the summer. There is something wonderful about meeting with colleagues at a cafe with laptops and tablets and everyone getting down to their own writing projects for a few hours each day. I guess I am more social than I realize because my productivity really peaked when the group was going strong. I also enjoyed getting back to writing in coffee shops, which is something I did a lot while I was a graduate student and postdoc but haven't done much in the last three years. I find that there's something almost mischievous about being away from my office over the summer. Writing at home works, but rarely matches the caffeinated frenzies of writing in coffee shops. What about you? Where do you prefer to work? What's your most productive summer writing space? 

Walking along

I've been going for a walk a couple of evenings each week, and I'm amazed at how just carving out a small amount of time for recreation can change the tone of the day. These thirty minutes are transformative for me. My mood and even my posture changes when I get back from a walk -- I'm not hunched over, even when I sit at the computer -- and I just feel like I can stand taller in more ways than one. Being in nature for a short period of time in the day is uplifting and rejuvenating. Seeing a ladybug crawling along, or some beautiful wild flowers blowing in the wind, listening to the birds, looking up at the sky, all things I don't get enough of. The walking itself does the body good, but there's no doubt this is good for overall well-being. I'm going to pencil in a walk at least twice a week. Its a great way to end the day, and hard to talk myself out of, since its only 30 minutes. Give it a try if you aren't already doing something like this. I wish I had sooner.

A cup to save the day

Though I am not generally a fan of flavored teas, Tea forte's Black currant tea is quite exceptional. It is a deliciously full, rich black tea, underlined with a tart blackberry flavor that compliments the tea and rounds out the flavor. I was sold on this tea by its scent alone. Even in the package, when I popped open the tin at my local grocery store, this bold and fruity black tea stood out among its peers. This tea easily stands alone but I'd recommend drinking it with lemon and honey (emphasizes tart and sweet notes). Don't underestimate this tea -- it's my post-lunch weapon to conquer end-of-semester malaise, and I can't count how many times it has literally turned my day around.

Wheel of life

I did a wheel of life exercise the other day, scoring where I am in each area of my life, and setting goals to work on priority areas for the next few months.
I'm not the least bit surprised to find that my life isn't very balanced right now, but it was helpful to see what areas I want to work on. I specifically need to pay lots more attention to recreation and friendships. I am sure this is true of most academics. Anyway, these are the minimum threshold goals I've set for the next three months:
1. Lunch or dinner once a month with key friends. In some cases, this will involve cooking, which is another fun activity I've been neglecting lately
2. Read one novel per month
3. Go for two 25-min walks each week

You can find the exercise here if you want to try it:


First, a bit of an update: The summer plans did work out. Writing all summer paid off. That article is now published! And almost as soon as it was out, it got me an invitation to an exclusive symposium at an Ivy, which I am really looking forward to attending. 

Another major milestone is the submission of my Third Year Review File. The process of putting together the file was nothing short of excruciating, especially by the end of it. I'm a perfectionist, and we have a manual that is 20 pages long describing how to put the file together! The combination of those two meant that I was in my office up until the last second, trying to get everything to look fabulous.I still have doubts about the file - have I done enough?- but, I'm just so glad that it is out of my hands.

For the next two weeks, I'm working on an article that I put down at the end of the semester, to tackle grant submissions and then put together the third year review file. Now, I can finally get back to what I really want to work on. Unfortunately, these are some very grading-intensive weeks for the courses I'm teaching. I am staring down a giant stack of essays that need grading. And we have a conference in my department this weekend. 

Time management continues to be a challenge. I want to re-calibrate my sleep patterns and get to bed earlier, to extract more time from my mornings, when I am most productive. Maybe I can start setting up the coffee maker the night before, and get into campus by 7.30am. Hopefully this will give me a boost to generate some writing in the next two weeks.