Creating a Productive & Sustainable Academic Writing Schedule

Photo of stack of books and coffee cup against a teal wall

I hope all of you as well as your family and friends are as safe and healthy as possible! These are difficult times, and academic writing might seem a bit trivial in the midst of a pandemic. Or you might be feeling pressure to be even more productive than usual with all of your so-called free time. Wherever you fall on the spectrum–and it’s fine if that’s changing from day to day–this post is about how to develop a productive and sustainable writing schedule even as you are grappling with new responsibilities and uncertainties. 

To create a sustainable writing schedule, you need to identify well-defined objectives as well as realistic monthly, weekly, and even daily goals. So let’s dig in…

Getting Started

First, take a moment to breathe and reflect on the good things in your life unrelated to academia. Whether it’s your family or good health or your new bread making skills, now is a good time to practice gratitude. 

Now turn off Netflix and go grab a pen and some paper. Write a list of potential writing projects. These can be projects you’ve already started but have stalled, projects with looming deadlines, or even an idea from your someday/maybe list. 

Think about your motivation for each project. As you probably already know, academic writing is challenging, and rewards can be few and far between. Thus, it is important to understand what you want to get out of your hard work.

For some, your motivation will be very clear–making yourself more competitive on the job market or for promotion and tenure. But fears about the future shouldn’t be your only motivation. Writing out of desperation often leads to procrastination. Instead, try to find the joy in your academic writing. Consider the following:

  • What attracted you to this topic in the first place? 
  • Why are you uniquely qualified for this project?
  • How will this book/dissertation/article/op-ed piece advance your career?
  • How will you feel when this project is completed?

Based on your answers, there is probably a clear winner in terms of which project you should tackle first. Or maybe it is important for you to work on multiple projects for the next few months. Whatever your particular situation, it’s time to develop a writing schedule that will keep you coming back to your desk.

Word of warning: sometimes people get really wrapped up in the process of planning, to the point that it actually becomes counterproductive. Do not create complicated systems that take more than the absolute minimum amount of time to maintain. Time spent on goal-setting can be useful, but don’t fall down the rabbit hole!

Objectives & Goals

Use your list as the basis for identifying one or two objectives–these are the “big” goals such as finishing a draft of your book manuscript to submit to a publisher or finishing and submitting a journal article.

Now that you have the “why” and “what” part of your writing schedule figured out, you need to consider the “when.” Recently, I discussed how to develop a realistic timeline for revising your dissertation into a book, and I think many of those ideas are transferable to any writing project. In particular, it is important to have clear goals and realistic deadlines. Do not set yourself up for failure by creating unrealistic expectations; it is much better (if possible) to create a schedule that allows for some wiggle room.

Monthly Goals

Begin by walking yourself backward through your project and identifying monthly goals. It is helpful to plan at least three months out and no more than twelve months. 

In writing your monthly goal, think about how much time you will have that month to devote to your writing. It is important to be realistic, but it is even more important to develop a regular writing practice (which will be the subject of a future blog post). Also, be specific and avoid vague language, such as “work on Chapter 2.” What exactly do you want to get done for that particular month? 

For example, imagine that you are revising your book ms. You have set as your writing goal 40 hours for the month. Currently, Chapter 2 is pretty rough. You need to move material from other chapters into this chapter and some sections need to be written from scratch. Your monthly goal then could be to finish a solid first draft of Chapter 2.

Weekly Goals

Now that you have a monthly goal, begin narrowing down accordingly. Weekly goals should be planned out no more than two months in advance. Life is going to happen, and you need to build some flexibility into your schedule.

To continue our example, Chapter 2 is divided into an introduction, conclusion, and three body sections. The introduction and section one are fairly complete but need to be polished. Make that your goal for week 1. Devote weeks 2 and 3 to writing first drafts of sections two and three. For week 4, focus on rewriting your conclusion to reflect the new changes to the chapter.

Daily Goals

Last but not least are daily goals. This final step is one that my clients often like to skip, but I think it is critical to developing a productive writing schedule. It is best to create your daily goals no more than two weeks in-advance since these are the most likely to change based on fluctuations in your writing time.

To identify daily goals, break your weekly goals into specific and do-able tasks. Returning to our example for Chapter 2, your first daily goal could be to re-familiarize yourself with the chapter materials before you try to revise the chapter introduction. Your second daily goal for Day 1 could be to plan to re-read the current introduction and identify what needs to stay, what needs to go, and what is still missing.

Use these goals to guide your daily writing sessions and to help keep you honest in terms of accountability. 

Pro tip: I strongly recommend creating a work log along with your writing schedule. Your log can be as formal or informal as you want, but the point is to establish some accountability. Be sure to evaluate your work log at the end of the week and to adjust accordingly for the week ahead.

Wrapping Up

It sounds obvious, but momentum will dramatically improve your productivity. Once you are able to cross off a few goals on your writing schedule, you’ll be amazed at how inspired you will be to cross off more. Imagine the satisfaction you will feel when you reach your first weekly goal and then your monthly goal. Being able to see visually how far you have come is key to developing a sustainable writing schedule.

Do you have other questions or ideas for developing a productive and sustainable academic writing schedule? If so, please leave them in the comments. My hope for this blog is to create a comfortable space for discussing academic writing and would love to hear your thoughts.

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