Like crossing a desert

Writing. I love it and I hate it.

I love the idea of writing. Being able to share with others what I found after having thought deeply, read widely and investigated thoroughly a particular topic.

But I really struggle with the act of writing. First, I struggle with the blank page – the enormity of the task ahead. Then, I struggle with editing and revising my first draft – because I am a ‘big picture’ kind of person, not a ‘details’ one. Finally, I struggle with accepting that whatever I am working on is ready for submission – which, let’s face it, is fatal for someone whose career depends on getting published.

Writing does require a lot of passion and courage, as discussed in this blog post.

Right now, I am revising two articles. At one level, I am excited about these two pieces. I really want to get them out. But, at another – deep dark – level, I am struggling. I’m really, really struggling.

It does not help that I have piles of marking to do, classes to prepare and assignments to set up. These tasks keep me busy. And being busy with teaching stuff is the perfect excuse to procrastinate writing.

I need to refocus. I need to go back to writing every single day, whether or not I feel inspired to do so.

I have in the past committed to specific writing goals – for instance, by signing up to Studious Jenn’s brilliant initiative on academic writing accountability (see here). Following the progress of productive academic writers like @joaovc has both stirred and paralysed me. But, sure enough, my enthusiasm eventually faded.

Alas, I shall not waste time with the failures of the past. I need to cross this desert.

Here is my public commitment (again) to writing every single day – regardless of how busy I am, or how (un)inspired I feel. Starting tomorrow…

How do you motivate yourself to working on tasks that are incredibly important but are not urgent and/or do not have an immediate, tangible outcome you can hold on to?

9 thoughts on “Like crossing a desert

  1. Hmm, interesting thoughts. The thing is, I believe, that what works for one person, might not work for the other. My advice would be to test a lot of ways, and figure out what works best for you. Maybe it is setting aside one hour a day for writing, and do it, another might be setting weekly deadlines for small tasks. Maybe it is making a public commitment and asking your ‘crowd’ to help remind you of it. Try all sorts of approaches for 2-3 weeks, and stick with one that works, until it stops working.


  2. Funny you should mention that what works for some may not work for others, because I was going to ask you the secret for your productivity, Arjan. Do you write your poems at a particular time of the day? Do you have a particular process (e.g., start with the title, start with the end, …)?


  3. Personally, I just tend to “reward” myself at the end… so for example, do something I don’t like for 50 minutes – and then have 10 minute break with some really nice chocolates. I also find, slightly bizarrely, that I’m best when I’m quite busy, i.e. I have an hour or two between to lectures/meetings – then I will get down and really do whatever it is that needs doing.


  4. You mentioned the right word, Stephan, chocolate 🙂 Actually, for a while, I used the blog posts as a reward: I could write a blog post only after I had achieved a certain academic writing goal.I notice that you have been quite busy on the blog recently. Do you have a set frequency for your blog posts, or do you write as and when you see fit?


  5. I like to write a to-do list every morning. By striking off a task in the list gives me motivation to work hard to get all tasks off the list. I also found myself to write better with music on the background. My ideas just flow better when I listen to my favorite music. If I really can’t write that day, I try to edit some writing I did before or just edit the outline or just do some formatting. If I achieve my writing goal for the day, I reward myself with some movies or drama at night before sleep.


  6. I think you raise an important point, Jennifer, in that ‘writing’ is more than typing away on your keyboard. It includes reading, editing, planning, etc…


  7. Sorry, just reading the comments here now. Haha, I don’t have a secret. The thing is, I’m not very disciplined. So this poetry project of mine is very good for me. I ‘write’ a lot when I’m out walking the dog. Thinking about things, seeing things etcetera. Sometimes it starts with something I see, sometimes I want to experiment with poetic form. But there’s always that ‘deadline’ of tomorrow. That helps me. I try to publish the poems between 11 and 12 in the morning, and I found that this deadline helps me. Also, working a bit in advance. There are days that I’m lucky, and ‘find’ 2 or more poems in the things I see. Last tip: find a place where you can get things done. Even in a short time of 1 hour or less. There’s a little coffee shop near where I live and work, and when I’m there, I do much more than in my regular (home) office. Having a place to retreat to easily, close the world off and get things done really helps me. Plus: they have great coffee and cakes. For that rewarding.


  8. Funny you should be more productive at the coffee place than at home, Arjan. There’s been some research published very recently saying that a certain level of background noise actually helps with concentration. Maybe that’s it – though the coffee and cakes might help, too 🙂


  9. Could be. Although I think that in my case it’s a place where I have no distractions. At home, where I also have my office, there’s a lot of other things I can do as well. While this coffee place for me is my writing place. So when I’m there, that’s what I do :).


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