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Managing your Writing through the End-of-Semester Chaos

by | Nov 16, 2017 | time management

Imagine you just took a bubble bath (sounds good, right?). You reluctantly get out and unplug the drain, staying to watch the little bubbles drain away. The water starts to form a circle and the happy bubbles get swept around, enjoying a lovely spin at a reasonable speed. Then the spinning increases and the bubbles start to pop, and all the water rushes down the gaping black hole of a drain, disappearing forever with glubbing final burp.

That is my metaphor for the academic semester. We start out all happy bubbles at the beginning, but as the semester ramps up we feel an out-of-control spinning hurtling us toward an inescapable black hole. Am I exaggerating? It’s November. I think you’ll agree I’m not.

So here is the question: How do you manage your writing during the end-of-semester panic?

If you’re thinking “I don’t,” then this is the post for you. Here I’ll outline three strategies to manage your writing when other academic responsibilities start to get in your way.

Strategy #1: Forgive yourself and move on

The most important message that I can send to you is one of self-forgiveness. We have in our minds a huge, intimidating list of things that we think MUST get done before the end of the semester. When we (inevitably) can’t finish that list, we blame ourselves or think of ourselves as incompetent. This pattern repeats itself every semester, which is why you feel like a hamster on a wheel.

It’s time to break this pattern. I know something about you if you are reading this blog: it doesn’t just feel like you have too many things to do. You actually have too many things to do. Doing all those things on your list before the semester ends? It’s impossible. So stop blaming yourself for not doing the impossible.

Instead, acknowledge right now that you will not finish everything. Now forgive yourself. You are still a badass. Now take a deep breath and do the following:

  1. Look at your to-do list and chose the three things that absolutely MUST happen before the semester is over. I mean for reals. Like if you don’t do these things, you’ll be fired. An example list might be: Teach my classes. Turn in grades.
  2. Now choose one (ONE) additional project to work on between now and the end of the semester. Yes, I said ONE. The criteria for choosing this project: (1) it has a big payoff for your career or (2) you really love it and want to do it. Examples might be: submit grant proposal, finish the almost-done article, brainstorm your book proposal.

That’s all that you are going to do between now and the end of the semester: The three must-dos and the one additional project. I forgive you for not doing anything else on your impossibly long list. You are still awesome!

Strategy #2: Small chunks of tiger time

When the pressures of the end of the semester start to build up, even those with a well-established writing practice can let their writing fall to the bottom of the list. That’s understandable (see Strategy #1), but it doesn’t have to be that way. Small amounts of focused, high-energy time dedicated to your writing will have much bigger payoffs than just worrying about how you’re not writing.

Small amounts of focused, high-energy time dedicated to your writing will have much bigger payoffs than just worrying about how you’re not writing.Click To Tweet

That’s when the idea of “tiger time” comes in. Tiger time is that high-energy time of the day where you have focus and drive. For me, it’s first thing in the morning. If I can write for one hour of my tiger time just twice a week I can keep my writing practice going.

But you don’t have to do one hour twice a week—just do thirty minutes. Or one hour once a week. The idea is to keep one foot in your writing so that when you’re ready to ramp-up your writing again you still have your head in the game.

Not sure what you tiger time is? Figure it out using my tiger time journal:

Strategy #3: Re-adjust your goals

I’ve written before about how the academic year ebbs and flows. If you can adjust your expectations to align with these ebbs and flows, you will feel so much better. And let me tell you a little secret: being productive and happy in your career is 10% what you actually accomplish and 90% how you feel.

Being productive and happy in your career is 10% what you actually accomplish and 90% how you feel.Click To Tweet

If you plan to adjust your writing practice to the inevitable busier times in the semester, then you will feel better about the actual amount of writing you do during those busy times. The idea is to get 100% of what you plan to do done, not 100% of what you could possibly do done.

Accomplish this by sketching out your semester before it starts. I like to do a high-level, month-by-month plan for what I’ll be working on related to my publication pipeline, considering deadlines that I already know. If you’re on a semester system, do not schedule “write entirely new article and submit it to a top-tier journal” on your calendar as a goal for November.

Instead, your writing goals for busy times of the semester can be something like submitting an abstract to a journal special edition call, or proofreading an accepted article. Make it a small, achievable-amidst-the-chaos goal. Then accomplish that goal, and feel great. Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back!

Want to manage your writing even when the end-of-semester chaos kicks in?

The takeaway message here is: Forgive yourself, set reasonable expectations, and try to maintain small, regular writing times if you can. If you can’t, then go back to forgiving yourself more. And then when the end of the semester comes, take a break. (More on that in next week’s blog!)


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