The Four Cornerstones Of Writing More: Work On One Thing at a Time

by | Aug 30, 2018 | academic project management, academic writing, time management

This is part 4 of our four cornerstones of writing more series.

I was listening to a podcast interview with a pretty big-shot entrepreneur who was talking about how he runs a successful multi-million dollar online business. “I only work on one project at a time, and I don’t switch projects until I complete the one I started,” he said.

How nice for you, I thought. But impossible for me as an academic.

The nature of academia is that we are obliged to take on many projects at once. The “holy trinity” of research, teaching, and service implies juggling multiple projects and priorities. Of course, we run many projects within these three areas simultaneously.

Just sit for a minute with the idea of doing one project at a time, all the way from inception to completion. All of your energy behind one thing, all of your resources. All of your focus.

That would be amazing, right? Well, it’s not going to happen (unless you join me on a writing retreat!). But much of what I teach about academic writing tries to simulate this kind of “just one thing” energy and focus.

Here are three strategies to simulate the focus and energy of working on one thing at a time:

1. Sprint on projects

The idea of a “sprint” (for academics) is to set apart about two hours per day for two weeks in a row to significantly move the needle on one project.

You can use this with any project, but here’s a “how-to” for doing it with a writing project, so that you can see how it works (get a more details about doing a writing sprint here).

How to do a writing sprint:

  1. Select the two weeks when you’ll do the sprint. Mark off 1-2 hours per day for each day of the sprint.
  2. Choose your writing project and define what it will mean for that project to be finished. Then make a list of all the things that have to be done to get you there. For example: write the abstract, finish the results section, add more sources to the lit review.
  3. Go back to your calendar and write in the tasks for each day of the sprint. Again, be realistic about how long it will take you to do things. If you finish early then yay! That’s much better than over-booking and feeling guilty for not finishing.

A few rules about sprinting to be sure you are using this technique effectively:

  • ONLY focus on ONE writing project during the sprint and FINISH that project (however you define “finish” for your particular project).
  • I recommend working on your sprint 1-2 hours a day, maybe 3 tops. I just find that it is not realistic to block more time than that daily, even for just two weeks.
  • When planning, try to be realistic and kind to yourself. It’s best not to plan a sprint during the busiest time in the semester.
  • Sprints can only last two weeks. This prevents you from burning out on a project.
  • Avoid “serially sprinting” on the same project. It would be better to rotate through different projects in two-week bursts.
  • You need to schedule some breaks between sprints if you want to be able to sustain them.

2. Align work behind your academic mission statement

If you feel like you are constantly putting out fires, that you are reacting instead of acting when opportunities (and problems) come your way, then you need an Academic Mission Statement.

Many academic women say that they feel “pulled in a thousand directions.” That’s the main reason they cite for not having time to write. One of the reasons you might feel pulled is that you are pulled. We are asked to do too many things–and too many different kinds of things–as part of our academic careers. Teaching, student mentoring, committee meetings–it all feels very overwhelming.

That’s where the Academic Mission Statement comes in. The big idea here is to clarify and articulate your mission, then line up all your activities so that they are serving this mission. But first thing’s first: you need to write the Academic Mission Statement.

Here’s a template that you can use to create an Academic Mission Statement:

I use [methodologies/theoretical frames] to study [population] [phenomenon] [context] in order to [change you want to see in the world].

And here’s an example of the template filled in (this is my mission statement!):

I use ethnographic methods to study translanguaging in Puerto Rican university classrooms in order to normalize bilingual content learning and inform theories of bilingualism.

Read more about creating your academic mission statement here.

When all of your activities support your academic mission statement, you will feel like you are doing just one thing (defined broadly). To make it work you’ll need to quit activities that don’t align with your mission statement, and to align activities that you can’t quit. (I teach exactly how to do that in my signature course, The Academic Women’s Writing Roadmap.)


3. Plan a retreat

The only way to really work on one thing only is to go on a retreat. A retreat creates those large blocks of time for deep thinking that we long for during our regular semesters.

If you are short on time (and money), you can plan a retreat for yourself. Read more about exactly how to create a “do it yourself” retreat here.

But if you really want to get away and focus, you can go on an academic retreat like The Academic Women’s Writing Retreat, which I run twice a year in Puerto Rico.

The advantages of a professionally-run retreat are that you don’t have to do anything yourself–no worries about cooking, cleaning, or other care-taking. Just you and your one thing, supported by the retreat leader and other participants.

I hope this post helped you think about ways to get the kind of energy and focus that doing one thing at a time provides. Truly what I wish for each of you is energy, focus, and JOY in your academic lives!



Episode 29: Hit the Reset Button

Episode 29: Hit the Reset Button

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How do you feel when you get to work in the morning? When you look at your to-do list, do you feel completely overwhelmed? Have you ever felt the beginnings of a panic attack when you think about the amount of stuff you have to do? For most of us, the answer is “yes.”...

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