Juggling It All: Tips on Research and Writing, Part 3


* This is part three of a feature with the Bulletin on tips for research and writing. Part one can be found here and part two here.

Emma Wasserman: I’m sure organization works for a lot of people in a lot of different ways, but these efforts can also encourage delusions of grandeur and accomplishment that can stall and distract. I tend to imagine myself making guerrilla style assaults on the material. These almost always fail, but eventually–after at least a couple of years of trying–I actually win some ground.

Joseph Laycock: My first semester of college a professor told us to log how many hours we actually spent on schoolwork. He added that if we were spending less time on being a college student than we would on a part-time job, then we weren’t serious about college and should drop out. That semester I started using tally-marks on a calendar to log how many hours I worked each day. I still do it. I try to reach quotas of hours for every month. The tally-marks change my overall attitude toward work. Often people *think* they are working really hard but are actually only getting in an hour or two of actual work. Then when I work eight hours a day or more on writing, I feel *good* because I’m catching up on my quota.

I also incorporate something from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I organize everything I have to do on a grid that has four squares on it—urgent, important, busy-work, and pleasure. The goal is to acknowledge what’s just busy-work and to make time for things that are important. Around 2005, I actually made a grid on my wall with masking tape. I represent all of my projects with other pieces of masking tape that migrate around the grid. This has really helped me stay motivated and to delegate time wisely. The downside is that my office looks like the office of a lunatic. I also have a poster with a UFO that says “I Want to Believe” and press clippings about exorcisms on the walls—so that’s not helping.

Lastly (and this is a little embarrassing)—I’ve been using this website that represents banal tasks as a fantasy role-playing game (see link). So when I grade papers my virtual avatar gains XP and gold. Conversely, if I neglect tasks I’ve set out to do the tasks actually hurt my character and eventually kill him. It’s surprisingly good for motivation.

Suzanne Owen: Writing the PhD was very different. I took three months off my part-time job to write it up. As I shared a house with seven others, I posted a grid to show how many words I wrote each day. Near the end of each day, if I hadn’t written anything, I’d fear the disapproval of my housemates and forced myself to write.

Randi Warne: Admin at school (I head a unit, so there’s a fair bit of that); grading at the dining room table; writing at the dining room table; research anywhere; books to be underlined, before bed light reading; lectures written mostly at the dining room table. School: students, students, students and teaching. Note: there is no one in my home when I am working, except my husband or my cat, preferably both sleeping.

I spend a requisite amount of time fussing and fretting and thinking and avoiding, and then I book off obligations (or rearrange them) because “I’m writing.” My house is a mess, people can’t talk to me, and I barely change into day clothes. Then when it’s over, I let it sit for a day, and then edit. One exception: my doctoral dissertation. I had a six day a week writing schedule, all marked out on a calendar (still have the schedule in my papers, in fact). I wrote my diss. in 3 1/2 months, my thesis supervisor suggested changes to two sentences, and it passed “as it stands” through the Centre for Religious Studies at U of Toronto. Surreal, that whole experience.

I figured out pretty early that I couldn’t be an academic and have children, nor would I be able to continue to be married to my first husband, who would not consider moving from the urban centre in which we lived. When folks complain about baby boomers who “took all the jobs,” and had an easy life, I want to ask “Which profession?”

Merinda Simmons: For me, it’s largely been a matter of coming to terms with the way my brain works and not trying to force structure where it doesn’t fit. Like ‪Kenneth (see part one) said, I’m most productive when everything’s a bit of a mess. And like Kat (see below), I try to make projects and work chores lead into others. I’ve always got a few pots simmering at various temperatures, to paraphrase a colleague’s description years back of what we do, and I find that far more useful than tackling one big task at a time in a linear/organized way. That said, two ideas I’ve *tried* to incorporate (not very successfully, but I like the concepts all the same) are: 1) scheduling a writing “meeting” with myself for an hour a day that I take as seriously as any other meeting (i.e., no phone-checking, emails, etc)–any writing beyond that, then, is gravy. 2) having a day slated for each project (since I work on several simultaneously) … Mondays are the day I do a bit on this article, Tuesdays are for that essay, Wednesdays are for this proposal, and so on…

Kat Daley-Bailey: These are all excellent strategies… I racked my brain thinking of some practice that has been useful to me when writing/ researching. I think the best advice I ever got was to try to use my mental energy effectively. If I decided to read a book for a course, I might do a book review on it… or use it as part of research for a conference paper or post. I always try to make what I am doing overlap so that I am not putting energy into disparate things, if you will.

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