Monday, July 11, 2011

Writing while enjoying life: How to make the most of your day

This blog is about being productive and enjoying life at the same time. I know sometimes the blog posts sound like I am just writing about being productive. But, my hope is that, by implementing some of the strategies you read about here, you will have more time to enjoy the good things in life.

pacific morning

In this post, I will talk about how to structure your day to maximize productivity while also leaving time for other things that are important in your life: your health, your family, exercise, eating well, etc... One strategy that works very well for me is to work in relatively short, concentrated bursts, and to make sure that I complete my most important tasks first thing in the morning.

Slow and Steady: Writing For Two Hours a Day

This summer, for example, my strategy has been to get in two to three hours of writing as early as possible in the morning, and then to dedicate the rest of the day to other tasks. I have had quite a bit of success with this. Using this slow and steady method of writing two to three hours this morning, in six weeks, I have been able to:

  1. Complete a Revise and Resubmit
  2. Complete the revisions for a short book manuscript (25,000 words) and send it out for review
  3. Put the final touches on an article and (almost) send it out for review
  4. Finish up a chapter for a textbook and send it out for review
  5. Analyze 4 of my 63 remaining interviews.

My system has been working. It has allowed me to make progress on my writing, while also permitting me time to enjoy my summer in Europe, and make some headway into new research projects here in Spain and France. Most of my new research has entailed me getting out of the house and finding out what is going on, so it has been most enjoyable. At this point in the summer, with just over a month left before classes start, I feel completely relaxed and as if I am making the most of my summer.

New Situation = New Strategy

But, things are about to change, meaning I need to implement a new strategy. On July 14, our European work-cation will be over. I will spend a few days in my hometown, Washington, DC, and then will go back to Kansas, where I normally live and work. For my last month of the summer in Kansas, I will need to switch gears and ensure I make progress on four fronts:

  1. Writing for my deportation project
  2. Analyzing my deportee interviews
  3. Preparing my tenure dossier
  4. Preparing my syllabi for Fall 2011.

To get these things done, I will use the same principle: Allocate tasks to different times of the day and leave plenty of time for breaks. Here is my new plan.

Each morning, from 8am to 10am, I will go to a coffee shop near my house and write for 90 minutes to two hours on my deportation project. Making progress on my writing is my most important priority, and it is the task that requires the highest level of concentration. So, that goes first.

After my writing and coffee, I will go home and have breakfast with my family. My children will not be in summer camp or any other organized activity. After breakfast, I will help the kids get ready and take them to the public library with me. I will set the kids up in the library with one activity or another and then get to work myself.

From 11am to 1pm, I will analyze at least one deportee interview. I am hoping this part of the plan will work, as it could fall through if my kids don’t want to go to the library or if they begin to argue amongst themselves in the library, making it difficult for me to do my work. But, I know that I can be interrupted while checking an interview transcription and pick up where I left off without a problem. So, we will try this strategy.

After our library trip, we will go home and have lunch and relax for a bit.

From 2:30pm to 4:30pm, I will go up to my office and complete the tasks that require me to be in my office and connected to a good Internet connection. I will check and respond to emails for about 30 minutes. Note that this is the first time I will check email in the day. (I hope I can do this!!) Then, I will spend the remaining 90 minutes working on my tenure dossier and/or preparing my syllabi.

I will be home by 5pm, and can take the kids to the swimming pool or the park and spend the rest of the afternoon and evening with them. Depending on the weather, I also will figure out a way to work some exercise into my afternoon. If it isn’t 100 degrees outside, I will go for a long walk. If it is too hot, I can take a short walk to the nearby community gym and get on the elliptical. Alternatively, I can do my 20-minute Jillian Michaels “Making the Cut” video.

The idea behind this plan is to consciously break up the day into times of work and relaxation. I know that I cannot work for six hours straight, but that I can get in five to six hours of work between 8 am and 5pm if I take long breaks between. I also know that this will be a lot less stressful than if I stayed in my office from 8am to 5pm. And, believe it or not, I also know that it will be equally (if not more) productive.

So far, this is just a plan, so I will let you know how it goes.

A Caveat

I also will point out that this plan works for me because of various factors in my favor. 1) I live in a small town and thus getting from one place to another takes about 15 minutes by foot or 5 minutes by car. A person with long commute times would have to come up with a different plan, such as finding ways to take long breaks without veering too far from the office or working at home for at least part of the day. 2) My husband will be at home this summer as well, and thus he can cook while I take the kids to the library or go grocery shopping while I am with the kids at the pool. If you are a parent without childcare during the summer, you would have to be quite a bit more creative to find time to write. 3) My kids are aged 10, 10, and 7, and thus quite independent. At these ages, I can expect them to entertain themselves for an hour or two in the public library. When they were smaller, this plan would have never worked.

How have you been structuring your days this summer? Is it working for you? If so, great! If not, how might you change your structure to be more productive and have a life too?


  1. Tanya, I'm happy to say that I've been following the Get a Life, Ph.D. plan this summer. I had to teach a first summer session course, but during that time I also composed a complete draft of my first dissertation chapter, and a conference paper that I presented on Memorial Day weekend in Boston!

    Since the summer class ended a few weeks ago, I've been writing in the mornings from 8am until I fizzle out, usually around 11am. I read and take notes and stuff during my writing sessions, so there's really about 90 minutes of actual writing taking place.

    Because I had a complete draft of my first chapter and a start on chapter 2, I was able to take a full week-long-no-working-whatsoever beach trip with my wife and son all last week!

    Now, I'm back in the swing of things and I started revising chapter 1 this morning.

  2. Matt: I am impressed by your progress during summer teaching!!

    And, I love hearing about the guilt-free vacation!

  3. Tanya, I just found your blog through a Facebook friend and have been tearing through it. I so appreciate your comprehensive treatment of the challenges associated with an academic job. As a parent, I find posts like this one particularly useful. Sometimes I just need to see a concrete example of how to keep all the plates spinning while preserving one's sanity. Thank you for this work!

  4. Thanks, Lyndi. I am so glad to hear you find the blog useful.

  5. So, today is the first day that I have come close to carrying out my plan... Just need to do part three and it will be a success. Note: this plan works, but only if you actually implement it!