Thursday, April 28, 2011

How to Have a Productive Summer: Three Tips that Work

Most academics I talk to this time of year are looking forward to summer, when classes are over meetings are few and far between and we have lots of time to write. We can finally pay attention to that writing project that has been inching along all semester. Now that summer is here, we can jump in and devote ourselves full-time to writing and research productivity.

Journaling at the rasta hideaway in Ghana

The joy with which we start our summers, however, is not always paralleled by a strong sense of satisfaction at the end. Many academics recall summers past when they planned to finish the book, send off the articles, and submit grant proposals where the plans did not materialize. In this post, I explain how you can have a productive summer, and how you can emerge from summer feeling refreshed, accomplished, and ready to take on the new academic year.

Tip #1: Make a Research and Writing Plan

The very first step to a productive summer is to make a plan. And, no, I do not mean that your plan should look like this: “FINISH BOOK!” Instead, a plan must include a lot more detail. Your plan needs to be divided into weeks and broken down into manageable tasks. Most of us have about 12 weeks in the summer. Thus, your plan could look like this:

Week 1:

  • Read three articles on due process
  • Write section on due process for Chapter One
  • Make plan for completion of Chapter One
  • Complete at least two tasks on completion plan for Chapter One

As you can see, you do not have to know exactly what needs to be done to complete chapter one to make your plan. Instead, you can include making a completion plan as part of your plan. Once you finish with week 1, you can do the same for Weeks 2 to 12.

The benefits of making a plan are that 1) you develop a better idea as to what you can reasonably accomplish; 2) you set clear benchmarks for yourself and ensure you are making progress; and 3) at the end of the summer, you have a realistic idea as to what you have and have not accomplished.

Tip #2: Develop a reasonable summertime writing schedule

You will not be working 24-hours a day over the summer, no matter how few external obligations you have. In fact, you likely will not even be working consistent 8-hour days. The reality is that academic work is hard and requires an extraordinary amount of mental energy. Most people are unable to devote 8 hours a day, 7 days a week to academic writing, reading, research, and data analysis. People that try to do this quickly burn out.

Each of us has our own internal limits to how long we can reasonably expect ourselves to work. It is difficult to come to terms with our own limits. However, once we do, it can be remarkably liberating. I am the first to admit that I can write for no more than three hours a day on a consistent basis. Not too long ago, I learned that I can either spend all day at the office trying to get that three hours in, or I can simply spend three hours in front of my computer first thing in the morning and get my three hours of writing in.

Once I have done my three hours of writing, I have done the hard work for the day. At that point, I might collect articles I need to read, respond to emails, pay bills, or do any of the other myriad tasks that occupy my day. If it’s the summertime, I stop early to ensure that I make time to enjoy all of the benefits summer offers.

You too must come to terms with your limits and figure out how long you can expect yourself to write, read, and research each day. If you have no idea, one strategy is to track your time for a week or two to see how much writing, research and reading you actually do. Be careful, however, to note that you have at least two kinds of limits: how much work you can expect yourself to do in a short period of time and how much work you can do on a regular basis that is sustainable. You may be able to write for 8 hours a day for one week, but then find yourself unable to produce a coherent sentence the second week. That indicates that you overspent your limits.

Once you figure out your limits you can develop a reasonable schedule. Keep in mind that many people are very productive over the summer working four hours a day, five days a week.

Tip #3: Write every day

The only way you can ensure that you actually have a productive summer, i.e., that you emerge with real progress on your writing projects is to sit down and write. The best way to ensure that you write a lot is to write every day, five days a week.

Thus, when you make your plans and your schedules, make sure that you plan to write every day of the workweek. If you have never tried daily writing before, this is the perfect time to start!
Have a fantastic, productive, relaxing, and refreshing summer!

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