Friday, February 15, 2013

How to Overcome Writer’s Block: Seven Strategies that Work

It happens to the best of us. We wake up. We go to the computer. We intend to write. Two hours later, we have put 0 words on the page. What happened?

Writer's Block

You know what happened, so I won’t go into detail. Instead, let’s focus on a few ways to get words on the page (or the screen) even when it seems we’d rather do almost anything else. For many writers, the trick is to get started, because once we get started, there’s no stopping us!

If you are having trouble getting started with your writing, try one (or more) of these seven strategies to overcome your writer's block.

Strategy #1) Meditate for five minutes

As soon as you realize it is your writing time and you are not writing, stop whatever you are doing, set a timer for five minutes and meditate. I am not an expert on meditation, but I can say that you don’t have to be to do a five-minute meditation. Simply set a timer for five minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing for five minutes. Pay attention to the thoughts that come to your mind, and bid them farewell as you focus on your breathing. I find it easy to bid thoughts farewell as I breathe out, as it feels cleansing.

Strategy #2) Cut off the Internet.

Unplug. Open up your Word Processing program. Don’t allow yourself to turn it back on until you have 500 new words on the page. The Internet can be an amazing tool. However, no matter what writing project you are working on, once you have your document in front of you, I am sure there is something you can do to move the document forward without the Internet.

Strategy #3) Call a friend.

Tell her you are having trouble writing, but promise to spend the next 60 minutes writing. Ask her to call you back in 60 minutes to tell her how many words you have written. It is amazing what accountability can do.

Strategy #4) Do some exercise.

Do 100 jumping jacks or 20 pushups. Walk around the block. My personal favorite is to power up my Xbox and put on a zumba song. I rock out to one song, which takes just five minutes (and burns about 100 calories) and then get back to writing.

Strategy #5) Go old school.

Turn off the computer. Pull out a pad of paper and a pen and get to writing. Draw figures to conceptualize your project. Write about why you don’t feel like writing. Write and think through a theoretical puzzle. Write up your methods section. Whatever you do, spend at least 20 minutes with a pen and paper and watch how your writing is reinvigorated.

Strategy #6) Have a healthy snack.

Go to the kitchen. Grab an apple. Do something fancy to it, like peel it and cut it into pieces. Or, taken a mango and cut it restaurant-style. Do something methodical and creative with a healthy snack and then eat it. You will be amazed at how that little bit of left-brain activity and a sweet reward can fuel your writing.

Strategy #7) Change your location.

If you are working on a laptop or with a pen and paper, move yourself to another room. If you work at a university, try going to the library or a study room. If you are at home, try out the dining room table or the living room. If you live in a studio, try facing a different window. Move yourself to a new location and tell yourself that this is your writing spot for the day.

I hope one of these seven strategies works for you. I wouldn’t be surprised if you found it useful to work one or two of these strategies into your everyday writing routine.

Just imagine yourself getting up, preparing a quick, but artful breakfast, then meditating for five minutes, sitting down and writing for 30 minutes before getting up and doing 25 pushups and writing for another 30 minutes. What a rocking morning that would be!

Writer's block - 2010-10-12

Best of luck with your writing, and let me know which of these (or other) strategies help you move through writer’s block.

Monday, February 11, 2013

How Are You Spending Your Time?

Time is our most valuable resource, and we must be careful with how we spend it. This is particularly true when you are on the tenure track and have a set amount of time to reach specific goals.

How are you spending your time? Are you making the best use of your time to reach your goals?

I recently met two Assistant Professors who told me that they had not written anything this year. Both of these Assistant Professors work at research-intensive institutions. One told me she spent all her time preparing for two new courses. The other told me he was spending all of his time working on several major committees.

Both of these professors seem to have their priorities out of balance. As faculty, our job includes research, teaching, and service. At a research institution, you will be evaluated primarily on the basis of your research, although you also have to engage in teaching and service to meet your job requirements. I think that the best way to ensure balance is to engage in all three of these activities each week.

Let’s presume for now that you are working a 40-hour week – although I know many of you insist you are not. How should you be spending your work week?

When I worked at the University of Kansas, my department made it clear that I would be evaluated based on my research, teaching, and service. My chair also told me specifically that I would be evaluated with the following formula: 40% teaching, 40% research, and 20% service. At the end of each year, we had to fill out merit forms that used this same formula.

It became clear to me that I needed to align my time with my priorities. Thus, I made a little chart for myself and decided that I would spend my time according to those priorities. I would spend at least 16 hours a week on research, 16 on teaching, and no more than 8 on service.

Let’s look at 16 hours on teaching. With two courses, I was spending 6 hours in the classroom, and had 2 hours of office hours a week. That left me with 8 hours to prepare class and grade. Thus, I scheduled that amount of time into my week to accomplish those tasks.

Next up was 16 hours of research. For me, that translated into 2 hours a day of writing and one hour a day of reading, searching for literature, and other tasks related to research.

I had 8 hours a week left over for service. As an Assistant Professor, I rarely spent 8 hours a week on service. I often had about 3-4 hours a week in meetings. Some weeks I had to spend extra hours outside of meetings reading files. But, usually, I used that time to respond to emails.

My schedule looked something like this:

To keep to this schedule, I do my best to avoid scheduling meetings in the morning – time I have set aside for research and writing. These activities are an important part of my job and I do them best in the morning. Thus, I don’t schedule any other activities during this time.

When students ask to meet with me, I encourage them to come to my office hours. If they can’t make that time, I schedule a time with them that fits into my teaching time.

When I get Doodle polls about meeting, I try and schedule those in the afternoon – when I have set aside time for service and email.

Of course, I often have to rearrange my schedule. However, when that happens, I just move things around. Let’s say someone wants to schedule a meeting during my teaching prep time. I simply switch those two times around. The most important thing is that I am spending the appropriate amount of time on each aspect of my job.

What about you? How much time do you spend on research, teaching, and service each week? Is the amount of time you spend in line with the priorities of your institution?