Thursday, 5 July 2012

How to improve your productivity: don’t read this blog

Posted by Jonathan Ling

One of my first office mates was Roger.

He was an older academic who had just been recruited by my department. As I helped him carry boxes of books into our room, I noticed that at the top of one of them was a book with his name on the cover. I was impressed – I was sharing my office with an author! I told him how great it must be when someone said to him: “I’ve read your book”. He agreed that it was a nice feeling, but what felt even better was when, having written a couple more books, he was able to say: “Which one?”

I’d never really thought about writing a book myself, until I was asked a couple of years ago to co-author a short textbook. It was on a topic I knew a bit about, but I’d never met the co-author who came from a university at the other end of the country. The editor suggested that the process would be reasonably straightforward and fairly speedy. As he had written several books himself I thought he obviously knew what he was talking about.

With hindsight I now realise he must be significantly more methodical in his approach to writing than I am.

I eventually finished my part of the book and it was published last year. Mostly by trial and error, I learnt a few things as I went along:

1. Have a writing routine. Take time out of every day to write. If you don’t block out a specific time each day to write (and stick to it), you won’t get anything written. It doesn’t matter when it is (I work better in the afternoons), just hang a “Do not disturb” sign on your door, or around your neck, and get going.

2. Don’t get side-tracked. See point 1. Your writing time is for writing – it’s not time for admin, catching up with emails, fitting in meetings or reading engaging and erudite blogs.

3. Seek feedback from your target audience. Unless it’s your diary, everything you write is for an audience. Think about who the audience is, and make sure they get a look at it. For a textbook, this was undergraduate students and other lecturers. For a journal article, most likely it would be fellow academics, as well as practitioners or policy makers.

Egg timer, by Martin Lopatka

4. When all else fails, get an egg timer. There were some parts of the book where I really struggled – topics I was unfamiliar with, that required lots of reading and which I wasn’t particularly interested in. But I just had to grind these sections out. In one of my more (possibly only) fruitful side-tracks, (see point 2), I came across the Pomodoro technique. In essence, this is just working on your chosen task for 20 minutes (no email, no looking out of the window – just work!) and then having a 5 minute break before another 20 minute session. Try it sometime – it did the trick for me.

Eventually, with the help and support of my co-author, editor and publishers, the book was finished, proofread and published. It is nice to have a book on the shelf with my name down the spine. But it was a huge amount of work, on something that’s not REF-able. So it’s not something I can see myself doing again.
Although, in my weaker moments I can’t help but think that one day it might be quite nice to say “Which one?” when someone tells me that they’ve read my book….

1 comment:

  1. Rebekah McNaughton26 July 2012 at 13:19

    I whole heartedly agree Jonathan. I use the 'egg timer' (or phone app) option myself. We even use it in our shared office when one of us needs to really focus. Head down for an hour then we have the reward of a nice cuppa. It's surprising what you can get done in an hour of focussed writing.