Writing While Short on Time
Why Small Chunks of Time Can Advance Your Work
You have 15 minutes until your next Zoom meeting as you enter your office after finishing the first class of the day. You instinctively set your bag down and take out your laptop to check any emails that may have arrived during that class without giving it much thought. You scan the new correspondence quickly and pick out two emails that you can respond to in the limited time you have. You have the remaining 13 minutes to write two emails of roughly 75 words each. You also have time to check a text message from your partner. Time is up, and you now need to find where the hell that Zoom link is hiding in your inbox.
Let's look at everything that occurred during those 15 minutes. You quickly skimmed some information, wrote 150 words, and then looked up more data. It was an instinctive and fluid action because it’s a habit you have developed.
What would it be like to use those 15 minutes on whatever writing project you had in the works?
Okay, I can already hear a few of your objections to this idea, and I will admit that I also like long uninterrupted stretches of writing time. In Habits for More Productive and Less Stressful Writing,
Writing in a state of deep work produces a few major benefits: 1) more productivity, 2) less stressful and frantic workdays, and 3) more time for other things. A deep writing practice can produce more high quality work in less time and with less stress.
But here’s the reality gut check: 15-minute blocks of time are way more frequent than two-hour, or, dare I say, day-long, blocks of time to just write and pine away in the idea world.
Some weeks the only time I have to work on projects are in brief windows; I don't always have access to long blocks of uninterrupted time. Although it's not my preferred working style, those snippets of time do help me move toward some of my goals. It has helped me to focus on what I CAN do in the time I have available rather than what I CANNOT do.
Some Common Objections
One common argument against writing in short bursts is that people feel they need the full 15 minutes to remind themselves of where they are in the project.
I have a strategy to help with that: I keep a diary for each project I’m working on. The diary is a Google Doc for me, but it could be a note on your phone or a physical notebook.
I make two brief notes whenever I write on a project: 1) what I just wrote about and 2) what I need to write next. This is my writing prompt that I use to tell me what to write. When I sit down with my 15 minutes or whatever block of time I have, I spend the first minute reading over those notes just like I would those emails that came in while I was in class.
Another objection is “but writing an email is so much easier than writing a journal article or a book.” Yes, of course this is true. But I am suggesting that you draft, get ideas down, brainstorm, and think through your writing (all types of writing I call flowing) in these short blocks of time. What if we were to think of writing about our research as similar to writing those emails? You had a writing prompt (i.e., the emails that needed responses), and your fingers flew lightning fast over that keyboard without too much self-editing. As I wrote previously, I’m proposing that we think of writing as mundane—that it is a habit that we sit down and do like email.
Also, you can use another 15-minute block to edit! Simply indicate in the comment box where you last stopped editing so that you can pick up where you left off.
A final objection: “But I need time to unwind after teaching and before doing anything else.” Okay, yes! Rest is crucial. By all means, take a break from your computer if you're feeling foggy and need to go for a walk to revive yourself. I'm just suggesting that you try giving writing 15 minutes of priority over other, less urgent tasks that don't advance your long-term objectives. It's certainly not necessary to schedule every minute of your day with a task.
I'm just suggesting that you try giving writing 15 minutes of priority over other, less urgent tasks that don't advance your long-term objectives.
The Time Adds Up
Now let’s imagine the possibilities that those mere 15 minutes give you. Consider a scenario in which you have four 15-minute writing sessions during the week and an hour to write on Friday. You will have written for two hours this week in total. On top of this, you hit the ground running with the Friday writing session because you have reminded yourself of where you are with the project several times during the week instead of saving it all for a longer session. In fact, you find that your Friday session is actually more productive because you’ve been actively thinking about your project all week and know exactly where to start.
This strategy might work great for some people, but it won't work for everyone, just like anything else I offer in this newsletter. I always encourage experimentation with an open mind, but I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all prescriptions. Spoiler alert: I no longer think that the dogma of "write for 30 minutes a day" is biblical, as I write about here.
What About Her Emails?
Ah, yes. The emails don’t go away, so what do we do about them? Perhaps you wait until the end of the day and reply when your brain is more tired because writing scholarly work is better when you’re fresh. Maybe while you're standing in line at the coffee shop, you type a reply on your phone. The point is not to always prioritize emails or other tasks over your writing. The emails will get done, I promise.
Plus, let’s be honest, you probably weren’t using those 15 minutes for email anyway.
We both knew you were scrolling Twitter!
Thanks for reading Publish Not Perish ! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.