Monday, May 08, 2017

Like a Fitbit for my writing life

It's finals week, which means it's assessment time in both my classes and my work life.

You may recall that I had the bright idea, back at the start of the school year, of keeping a work diary. This I faithfully did: every day that I performed some scholarly writing or research task, I tabulated the time spent. Then each week I recorded the total.

I included the boring but necessary stuff that those of us without research assistants have to do ourselves, like schlep to the library to pick up ILL books, photocopy chapters from ILL books once they've been recalled, and run time-consuming EEBO searches to get a sense of the relative frequency of references to X or Y. After some internal debate, I decided to include time spent on fellowship applications, on the grounds that those required me to refine and rearticulate my book project in important ways, as well as conduct some preliminary research into the holdings of the relevant libraries. But I did not include reading for courses when the texts overlapped with my current research topics, nor did I include reviewing article or book manuscripts that did likewise.

So it's a little subjective, I guess, and there's no way to be precise; although I spent two years working in a law firm, the idea of measuring everything to within a tenth of an hour would have made me throw myself out a window. Therefore, I recorded nothing that took less than half an hour. Sometimes I rounded up; at other times I forgot to check the clock (or got interrupted a bunch) and so recorded my impression of how much time I'd actually spent working.

Still, with those caveats, I'm pretty happy with the results: over the fall semester my average was 12 hours/week and this spring it was just under 11.7 hours/week.

My weekly goal had been 10hrs/week, but I honestly had no idea if that was sustainable over the long haul; there have always been periods during term-time where I'm writing like a fiend, but also weeks where I do nothing. If I had to guess, I'd say that most previous semesters my average has been, at best, maybe 8 hours/week.

What this purely private form of accountability ensured was that I never forgot about my writing goals for long, and keeping a daily log made me attentive to the moments I might not otherwise have recognized as having research potential: if I had downtime during my office hours, I could print and read an article (rather than surfing the internet)--and, often, my deciding that I could commit to 30 minutes of writing or research led to my spending 60 or 90 instead.

I don't imagine that such a diary would be equally motivating for everyone; I'm a systematizer who takes pleasure in routine, who responds well to things that seem measurable, and who delights in that which can be tracked, logged, or otherwise slotted into its proper place. When it comes to exercise, I'm not inspired by grand goals, nor do I care about being able to increase the intensity of my workouts, or their length, or whatever. But I care VERY MUCH about sticking to my three days a week and about logging the stats into my fitness app.

The diary is a similar means to an end. Twelve hours a week sounds like a respectable number, but the figure itself doesn't matter; there's nothing magical about that number, just as there's nothing magical about my going to the gym three days a week and shooting to hit 70,000 steps. If the latter measures don't mean I'm ready to run a half-marathon, the former doesn't mean I'm cranking out the pages (much less that they're good pages!). Perhaps I do less in twelve hours than others do in six. But if the chief lesson that I take from being slow is that I have to put in the goddamn hours, then I need to find ways to put them in.


And this steady training has been good for me: I'm closing in on a draft of what I hope to be the second major publication from my book project, an essay that has required heroic/desperate amounts of research into fields I'm basically unqualified to write about (and only some of whose scholarship is in languages that I can read). At the same time that I intend to finalize that manuscript and send it out for review, I'll be in residence at the Folger Shakespeare Library on a month-long fellowship to research a different chapter of the book.

I'm unaccustomed to spending 6-8 hours a day, 5 or 6 days a week researching and writing, but that's the plan for June. And if my work diary has taught me one thing, it's the power of averages: no matter how my July and August shake out, I'm thinking my summer numbers are going to look pretty damn good.

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