So on November 1, 2019 I started a little experiment. I wanted to see if I could write every day for the month of November, basically the academic (#acwri) version of the NaNoWriMo challenge. My day job is not one that allows much time for this. I’m the dean of an honors college. My day is spent in meetings, administering admissions, curriculum, and activities for 500+ students, overseeing a new partnership program, managing a staff, and other “duties as assigned.” I’m expected to be in the office five days a week from 9-5. It is a far cry from my days as a full-time faculty member where my schedule was flexible and I could carve out days or at least half-days to work on writing (acknowledging, of course, that there were times when grading, course prep, etc made this impossible–but I always had more flexibility with my schedule than I do now).
That said, when I started assuming administrative responsibilities ten years ago as a department chair, I was very deliberate about my desire to continue advancing my research agenda. At the time, I had no idea that I would eventually become a dean. I thought that at best I would serve two terms as chair. That alone, however, would have been a seven-year commitment. And I didn’t relish the idea of putting my research on hold for that long. As chair, my schedule was still a bit flexible and so (with the support of my dean) I worked from home one day a week and I published one essay or article a year on average.
But now I am a dean with very little flexibility and I had never sustained a writing goal like this one. So I approached my #AcWriMo2019 with three goals in mind. The first was practical: I had agreed to write a 6000-word essay that’s due in January. The second was grounded in curiosity: I wanted to see what I could learn about trying to do this. I spend a lot of time encouraging talented faculty members to consider higher ed administration and I do some coaching around this as well. Faculty often understandably express concerns about having to give up their research if they take on administrative responsibilities. So I wanted to investigate what trying to create a writing discipline as a higher ed administrator might look like. The third goal was personal. I actually–most of the time–like writing. It sustains me and when I don’t have the opportunity to do it, I miss it.
What follows then are some thoughts and lessons learned along the way. I don’t offer this to say “look how great I am: I wrote for thirty days straight.” Rather I hope this provides some insight for anyone trying to find a way to sustain a writing practice when other responsibilities demand the bulk of your attention.
Planning: Think before you start about what you’ll be working on. For the purposes of continuity and momentum, it helped me to focus on one project. Once you have a project in mind, try to plan what each day’s writing might look like. Sometimes I tried to look at the week ahead. Other times, I barely had the foresight to look at my daily calendar. For me, no two days are the same, and my schedule isn’t always entirely my own. But to even know, for example, that it would be better for me to try to write in the morning of a particular Monday as opposed to late in the afternoon helped to focus my efforts. That said, there were some days where it was 7pm and I hadn’t written anything and I ran to my laptop and dashed off a sentence or two. Other kinds of planning are more practical: if you’re going to work on a particular section of the project, will you need certain notes or books to hand?
Manage expectations: Start with a modest plan. Mine was simply to write *something* each day as part of the essay I was working on. I am not kidding when I tell you that on more than a few days I wrote no more than one sentence. I didn’t have the time or energy for anything else. For me, it helped enormously to be willing to just squeeze it in where I could, when I could. On the weekends or days when my schedule was more forgiving, I wrote more or even if I didn’t write a lot, I was able to give myself more time to think and ponder as I wrote.
Create some structure: While managing expectations requires a certain amount of flexibility, it’s also important to be stern with yourself if it will make you do the work. Put a “do not disturb” sign on your door, shut down the email and the social media, and spend 15 minutes (or more!) writing if that’s what it takes.
Intrinsic motivation: Intrinsic motivation definitely carried me through this experiment. Simply having something due is certainly motivating (see my first goal above) but I’m not sure it’s always enough. I mean you can always cram the night before it’s due if the only goal is to meet a deadline. I was trying to build something more sustainable and satisfying. For me the motivation from within is that I still really enjoy my research and I’m not ready to walk away from it. Doing this work feeds a part of my intellect that other parts of my job don’t. I really think this made a difference in my ability to write each day for a month.
Accountability: Almost two years ago I started a small, online writing accountability group. I told them my November goal and checked in almost every day to report my progress. I also used Twitter as a platform for this. It’s good to have a cheering section and a place to share frustrations, musings about the process, and successes.
Know what works: Guess what? It may not work. Writing a little bit every day is not for everyone. Some people really do need to find ways to carve out bigger chunks of time. But if that’s what you discover from trying this, then you’ve learned something you can carry forward as part of your writing practice. Or even if it does work, you may miss a day. Or four. I tried to do this challenge in October. And only sustained it for 16 days. Sometimes the timing is wrong. But I still wrote something each of those sixteen days.
Momentum matters: While every day is not a discipline that works for everyone, I found it enormously helpful for my circumstances. I really want to keep a hand in my research, but my schedule can be a barrier to that. But if I take too much time away from reading, writing, and engaging with that work, I lose the thread. Each time I sit down it’s like starting from scratch. Writing every day kept my head in the game and helped me maintain a connection to the current project. The work felt vital in a way it hadn’t recently. And I have a (very) rough draft of an essay that’s not due until January. I’ll call that a win.