Sunday, August 29, 2010

200 Words A Day

A new academic year is starting, and so I've been going through the hair-raising transition between my summer schedule and my academic year schedule.

My summer schedule is calm and contemplative. Every week-day I go to my library carrel and work on my writing. I take a break for lunch. I check up on things in my office if I'm feeling brave. I return to my carrel in the afternoon. After dinner, I practice music, and then take it easy until bedtime. Sometimes I gather with friends over lunch or dinner. Every now and then I take a day off to have a music day with my musician friends -- the neighbors say they have appreciated our free "concerts"! It's a nice schedule -- productive and soothing and soul-restoring.

Notice that I wrote that paragraph in the present-tense. Apparently I still don't want to accept that in fact this has all changed this past week!

My academic year schedule looks very different. I rise early to fit a run in before the busyness begins. I try to squeeze in a short time in my carrel to continue work on my research and writing. Then I go to my office to prepare for class. Then I teach my class(es) -- one or two each day, squeezing in a quick lunch when I can. Then I have office hours. If students don't show up, I catch up on e-mail, administrative work, and/or grading. Most late-afternoons I have meetings. After dinner I practice music, and then spend a couple of hours reading for class, or grading. "Where's the free time?" you may be wondering. There isn't any during the week. I am lucky to get a full night's sleep. I can get away with taking a little free time on the weekends. But the weekends are also time to catch up on household chores. And, once the semester gets rolling, entire weekends can be taken up by grading. (Grading philosophy papers is very time-consuming.)

To try to stave off despair in this onslaught of intense busyness, I've tried a couple of strategies: (1) set up a good schedule and trust it to help me accomplish all that I find meaningful; (2) live in the present and remember that I actually like most of what I do!; and, new this semester: (3) adopt a new plan for my research time.

This new plan is called "200 Words A Day." I was inspired by this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education (apologies if you cannot access it -- I have an online subscription and am not sure if the articles are available to everyone. I hope at least this one is!).

Since you can spend all of your research and writing time tinkering (especially if your time is very limited) -- reading, note-taking, editing previously written text -- it can be hard to sustain forward momentum on actually writing. So, my new rule is to start each writing and research session by writing 200 new words of text towards an actual article or book project each day. Then I can spend the remainder of my time tinkering to my heart's content. 200 words is not a lot. But the daily discipline of it adds up over time. And it is giving me a satisfying sense of continued progress even amidst all of the busyness.

It is a clear goal, and it is manageable. It usually doesn't take very long. So far, I always easily go over the limit. It gives me the chance to get on paper ideas that have long been churning around in my mind but that I've delayed actually writing until I read that one more article first! If reading said article causes me to modify the text later, that's fine (I can deal with that during my more open, tinkering time). But I need to be doing a better job of writing text, and this approach creates regular space for doing so.

Lately (especially as I saw the end of summer approach), I have been getting overwhelmed with the complexity of my research and the many tasks I have to do, so that when I face a small chunk of time to work on it, I can get paralyzed trying to choose what is most important to do: read this, or that? Look up this, or that? Write for this paper, or that one? Respond to this person who has checked in with me about something related to my research, or that person?

So, this new approach is a breakthrough for me. As I face my small window of research opportunity each day (sometimes as small as one hour), I know exactly how to start! 200 words of text! But which project? On weekdays, it is my article; on weekends, it is a book project. So even that question is answered! Then I look at my outline, or at what I wrote the day before, and just write what I'm most interested in at that moment!

From there, I can spend the whole remainder of the time writing, or after I hit 200 words (or finish my thought), then I can shift to the other research-related tasks that need attention.

For this reason alone, I approach the new academic year with some optimism!

Actually, all of my classes do look good this semester. The students do start off the year with wonderful enthusiasm! It is great to see! And students have been clamoring to get into my classes -- this happened last semester too. It's nice to see how interested they are in philosophy and peace studies!

Happy new year to all of my academic-schedule friends!


  1. Sounds like a good idea. I think I'll try it myself. Let's compare notes after a month and see how it's working out for both of us.

  2. I am writing a book and read your muse on Religion and thought it was wonderful. I would like to dialogue with you about the theme of my book and wondered if you had about 30-45 minutes?

  3. CS,

    Halfway through the first month of the experiment I can say that it's working. It's been hard at times and I have not succeeded every day, but I had really felt stuck on this project of relating public and private standards of right and wrong for a long time and now two weeks into the 200 words commitment the writing is flowing a lot better. Thanks for the inspiration and I keep you posted on how it continues for me.

  4. Richard - I'm so glad to hear that it is working well for you!

    I myself have been having trouble. At first I realized that doing this in the morning was not working, because it was too hard for me not to start the day thinking about my teaching.

    So I put the time at the end of the day, and that did work well for a while, but the rest of my work continued to grow slowly but steadily, so gradually I found myself starting to cut back on sleep and that was not good for me.

    So, after a promising start, I'm getting discouraged again at how impossibly busy things get.

    Still, I'm not going to give up trying...

  5. I too have had some days when this didn't work. Grading exams really got in the way and I got a bit discouraged. But the thing about such intentional commitments is that you have to recognize the likelihood that you will "fall off the wagon" from time to time and commit to getting back on. Be as understanding with yourself as you would be with someone else. Love yourself as you love your neighbor!

    What I've come to is the following revision of the commitment: I will write 200 words per day (5 days a week not 7) and if I get behind I will make up the deficit on Saturday.

    So that's why I'm in my favorite coffeeshop right now trying to get geared up to write the 400 words I didn't finish this week.

  6. I'm going to try this 200 word idea too; my son is after me, for why I'm not working on my book. I am reading about my subject (it's a calculus book) and dithering instead of writing. And I'm reading all sorts of time-wasting political news blogs instead trying to find inspiration.

    I hope your spring semester goes well!

  7. Yes, so easy to get distracted by political news blogs!

    When I do stick to the 200 words a day plan, it works very well, and so I am renewing my efforts to do this in the spring semester! Since I'm still on break, and back in an enjoyable phase of my work, I'm getting a running start to launch myself with good momentum into the new semester.

    I wish you well, too!