For many early career social/personality psychologists, writing—whether it is publications, grants, or reports—is one of the most important activities for career progression. But, a small minority of writing wizards aside, most academics struggle with finding the time and/or motivation for writing. This can create a lot of stress around writing which can make people feel like they are not meeting the expectations set by themselves, the job market, or the tenure process.
So what can be done? First, recognize that you are not alone in these struggles. Although it is easy for upward social comparisons to trick us into thinking that everyone is thriving in the writing process, at the end of the day most people need a supportive nudge in one form or another. Here are some of the tips, tricks, and tools that we have used or that have come highly recommended from fellow ECs who know that the writing struggle is real.
Tools for Productivity
For some writers, it’s all about carefully curating your arsenal of writing support tools.
Note: All of these recommendations are through personal experience or word of mouth; none of the following are paid endorsements.
Tools for Focusing: If you sometimes find that your writing is being hindered thanks to non-stop distractions, these tools might be for you.
Pomodoro timers let you break up your “writing” and “distraction/break” times. Some people use the classic 25 minutes of focused time, 5 minutes of break, while others opt for longer focused time. These can be great when paired with the inbox pausing or recurring meeting times suggested below. Some of the online pomodoros that we have used include Tomato Timers, and Marinara Timer which lets you share a link with others for group writing.
The Forest App lets you set a period of “focus time” (similar to pomodoro timers) and also has the added functionality of blocking certain websites to help inhibit distractions during that time. The more you focus, the more your little tree grows.
Tools for Structuring Your Time: If you find that your biggest struggle is finding the time to dedicate to your writing, think about trying one of these.
Trello is another “to do” list app, with slightly more complex functionality than Workflowy. This includes the ability to create team boards and assign specific sub-tasks or activities to other teammates.
Pausing your inbox is another way of blocking out distractions for a dedicated period of time. Many email clients or third party extensions allow you to temporarily pause the receipt of emails, including Boomerang. Boomerang also lets you schedule emails making it possible to dedicate specific “email writing” blocks. Scheduled emails can be updated before they’re sent.
Blocking off time in your calendar, and treating it like any other appointment or meeting, helps keep precious writing times from getting eaten up by other meetings and requests. Set a recurring “meeting” in your calendar so this block of time (whether 30-60 minutes a day or 1 day a week) is protected.
Many of us can appreciate the power of the social environment. Members of the Early Career Committee have personally benefited from writing groups to help increase our writing productivity. This is something you can organize informally with colleagues and friends (e.g., meeting at a pub or cafe; going on a writing retreat together), or via co-ordinating formalized (bi)weekly writing groups like we have done in our own departments. Writing groups can help progress writing goals in a few ways:
First, they force us to reserve a dedicated time in our calendars for our writing goals on a consistent basis. Second, the presence of others holds us accountable to those goals, either by disincentivizing the desire to schedule something in place of the writing group, or by incentivizing the experience by making it a more enjoyable, social activity rather than an isolating one. In one of our departments pre-COVID, we met up fortnightly and shared cookies and tea while we worked through our goals. In the SPSP EC writing groups, we connect with ECs across the world on a weekly basis to share our struggles, ask for advice, and rejoice in one another’s successes. Here is what our EC members have to say about the benefits of these writing groups:
“I've really enjoyed being in a writing group. I like the feeling of working alongside other people and having some external accountability. Most of all, I appreciate the exchange of information, sharing of experiences, words of encouragement, and insight into other early career scholar's lives and research. The honesty and openness of each member has made the writing group feel like a community." - Heidi Vuletich
“While I've never written a single-author paper, I often find writing to be a solitary experience. I'm a fan of the EC Writing Group for helping me to turn a lonely experience into one that advances my career while fulfilling my need to belong.” - Zachary Baker
“For me, the highlight of the ECR Writing Group has been the opportunity to get to know other ECRs over the course of the semester. We all have different areas of focus, so it’s been interesting to hear everybody’s work, and these are people who I might not normally get a chance to meet. It feels like I now have an expanded support network. They also bring a wealth of advice and perspectives.” - Angela Meadows
“I’ve really enjoyed meeting other EC researchers, and hearing their experiences and thoughts about research and writing. The writing group has also provided some much-needed structure and accountability to my summer!” - Zoë Francis
"When life gets busy work and tasks that don't have an immediate deadline get put off, and often I find what gets moved to "another" day is often my own research. By signing up to a writing group it creates a sense of accountability to show up for that time and dedicate it to your own research - you end up trying to protect that time, and although it's a short period of time, it allows you to keep working away on those projects you never have time for." - Siobhán Griffin
If you are interested in joining the SPSP EC Writing Group over the next academic year, be sure to sign up to the EC listserv on SPSPConnect and keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming updates. You can also email us (email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) if you’d like to be on the writing group mailing list or want more information.
The Writing Workshop
Related to the idea of writing groups, one resource that we have found helpful is the book, The Writing Workshop, written by Dr. Barbara Sarnecka, an Associate Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California - Irvine. This book describes how to form a writing community along with strategies for being more productive and happier in your writing. It is available for free as a PDF on OSF or can be purchased as a physical copy. The OSF page also includes templates for the various tools described in the book (e.g., writing logs, individual development plans). Today, we are highlighting two of the strategies that Dr. Sarnecka recommends: rejection parties and reverse outlining.
The idea behind a rejection party is to reframe rejections from shameful to celebratory. Rejections are part of the writing journey and everyone experiences them. In a rejection party, the writing group first chooses a target number of rejections (e.g., 100 for a group of 10 people). Each member of the writing group adds to a rejection log (see examples here) when they receive a rejection, and when the group collectively hits the target number, the group has a party. At the rejection parties that she hosts, Dr. Sarnecka makes three toasts. The first toast is a toast to yourself to celebrate the hard work you put into submitting something. The second toast is a toast to the individuals who rejected you to appreciate the time and effort they put into reviewing your work. The final toast is a toast to the person who got the thing that you wanted to celebrate the other researchers in our scientific community. Taken together, providing an opportunity to normalize and celebrate rejection as part of the writing process seems like a great way to approach writing, particularly for us early career folks.
The second strategy we are highlighting today is the idea of reverse outlining. Unlike in a traditional outline, you begin the reverse outlining process with a full draft of your paper. Once you have your full draft, you read through the paper and copy the topic sentence of each paragraph into a new document. Then you read over your new document to get a bird’s eye view of the organization of your paper. This strategy is helpful for closely examining your argument structure and whether the flow makes sense. Reverse outlining can also be a useful exercise in the classroom if you are teaching writing at the undergraduate or graduate level and there are many resources online for teaching reverse outlines. For example, if you are working with undergraduates, this handout from Allison Haas of the University of Minnesota Crookston Writing Center, can be a way to introduce the idea to students.
Being OK with a “Lack” of Productivity
As mentioned earlier, there can be a lot of stress and anxiety that can build up around writing and our writing progress (or lack thereof). There is no denying that there can be a lot of unrelenting demands on early career scientists and scholars and the demoralization or worry that you are not being “productive enough” can begin to take a serious toll.
One of our favourite pieces of advice about productivity came from an early career workshop. In this session, the panelists spent a lot of time giving advice on how to be productive, which were promptly followed by a series of questions on how to not be so lazy all the time. One panelist called us out -- can the people who were really so preoccupied and concerned about maximizing their productivity really be as lazy as they are now claiming to be? What she suggested instead is that we were not lazy, but instead so preoccupied with reaching our goals that we felt lazy whenever we weren’t moving towards them quickly enough. In these moments, we need to be kinder with ourselves. Setting smaller goals that let you feel a sense of achievement on a daily basis (e.g., crossing off our daily to-do lists) can help sustain us and highlight just how productive we are being, accepting that some things take longer than others, and perhaps identify strategies to tackle those tasks that really are getting sidelined too often without minimizing everything else you are managing to get done.
As anyone who has experienced burnout can tell you, prioritizing productivity over all else can be a recipe for disaster. Even though the work seems endless, setting strict “end of workday” cutoffs can really help you force yourself to take the breaks we need to keep ourselves energized and motivated for the next days and weeks ahead. From our personal experience, and conversation with colleagues, many people who have forced themselves to stick to a “9-5”, Monday-to-Friday work structure-or block off 1-2 days a week as “no work” days--actually say that they have seen their productivity increase rather than decrease despite spending “fewer hours” working. The reason being? Instead of beginning to feel like every day is a non-stop sea of tasks they are able to turn off and focus on something else (friends, family, hobbies). This step back from work makes them look forward to the tasks they have set up for the next day and leaves them with enough energy to tackle those tasks. So if you are looking for a sign or permission to cut back on your work hours, here it is!
More broadly, if you find yourself struggling with writing and productivity more generally, it might also be a time to take a step back and see if you should reach out for some help. This could be a chat with a friend, trusted colleague, or mentor for social support and/or practical advice. If you have been participating in a writing group, you can also try sending a message to someone in that group. We aren’t able to conquer all writing blocks by sheer will alone and sometimes we might struggle to be productive because our bodies and brains need a break or some care. It might also be a good time to look into the mental and physical health resources available at your institution or available locally or virtually.
Share your tips, tricks and tools with the SPSP community. What works for you? What is something you have wanted to try? Share your thoughts and follow the conversation on Twitter with #SPSPWrites.