Measured externally by minutes and seconds, our time each day has a hard limit. There are only 24 hours in any day.
Measured internally, by focus and energy, our time each day has a limit too. It might be more flexible, be dependent on what we are working on, or be impacted by other factors like what else is going on in our lives. But still, no-one is maintaining long-term average productivity working a 60-hour week.
Some of what takes our time is externally mandated and non-negotiable. You actually do need to be at those meetings, you actually do need to prepare for that teaching and be there to deliver it!
Some of what takes up our time seems negotiable, but really isn’t. Answering important emails, doing your share of the tea-room washing up, writing references for students… you could choose not to do them, but it just makes you an academic asshole.
And of course our work life cannot expand without cutting into our home lives, where we need 7.5-9 hours sleep (on average) and time for housework, life admin, care of ourselves and others, plus some actual fun.
But there are also tasks that are vital to our academic productivity for which we need to ‘make time’, most commonly and relevant for this blog, we need to make time for writing. Now obviously we can’t make extra seconds in the day!
Making time has three common forms.
1. Making time by swapping out something less important or valuable.
As more of us are working from home, many people have reclaimed their commuting time—time which was often of little value. Swapping commuting time for writing time is obvious and easy. However, if you used your commute to think or process, then you need to make sure you don’t lose that in your swap!
2. Making time by being more efficient.
Worker’s productivity has grown exponentially as computers make our daily tasks faster and easier. I’m about to edit a book, and a computer makes it so quick to change text around, where as a typewritten manuscript would require scissors, pins, and a full re-type! The best place to make more time is in repetitive actions: do you send the same email 15 times a day, or write similar comments on 70 student essays? Text Expander, email templates, feedback hacks or scheduling software like Calendly can give you back hours of your life. Use those hours for more creative tasks.
3. Creating the illusion of more time.
When you are bored, confused, ashamed or frustrated, it feels like time drags on forever. Take these slow moments and make them faster by having fun, doing quick easy stuff, or having a habit that makes it feel effortless. Techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, the minimum viable action, a “shitty first draft“, scheduling in rewards, planning by chatting, or having a writing routine don’t make tasks go faster necessarily, but they feel faster, and also feel more rewarding and fun. And if it’s fun and easy to write, then you are more likely to get to it more often and then it will have got done.
None of these strategies create productive time where there literally isn’t any. If you regained your commuting time but now all your kids are learning from home, then that time has already been reallocated to important, urgent work. If your full-time job (the one that pays your bills!) is challenging or has long hours, then you probably won’t have time left over where writing is easy to slot in. If your energy or brainpower is limited for health reasons, then once you have reached your limit, you are done.
There are other ways to find time too.
4. Finding time later.
Go part time. Ask for an extension. Press pause on those promotion plans.
If you regularly find that there is not in fact any time later, then sensible delaying becomes a form of wishful procrastination, so maybe use this tool with care.
5. Maybe also you need to ask for help.
Borrowing or buying other people’s time is a way of finding more time. Are you able to hire a research assistant? Are there services at your university or in your community that can carry the load for a while—perhaps paid, volunteer, or as mutual aid? As long as the other person is happy with the arrangement, there is nothing to be ashamed of in getting more support.
Anyway, like ‘just write’, “you just need to make time” is a phrase that is easy to say and a bit harder to put into practice… but also with some insider understanding, you can both “just write” and “just make some time”, and make progress on your writing goals.
How do you ‘make time’? Or do you just need to ‘take time’? Join the conversation on Twitter @ResearchInsider