by J J Cohen
Dame Eleanor Hull has a just-in-time-for-the-New-Year post about making big changes to work habits in the hope of accomplishing more. Recently I've also been tweeting back and forth with Rosemary Feal (of MLA fame) about her strategy of using social media to frame intensely concentrated bursts of work, typically in 30 minute intervals, with a check-in at the beginning and small reward at the end; she'd hastagged it #worksprint, and there's a Chronicle thread on the process here. I realized through this conversation with Rosemary that I tend to work in a similar way: focusing fairly intensely for short-ish periods as I write, then taking a brief break every 30-40 minutes to glance at Twitter or Facebook or email, maybe sending off something brief, and then back to work for about the same amount of time. Every hour or so I get up and do some small task (laundry, coffee, grab a book from upstairs, eat an orange while standing, shift to another workspace) just to ensure my muscles don't lock in place.
This process doesn't work perfectly every day, of course, but in general it's a sequence of labor and breaks that serves me well for accomplishing writing by breaking the day into smaller segments. For the larger picture, I'm an inveterate keeper of calendars that lay out my projects but cut them into accomplishable chunks. I also have a tendency to blog about these schedules: articulating publicly what is on my plate clarifies my work and my goals to myself, and makes their undertaking seem more of a commitment.
I'm fairly regimented in my work habits, so the discipline to follow through on my calendar is not, fortunately, an issue. A typical day is structure like this: up at 5 am to run; breakfast with spouse and oldest child, during which I glance at email and the news online; daughter to before school care (this buys me an hour extra in the morning, and she is happy to go); at the computer for writing by 8 am. I work intensely until about noon, writing or revising, then read something as I eat lunch (reading is actually a great break from writing). I'm mentally a bit fatigued by then so I might walk to the store to buy ingredients for dinner, then I will spend the early afternoon mostly revising, or working through essays, or both. The High Schooler arrives home around 2:45, so I try to be off the computer by then; usually from 2:30 onwards I'm doing nothing but email anyway. I walk over to pick up Kid #2 from the school yard by 3:10. On most days I try to avoid attempting any more writing or research once the kids are home. I might check email and do some business for essay collections or MEMSI, but I know that Deep Thoughts are both out of the question and unfair to the family when I am there but not there. I also get cranky when I am thinking, because it hurts my cerebellum, and I don't want to inflict that dyspepsia on my family because then they ridicule me.
I don't follow the same routine every day. On Tuesdays, for example, I generally work on campus, and on Wednesday a guitar lesson interrupts the morning. But this is generally my invariable routine. It's too rigid, I know, for many people, especially those who like the flexibility that an academic schedule yields -- but I don't like to be composing essays at 9 PM; that seems to me more curse than "flexibility." Then again, I do like to eat the same thing for breakfast every single day (cereal with almonds, blueberries, and kefir): that will tell you something about me as well. Some routines create ruts, others enable the day to progress in ways that seem to me freeing rather than constricting.
As you can see, I've been thinking about my own work habits today. It's the end of the year, after all, so it's time to make that reckoning of what I've accomplished and what needs to be done. My calendar of deadlines portions my obligations into a number of weeks (or days) that I've allotted to accomplish it; I've had to radically revise it only once this fall. At first I thought I'd spend the autumn completing everything not related to the book I'm writing -- all the essays due in the spring, all the keynotes and other presentations. I had a little bit of success but found by October that I really wanted to be working on my book. So, according to the revised calendar, I am supposed to have the drafts of my first two chapters accomplished by December's end. They are quite draft-y, but at least they are done. Somehow I also finished my Speculative Medievalisms talk, a piece for a cluster on animals for Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and the collection Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects (introduction AND editing the essays). Whew!
I'll draft chapter three of my book in January, but then I must turn my attention to a presentation for the Exemplaria symposium, an essay I'm co-writing with Stephanie Trigg for the Ecomateriality issue of postmedieval, a talk on ethics and objects for an event at which I'm speaking with Tim Morton. Right after that comes my big stint as guest scholar for IAFA in Orlando (where I believe I have promised to publicly smack China Miéville for dissing Tolkein), a gig at SAA, Kalamazoo, and then this keynote in Edinburgh.
Yes, I am going to need a very good work ethic to survive the spring ...
Thank you for posting this. Having never been able to regularly focus deeply on writing (at least not since college which was a very long time ago), I have a problem with writing papers, preparing lectures, engineering poetry. Reading your posting, I'm realizing that you have FAR more on your plate than I, and that you have much the same way of approaching it.
I hope that I can follow the same schedule successfully and overcome my focusing difficulty. I feel that I have a fellow traveler now.
And I wish I could be there to watch you "beat down" China Miéville :)
You, sir, are a phenomenon. I look forward to reading all, as always.
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