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Reclaiming your time: laying the groundwork now

As August nears and September looms, many academics feel a rising sense of panic: there’s only a month left to WRITE ALL THE THINGS! At least, this is what we tell ourselves. There’s a common belief that it’s all but impossible to find quality time for writing, reading, or research once the fall semester hits. Teaching, meetings, grant deadlines, job applications, grading, and more pile into our schedules and claw back that precious writing and thinking time.

I’m not going to pretend that those things don’t exist. And not everyone wants to or needs to carve out writing time in the middle of the semester. But if you DO want to prioritize some time – even a tiny bit of time – for writing and research, there is one thing I know, and that is you need to schedule it now. Not on Labour Day. Not at the beginning of each week. Now.

Here’s why (we’ll get to the how in a second).

If you don’t schedule it, it won’t happen. And if you don’t put it in your schedule now, it will be forever squeezed out.

People resist putting their writing time in the calendar for lots of reasons. They might tell themselves that they’ll find 15 minutes each day. (Great, schedule it!). They might assume that all their writing will happen on evenings, weekends, and holidays. They might believe that they can’t put it in until they know every possible other time commitment for the week. And so on.

None of these are good reasons to postpone or simply not schedule your writing. Especially the last one. This is what I’ve learned after a few years of making the effort to pre-schedule writing:

  • Sometimes other commitments WILL conflict with your scheduled time.
  • When that happens, you get to make the choice: keep the writing appointment, or do the other thing.
  • Making the choice – whatever outcome you pick! – is a powerful statement. It’s active. It’s not passively letting your writing time slide away having never even made it onto the calendar.
  • When you pick the other thing, that’s ok! Instead of deleting your writing time, move it somewhere else.
  • If you absolutely can’t move it and you have to just delete it on that day, that’s ok too. At least you know exactly where that time went, and what choices you made.
Here’s how I do it:

I use iCal (synched across my work and home computers and my smartphone), which synchs with my university’s Outlook calendar. I also use a paper bullet journal. Around this time in the summer, I pull up my iCal and start putting in the following:

  • class times
  • pre-scheduled committee meetings
  • pre-scheduled meetings with research collaborators
  • volunteer committments
  • office hours
  • class prep time (usually overlapping with office hours)
  • travel (conferences, weekends away, etc)
  • any personal appointments I know about (dentist eek!)

These are pretty much the “non-negotiable” items, many of which we already know the dates for. New appointments will arise, but I don’t that let stop me from adding in the following:

  • gym
  • writing (which can include any and all research-related activities)

When I get a request for a meeting or something else that conflicts with the gym or my writing time, I have to make a choice. No, I GET to make the choice. Even if it’s not really a “choice” (i.e. the other thing is highly urgent or important), I get to consciously re-arrange my writing and gym times. And even if one of those times gets dropped in an exceptionally busy week, I can look ahead to the next week and see them already blocked into my schedule.

It can be a little scary to see your fall and even winter semester calendars start to fill up already. Maybe you have a wickedly busy semester ahead and writing has to go on the back burner. Cool. That’s your choice to make. If you do want your writing and research to find a place during the semester, I highly recommend giving it the respect it deserves with a place in the schedule.