In his research on scheduling, the author of Deep Work, Dr Cal Newport, finds that in an age of distraction, it’s not the frequency of work that leads to productivity and satisfaction but the depth and level of concentration we are able to achieve.
However, much of the productivity advice given to academic authors is still based on research conducted by psychologist Robert Boice in the 1990s. Boice’s central mantra was that academics should ‘write daily’ and he linked lack of career progression and even depression with methods such as ‘binge writing’.
Of course, this type of advice can be useful, but it’s also very rigid. It says there are certain things you should do (and should never do) to be productive and implies that if, for whatever reason, you can’t do those things – you’ve ‘failed’.
Over the last year, we have surveyed 593 academics to investigate how scholarly authors approach their writing and publishing at different stages of their careers. Our research finds that whilst there might be best practice to follow, there are no set rules. It’s far more important for the individual to build a personal system that suits them and their career stage. Here’s a quick snapshot of some headline findings:
- Time-blocking is linked to high productivity
“I find writing easy. I carve out 3 or 4 days for writing every month. I know some people say you should write every day but that doesn’t suit me.”
The most productive scholars are those who block out time to write across a week or a month and schedule their writing time in those sessions.
Academics are most likely to start using this method as they approach mid-career and are least likely to use it at the beginning of their career – perhaps when career pressures and daily interruptions aren’t as high.
The research indicates that time blocking works for authors because it helps scholars compartmentalize their time and so be more prepared when a writing session is due.
2. Writing daily is linked to high satisfaction
“Writing is when I’m at my happiest – it’s where I get my creativity.”
The study finds that scholars who write a little every day report feeling significantly more satisfied with their writing process overall than those who use other methods – but that doesn’t mean they’re more productive.
In fact, we find that daily writers are less productive over the course of a career than those who use the time-blocking technique.
This finding contradicts much of the research in this field which suggests that daily writing is the ‘gold standard’ of writing productivity – research that has informed writing programmes, seminars and courses across the world.
3. Writing on sabbatical is linked to both dissatisfaction and low productivity
“I’m paralysed by procrastination, especially in the face of large blocks of time. I play ‘chicken’ with deadlines. I have some but not enough strategies to mitigate this.”
The academics who say that they predominantly write in long stretches of time – such as on holiday or on sabbatical – are by far the least productive and satisfied.
These academics were also more likely to be held back from writing by barriers such as ‘constant distractions and interruptions’, ‘family commitments’ and ‘workload’.
Perhaps these individuals might want to dedicate long blocks of time to their research but have unrealistic expectations as to what they can achieve? Alternatively, they might face work burnout prepping for time out of the office.
4. Book writing is linked to high satisfaction
“I don’t really consider writing journal articles writing. For me, book writing is a labour of love – the university doesn’t care.”
It will come as no great surprise that academics write more journal articles, conference papers and grant applications than anything else over the course of a career.
However, the research indicates that academics feel fairly neutral about these forms of writing – perhaps just seeing them as a necessary and therefore tolerable part of the job.
The study finds high levels of satisfaction linked to writing books, monographs, book reviews and book chapters.
In addition, as careers develop, we find a swing towards writing long-form pieces. As might be expected, in late career grant report writing declines but interestingly, creative writing increases significantly.
5. Age and experience are not necessarily linked to satisfaction or productivity
“I am retired and can choose what and when to write. But this freedom reduces my output considerably and causes me stress.”
“As a new faculty member (just starting my second year), I’m really pleased that I’ve incorporated research into my schedule throughout the semester.”
Although we found that in general, academics experience the lowest levels of satisfaction at the beginning of a career and the highest at the end, the data suggests a range of factors are at work.
Just because an academic has more experience doesn’t mean they’re better able to cope with the stresses and strains of academic life and just because an academic has limited experience doesn’t mean they’re less well equipped. There are young scholars who are both happy and productive and old masters who are miserable and blocked.
The research points to just one dependent factor in this regard:
6. Academic authors are both more satisfied and more productive once they have found a writing system that works for them
“My schedule works most of the time – although it will always remain a balancing act between writing time and time for other tasks (some of which are ‘shiny things’ :-)”
“My system works for me and also brings some sanity into my life. A couple of hours where I can just focus on my writing.”
We found that the academics who considered themselves to have a writing system of some kind were far better able to cope with barriers and blocks of an academic writing life.
We call a writing ‘system’ the combination of personal tactics, routines and habits that academic authors have developed to help them get down to work.
We found that when an academic has a writing system – even a very simple one –, they’re more productive, more satisfied and feel under dramatically less pressure to write.
Practice makes perfect
The key to doing anything well is doing more of it. Studies find that whether you’re conducting scientific research, learning a musical instrument or improving your golf swing, practice (and especially deliberate practice) makes perfect.
The world isn’t short of academic journals and scholarly articles that’s true, but it is always in need of radical new concepts and breakthrough ideas that comes through deep, concentrated work.
For us, academic productivity isn’t about producing more papers for the sake of it. It’s about producing more with a view to improving quality and finding excellence.
And that’s what publishers, institutions, educators – all of us – should be interested in.