Writing Tip 9: When you are not working, don’t

Guilt is a common experience of grad school: If you’re not working and thinking about “The Dissertation” or “The Essay” or whatever you feel like you should be. You feel guilty because your not 'working.' You think about ‘the writing’ all the time. You revise in your dreams. You worry you’re not working enough.

I used to call anything that was not my dissertation procrastination. That is, anything other than writing, was me avoiding writing. The diagnosis was obviously insane: It is impossible to work all day every day on the same thing. If you try, you’ll burn out.

Many academics pine for long stretches of uninterrupted free time to work on their projects. Time without obligations: the Summer, the Sabbatical, or the Halcyon Days of Grad School. Yet, when those times arrive, people feel wracked with the guilt of not actually working all the time.

Paul J. Silvia, in How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic WritingHow to Write a Lot systematically takes apart the fantasy that these long stretches of free time—what he calls ‘binge writing’—are a good way to get things done over the long haul.

One trick is to make writing a daily habit, another is to not work when your not working.

Writing Tip 9: When you are not working, don’t.

I sometimes dream of a 9 to 5 job, instead of the university: I would get to work; do my work; and then come home. Work would stay at work; home would stay at home. While I would love the regular salary, I think that ‘my grass is greener on the other side of the fence’ is mostly in my head. The 9 to 5 job would simply enforce a schedule with fixed periods of work and fixed home time. You can achieve the same result in other ways.

A key to happy academic work is to work when you work and stop. During DiMoWriMo, I found posting to Facebook and updating my spreadsheet of words for the day a liberating experience: After the post, I didn't feel guilty about not thinking about the book. I did other things.

Immediate distractions help: Play with the toddler, walk the dog, do the dishes, go to class, listen to a podcast, go to the gym, take a long walk, attend a party, host a party, talk to someone, write something short and publish it. These blog posts are now my liberation.

The point is not never think about the project, but rather to try not to feel guilty when you're not doing the project.

Often it is during the 'non-work time’, that I have an epiphany. It might be unconscious, and mean that the next day the words simply flow. Or, it might be conscious, and I jot a note to yourself and then get back to not working.

For example, on Sunday evening, hours after my writing day had ended, I was doing the dishes and had an epiphany about the structure for Chapter 3. I jotted some notes for the next morning and then got back to not working. Yesterday and today, I made the changes.

It can help to schedule your writing, and it can help to have a place to write. The most important part of not working when you’re not working is however a mental game: Don't feel guilty about doing other things.

Doing other things is not “Dissertation Procrastination”, unless, of course, you never do any writing because you're waiting for a long stretch of uninterrupted free time and the chance to binge.