Writing Tip 2: Do one task a day

Inspired by DiMoWriMo, this is my second blog post in a series about making academic writing a habit.

I got a lot of work done in January by doing one task a day. Writing a book is not “one” task, it is the result of hundreds of smaller tasks. When I thought about the book as a whole, I got quickly lost in what Jessica Abel calls the dark forest. By concentrating on doing just one thing to move the book forward and then stopping, I was able to come back to writing with renewed energy every day.

Writing Tip 2: Do one task a day.

By 'one task,' I mean completing just one of the steps to finish a piece of writing. For example, I might draft 750 bad words on one morning, and on the next, revise them into 500 good enough words. Drafting is one task for one day, and revising is another task for another day. Whenever I tried to draft and revise on the same day, the law of diminishing returns kicked in quickly.

Make the ‘task' something you can achieve in the time you have available: On most days, for me, this meant about three or four hours of writing. On a busy day, I might only have had half an hour.

Depending on where you are in the project, your tasks might be diverse: planning a chapter, outlining a section, editing a bibliography, fixing up some footnotes, reading an article, adding a handful of sentences to a literature review, compiling field notes on a topic, commenting on a draft, revising an abstract, or going to the library to find some books.

Whatever the project is, break it down into manageable chunks and don't try and do too much. Stop while the going is good. If you don't finish a task, there is no harm in doing it two days in a row.

We all have lots to do, of course. So, I often do another task on another project after a break. This blog post is a case in point. So too were the jobs I applied for in January.

The premise of Wendy Belcher's Writing a Journal Article in Twelve Weeks hinges on the idea of breaking a big project into lots of small tasks and doing them one by one. David Allan's Getting Things Done makes the same point.

Tomorrow’s tip: Decide what you’re doing tomorrow, today.