Almost everyone agrees — and this is supported by my own many years of observation of colleagues — that the most productive scholars have regular schedules of writing a few hours every day. We binge writers can be intensely productive when we are working and can get a lot done in a short time, but over the long haul we are simply less productive than the “write every day” people. A big reason for this is that if you have been away from the writing for more than two days, you forget what you were doing and have to invest a lot of time in start up and remembering where you were. The turtle beats the hare every time. I have known this for years and “write every day” is the advice I give students, even though I have never successfully followed that advice for an extended period.
Today I figured out the other half of the problem. It isn’t just a problem with self-discipline. I actually have quite a bit of self-discipline in some areas. The problem is that when I am working, I become extremely focused and I don’t stop. I’m on sabbatical now and finally got time to overcome angst and distractions and re-engaged my work. I became so focused I lost track of time, forgot to eat, and even stayed up all night. No deadline, I just could not let go of the work. This always happens when I really engage my work: even if I have outside obligations, I do the bare minimum and return repeatedly to the work whenever I can. I sleep too little and exercise too little. After a while, other things pile up: unpaid bills, undone laundry, unwritten letters of condolence and letters of reference and article reviews, unprepared lectures, undone shopping, unplanned vacations, neglected family. Even when I’m not actually working, my mind is on my work and I’m just not attending to anything else. At some point the “rest of life” explodes and demands attention and yanks my focus away from work. And the cycle starts anew. When I’m aware of more than one thing that it is important to do, I lack focus, I’m easily distracted, and I experience anxiety and tension from being pulled in different directions.
So there’s the crux of the problem. To be a “write every day” person you also have to be able to take care of ordinary business every day, too. You have to be able to shift your attention and focus from one thing to another, to compartmentalize not only your life, but your brain and attention. I find it easier, for example, to do “mindless” activities like exercise or laundry when I’m focused on work than to do other intellectual work like prepare classes or write reviews, because they do not compete for mental attention. I wonder if people may actually differ in their innate ability to shift focus, or whether this is a skill that can be developed.
I still plan to keep trying to develop the “write every day” habit. But now I know that for it to be sustainable given my lack of a personal life assistant, I also have to have a “do some urgent tasks every day” habit, too.