Four years ago, during the months of July and August, Belgium suffered from a heatwave with temperatures above 35°C for weeks on end. It was so unbearably hot in my apartment (+40°C) I eventually asked my parents if I could temporarily move in with them. They lived near a park, they had a big collection of fans (A/C is not standard equipment in Belgium) and they had a spare room. I needed a cool place where I could write and finish my Ph.D. My parents immediately said yes and picked me and my computer up so I could spend the summer at their place writing my butt off.
In retrospect, I realize that my stay at Hotel Mom & Dad was nothing short of a writing retreat. I remember starting, what I coined my writing day, at the desk in my bedroom where it was the coolest, gradually moving to the living room lounge chair in the afternoon and ending in the hallway where I could feel the evening breeze best. My dad made breakfast and coffee (he makes the most amazing pot of coffee), my mom prepared lunch (usually what Belgians call a smos sandwich: bread with ham, tomatoes, lettuce and mayonnaise), and they teamed up to cook dinner (considering the high temperatures, it usually was a salad or cheese platter).
Together with these movements came a writing rhythm. I woke up at 7am, started writing at 8am, and kept going until 9pm – sometimes even until midnight. I didn’t have to worry about a thing except for getting words on paper. And I wrote a lot. At first, I drafted three-ish pages a day (on a good day, may I add), but after a while I wrote an average of ten pages a day. In two months’ time, I produced more output than I did during the first six months of my Ph.D. writing phase. I also noticed that the thicker and more closed-off my writing bubble became the stronger the content turned out to be.
Unfortunately, during my first postdoctoral year, my writing rhythm stood in stark contrast to the productivity I had gotten used to during, what I now call, my Ph.D. writing summer. Archival work, conferences, workshops, lectures and many meetings were taking my schedule hostage and I increasingly struggled with finding the time to write. On top of that, I told myself that writing in bits and pieces was not my cup of tea – no, I needed hours on end to let words flow. This all resulted in inertia during the semester months when I produced little to nothing. It also led to panic attacks and all-nighters when I had to deliver a conference paper or journal article. In the end, I always met my deadlines, but I’m sure I lost ten years of my life working with an unpredictable writing rhythm.
After each panic attack, I vaguely promised myself that I would put the summer break to good use. During July and August, I would not only make up for lost writing time, but I would take a head start for the coming academic year too. Oh, the naiveté… It took me a while to realize I didn’t have the luxury anymore to spend entire days writing for months on end, not even during my “free” summer months. I had to come up with a plan B if I wanted to produce output on a regular basis. I started asking several scholars and writers how they juggled their writing time and I went to as many writing workshops as I possibly could. After a saturation of tips and tricks, I implemented several in my daily schedule. The result is an everyday writing rhythm I am proud of. I can even say I feel a little uprooted on days I don’t write.
The first advice I took was that if you really want to write more, all you should do is sit down, turn on your computer and write. A few months ago, I made a promise to myself that I would write for at least one hour a day five days a week. To condition myself to this regiment I made myself a deal; if I didn’t keep my promise, I couldn’t have my blissful cup of coffee in the morning. I even asked a friend to hold me accountable for the days that this promise was not kept, and off I went. The first day was rather frustrating. After months of writing nothing but e-mails and post-it messages, I was somewhat struggling to find a good introduction to an academic paper. But I had made a promise and I was determined to stick to it – because I knew my crank-o-meter would explode if I couldn’t have my morning cup of coffee. So I kept writing and then noticed that after the first week, I was enjoying it an awful lot. I gladly turned on my computer and I managed to write more with each passing day.
During the first week of my writing experiment, I did get easily distracted by my e-mail and Facebook. When I didn’t immediately find the words I was looking for, I checked my inbox for new messages and social media for new posts. Evidently, my writing didn’t exactly benefit from this distraction; it slowed me down and added to the frustration. Like most millennials, I really struggled with tuning out e-mail and Facebook. Luckily, I discovered a Google Chrome extension called Simple Blocker which allows me to block websites between, say, 9am and 5pm. After installing the extension, I managed to drastically decrease the time I wasted checking messages and scrolling through Facebook. The next step was to dismantle my phone and delete all apps that compromised my productivity. My phone is an actual phone now (ok ok, it’s also a camera and GPS) and no longer interrupts my writing rhythm.
Additionally, I experimented with organizing specific time slots for both checking my e-mail and social media and for continuing my uninterrupted writing. My mornings are for communication, checking messages, replying to them, texting my family and friends back home, posting things online; my evenings are for writing. I usually start writing after I come home from the archives and I have had my afternoon treat with coffee. When I first made my writing promise to myself, I could not have foreseen that my daily writing block would become a “moment of decompression” in my day, that my writing rhythm would calm me down. Additionally, I experience my writing time as the transition between my work day and my leisure time, which was blurry at best before I started implementing a writing rhythm.
After initiating my writing promise, blocking out distractions and creating a writing rhythm, I felt the need to create a writing cocoon – a place where I could turn off the volume of the world around me and listen to the beat of my keyboard. I quickly realized that sitting at a table or desk didn’t work for me, it made me feel nervous and edgy although I have no idea why. I chose to experiment a little and try out different spots in my office, the library and my apartment. I can’t write in my office, because it’s too hot and too noisy (what is that constant rattling noise?); I can’t write at the library either, because there are too many people to stare at; I CAN write on my couch, surrounded by cushions, covered with a blanket, a glass of wine within reach. My couch is where I find my writing rhythm.
Writing every day has helped me a lot in structuring my thoughts and figuring out where exactly I want to take my research. It has enabled me to get clarity on theses and hypotheses I was formerly struggling with. Also, it has allowed me to keep better track of historiographical debates and other scholars’ work, line of thought and arguments. I have made a habit out of writing summaries or reviews of lectures, workshops and conferences I attend. I don’t let time pass. I sit down the same day, analyze the notes I frantically took, and revise or summarize what was said in my own words. The next step I intend to take is to write a review of every book I read.
The steadier the rhythm of my writing became, the less I procrastinated. A few weeks ago, I had to give a presentation during a research matinee about food and the city. My old self would have waited until the very last minute to pull the presentation together, but my new self started well in advance and worked on her presentation an hour a day for about a week. I had finished both my slides and my paper well before the research matinee took place. My timely approach allowed me to let both documents rest, pick them back up and revise them with new eyes (this is an expression my Ph.D. supervisor, Peter Scholliers, would use); it allowed me to fine-tune the structure of my talk and deepen my argument. I even found a big mistake in one of my slides that could have led to an embarrassing moment during the event. And more importantly, I stayed calm the entire time, I didn’t have to pull an all-nighter and I enjoyed the work.
Because I’m so proud of my writing promise and the output I produce (some of it is publication-worthy, some of it isn’t), I want to give an overview of tips and tricks I learned during the writing workshops I attended. Maybe they will help you create a writing rhythm too.
- If you want to write, write. Don’t find excuses, but sit down, turn on your computer and write.
- Set yourself up for success by making yourself a writing promise and finding a person to keep you accountable.
- Schedule in a daily writing block. There are 72 blocks of 20 minutes in a day. Surely, it is possible to spend three of those blocks writing. In case this approach doesn’t work for you, consider a writing residency and commit to it. However, don’t immediately rule out the daily writing blocks. It’s one of those things you should try before you know if it will work for you or not.
- Identify your distractions and block them out. If the internet distracts you, use Simple Blocker to keep you on track. If your phone distracts you, turn it off. If it’s the TV, unplug the cable.
- Create a writing cocoon, a spot where you feel comfortable and where you can be productive. For me, it’s my couch, for others it’s the library, the park, a coffee shop or their home office.
- Write about other people’s work to structure your thoughts and keep your writing going. Write summaries or reviews of lectures, workshops, conferences and books (and consider starting a blog to share them).
- Enjoy how you procrastinate less and de-stress more.
Happy writings everyone!
Illustration by Unsplash via Pexels.