Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Dear Macbeth,

Nothing. We all do this. We want so desperately to be done with a project (or a definitive section of one) that we set a “strict!” deadline that we’ve convinced ourselves is reasonable. When we fail to meet said deadline, we blame our own work ethic rather than the real culprit: an ill-thought-out deadline. Why do we do this repeatedly? Because admitting the actual number of work hours that it would take to reach the finish line might be so daunting as to prevent us from even starting the task in the first place.

So, “I can finish this in a weekend” (when “this” is actually three months’ worth of work) is a really common motivational fib we tell ourselves to get going. The good news: You did get closer to finishing than you were before you started those three to four good workdays.

The other good news: This process doesn’t have to be your own personal Sisyphean boulder. There is a way to figure out a reasonable, pragmatic estimate of the writing hours ahead of you. Here’s my five-step formula:

  • Step 1: Estimate how many total words you expect to write. Let’s say you are trying to finish a 7,500-word chapter.
  • Step 2: Then time how many minutes it takes you to draft 300 words. For our purposes here, I’ll assume it takes you 45 minutes.
  • Step 3: Divide the project’s rough word count (7,500) by 300. That means to finish this chapter, you’re going to need 25 chunks of time.
  • Step 4: Multiply 25 (chunks of time) by 45 (the number of minutes it takes you to write 300 words). Result: It’s going to take you 1,125 minutes to write the chapter.
  • Step 5: To give yourself a cushion (i.e., account for magical thinking), multiply 1,125 minutes by a factor of 1.75, for a total of roughly 1,969 minutes, or nearly 33 hours of writing time.

What you now have is a reliable assessment of your completion time. In our hypothetical, that 33 hours of work could be accomplished in three to four weeks, writing an hour or two a day, five days a week. Of course this exercise also involves you thinking — realistically! — about how many hours and days a week you can devote to this particular project. Maybe you can only dedicate two days a week. Writing two hours a day, twice a week, means you’ll be done in about eight weeks with this chapter.

If you’re like me and all of this math has given you a headache, take a breath. It’s going to be OK. Math may not be your strong suit, but do this exercise and you will have a practical timeline for finishing — based on your actual work habits and time available, rather than on wishful thinking.

Question: Do you have any tricks for conquering the dreaded blank page at the very beginning of a project?

Blanking On a Pseudonym

Dear Blank,

Why yes. Yes, I do have a few tricks on this front. In fact, I have three:

Email yourself a prompt, not unlike one you’d give your students. “Why is this interesting to you?” or something similar. Then set a timer for 10 minutes and respond to your own email message — quickly and without thinking about it too much. Once that second email hits your inbox, paste a copy of your response into a heretofore blank document. Voila, you’re no longer starting, you’re editing.

Take a dictation walk. That is, as you walk, dictate three minutes of random thoughts about your work into your phone. Everyone talks into earbuds all day now, so you won’t look weird. When you get back to your laptop, transcribe your note-to-self, and then copy and paste it into a blank document. Again, you’re on your way.

Trick yourself with an old draft. If you’re the kind of person who simply can’t stomach a blank screen, open up a document that’s already at an advanced stage. Scroll down and insert a little bracketed phrase to mark a new section (“NEW RANDOM CONTENT HERE”). Then free-write about your newest topic for 200-ish words. Eventually, you guessed it, copy and paste what you’ve written into a fresh document, as above.

For all three methods, the key is to circumvent the blank page rather than face it head-on. The irony is that, in avoiding it, you are facing it head-on — and conquering it.

Question: For a long time I loathed my own scholarship. Thankfully, after a lot of consistent work and soul-searching, it no longer makes me cry or procrastinate. Progress! I’m proud of myself. But now it’s a new year and I’m wondering if I can maybe take it one step further: Is it possible for me to start … liking my scholarship? How?

Yours truly,
I like it, but do I like-like it?

Dear Like Actually,

It’s unfortunate how often academics seem to fall into two camps when it comes to their scholarship. There’s the “I want to set my own work on fire” crew versus the “I love the sound of my own voice so much I didn’t notice you’d fallen asleep an hour ago” folks. We need more of us to occupy a middle ground: some sort of beautiful golden mean where we realize that what we’re working on is fun, but we’re also self-aware enough to understand that it’s not (and we’re not) God’s gift to the world.

My tip to help you reach that middle-ground nirvana: With every Big Argument in your work, imagine you’re teaching the topic to a classroom filled with slightly reticent but well-meaning advanced honors undergrads. It is your job to win them over. Why is the topic cool? How can you blow their developing minds with your insights?

For every chapter or section you write, come up with the very bare skeleton of a lesson plan about it. When you’re on a walk or a run (or otherwise spacing out), imagine yourself at the front of a classroom, working to ignite students about this particular argument.

I find that when I work to convince students about the intellectual value of some idea, I invariably convince myself as well that whatever we’re working on (even if it’s required content that I didn’t choose to teach) is the single most fascinating thing I’ve ever encountered.

You may do that already if you teach undergrads (and you probably do). Now it’s time to apply the same tactic to appreciate the value and interest of your own scholarship.