Writing is central to your career and to your identity. You need a writing practice that enables you to incorporate writing into your regular activities and adapts to changes in your other responsibilities. There are 3 kinds of writing time. The one that’s easiest to find but hardest to believe will actually be worthwhile is the “short snatch”. I have created this 15 minute writing challenge to help you work out how you can use short snatches of time to build a regular habit, to complement your longer sessions, to keep your regular practice going when you get really busy, and to help you work on projects you are finding difficult.
This challenge is for anyone who is struggling to do any research and scholarly writing during teaching terms. You may be early in your career and trying to figure out how to do this. You may be mid-career or late career and have given up trying, either relegating writing to breaks and study leaves or stopping thinking of yourself as research-active altogether.
It is also useful for those who are finding some time to write but not enough to build any momentum. Maybe you write once a week, or find a day or two a few times a term. But each time you come back to your writing you have to find your way back in. You are making progress but it feels really slow. You can use the 15 minute challenge to connect those longer, but less frequent, writing sessions.
The good thing about 15 mins of #AcWri in the morning is that it gives you this ‘buzz’ that keeps you motivated throughout the day.
— Adi Afzal Ahmad (@adiafzal) November 1, 2016
I did it.
There I was, tired and a bit cranky, thinking I couldn’t do anything useful in 15 minutes (failing to follow my advice) and all for calling it a day. But I just did 15 minutes of useful work on the article, keeping it fresh in my mind.
— Kieran Fenby-Hulse (@DrKFenbyHulse) January 9, 2018
(If you have a writing practice and want to support your colleagues: The 15-minute Challenge: Providing Support For Your Colleagues)
You can write during term time.
The 15-minute/day Writing Challenge is based on evidence that even this small amount can be effective. I know you can find 15 minutes a day. The biggest problem is that you don’t think you can do anything useful with 15 minutes a day.
The challenge is an experiment. Try writing for 15 minutes every work day for a term. Don’t start in Week 1 of the academic year. That week is chaos. Week 2 or 3 is good. This is your challenge so you get to decide how long you do it for before you assess the results. I recommend at least 6 weeks. The tracking chart allows for 12.
At the end of term, look at what you were able to accomplish and make a decision about whether it is worth continuing this practice, whether you want to adapt the practice and create a new experiment for next term, or whether you now know that this model doesn’t work for you. If you’ve decided to give it more than 6 weeks, you can do a mid-term review, too.
Setting yourself up for the week
You can do this on the weekend or use your Friday or Monday 15-minute slot for this. (It contributes to moving your project forward, so it totally counts as writing.)
- Pick a writing project. (Any project. I suggest the one you most feel like working on for whatever reason.)
- Ask yourself “What does this project need to move forward?” Write down everything that comes to mind, no matter how ridiculous.
- Break down the bigger things on that list into the smallest possible pieces. (e.g. “Edit the draft” can be broken down into “Rewrite paragraph 6 on page 3 to better express …” + more statements like that)
You are going to refer to this list every day so put it in a form that makes that easy. You might stick with the same project for several weeks. You can add things to this list of needs whenever you like.
It is possible that some of what your project needs really requires more sustained attention over a longer period. One of the objectives of this challenge is to help you work out what kinds of things work in 15 minutes, even if you need multiple short sessions to finish the task. Focus on what’s possible. Challenge yourself to try some things you aren’t sure about. This is an experiment.
Pick a time of day you will write. After breakfast? After lunch? Preferably something you can do every work day.
Put the sign on the door. Sit down at your desk. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Pick something on your list. Write.
When the timer goes off, stop, even if you are mid sentence. Leave a few breadcrumbs to help you get started again: “If I could keep writing what would I do next?”
Take the sign off the door. Highlight or cross off today on your tracking sheet. Get on with your day.
I’ve created a recording with a short opening to get you focused (mostly stretching and breathing), 15 minutes of silence in which to write, and then 2 questions to wrap up before you go on to the rest of your day. You can find it in the Resources section below.
Setting goals you can achieve
Your goal in taking this challenge is to establish a practice and/or to learn how you can use short snatches of time in your writing practice. You want to find out how much you can write if you do this so you are not going to set a goal related to the product. This is all about the process. What you do is much less important than that you do it.
Set yourself up for success. You don’t want to set your goal at a level where you can fail by Week 3 of the semester. Why would you stick to your plan if you’ve already failed? You also know that setting challenging goals can give you an incentive to try harder. So you don’t want to set a goal that’s too easy.
The answer is to give your goal levels. (I first got this idea from a client and have adapted it.)
Set 3 levels for success:
- A level below which you really need to ask yourself if you are committed to your goal. (This should feel relatively easy.)
- A level that seems possible and comfortable. You are committed and doing well. There is enough slack here for bad weeks.
- A level that feels like a comfortable stretch. You will have to try a little harder but it should be achievable.
If you only set the level 3 goal, there is a good chance you will not meet it and get discouraged. That’s not motivating. If you only set the level 1 goal, you would probably feel like it wasn’t really enough. That’s not motivating either.
By identifying all 3 levels, you keep the higher level of achievement in view but recognize that it might take you some time to get there.
On the tracking sheet, there is a place to write your 3 goals. They take the form [blank] days per week + at least [blank] weeks.
You get to pick what works for you. This is your challenge. Do not bully yourself.
You can (re)start any time
If you only heard about this in Week 6 of term, that’s okay. Start now. This week is your week 1 of the challenge.
If you started with great intentions in Week 2 of term, did okay for a couple of weeks and then completely blew one week, that’s okay, too. Draw a line on your chart. And start again at week 1 of the challenge. You can reset your goals based on the new information you have about what is comfortable and what’s a stretch.
This is your challenge. Do not bully yourself.
Ask for support
One of the difficulties with writing is that it is largely invisible work, despite how important it is to your job. A secondary goal of this challenge is to make writing more visible in your department. I’ve written more about how you can do that in a supportive way and ask for the support you need to succeed with this challenge.
There is also a page with some suggestions for supporting your colleagues in case you need to point some of your colleagues in that direction so they can be more supportive.
If you want to share your progress publicly, please use #15minacwri on Twitter. Search that tag to see who else is taking the challenge, too.
- A door sign. This is particularly useful if you are writing in the office. It not only reminds people not to disturb you, it also increases the visibility of writing as a legitimate part of your work.
- A tracking sheet. Print this out to record your 3 part goal and track the days on which you do your 15 minutes.
- A timed recording with a short opening, 15 minutes of silence (during which you write), and a short closing.
- Questions to help you review your experiment.
Download the door sign & tracking sheet PDF below (right click to “Save as…”):15 Min Challenge - US Letter (492 downloads) 15 Min Challenge - A4 (741 downloads)
You can print this as 1 double-sided page, keeping track on the back of your sign, or print them separately and keep the tracking sheet near your writing stuff.
If you prefer to use your smartphone for tracking there are lots of apps out there for building new habits. My graphic designer has recommended Good Habits, which she finds simple and easy to use and meets her need to tick boxes and not break the chain! Veronica Cheplygina uses Habitica and has a post about using it with Todoist. If you have another app you like, contact me to let me know and I’ll add other recommendations to the page.
Download an MP3 “Jo On Tap Express” (right click to “Save as…”)Download Jo on Tap: Express (284 downloads)
Download The Review PDF below (right click to “Save as…”)
I’ve also created a set of questions to help you reflect on the process and decide what to do next. This is your practice. You get to tweak it however you like to make it work. Your goal is to write regularly. I hope these questions help you figure out how to make that happen.15 Minute Academic Writing Challenge Review Sheet (516 downloads)
Meeting In Progress Sign by Jo VanEvery is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.