This is an excerpt from Finding Time for your Scholarly Writing (A Short Guide) which will be published in late March 2018. Further details on the Books page. In this Short Guide I expand on the 3 types of writing time. This excerpt is from the chapter on Short Snatches of time. From the introduction to that chapter “When I say short, I mean short. I use the term “snatches” deliberately because sometimes you really are just snatching a bit of time in a very busy day. It’s a lot easier to find ten to thirty minute chunks of time than full hours or full days.”
One of the arguments against very short sessions is that you can’t do anything satisfying in such a short period of time. Shorter sessions may not be satisfying in and of themselves, but they can make those longer sessions more satisfying either by keeping you engaged with the project so you get back into flow much more quickly when you have more time available, or by moving all the fiddly, not very satisfying, parts of the project along so that you can devote your longer sessions to the more intellectually satisfying parts of the process that really benefit from more time.
Writing isn’t just generating new text. Getting your text from first draft to published involves a lot of fiddly little tasks that don’t really need long, uninterrupted sessions. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to stay focused on these tasks for a long time and you split your longer session into a series of short ones anyway. Think of short sessions as a complement to your longer sessions. The more unsatisfying tasks you can do in short snatches of time, the more satisfying your long sessions will be. Those little bits of work will add up to something significant even if any one short session doesn’t feel like much.
There is another reason your long sessions might be unsatisfying. You may only be able to find time for one longer session each week. You are so busy the rest of the week that, every time you sit down to write for that one long session, you have to remind yourself what the project is about and where you are and what you wanted to do next. You may have scheduled ninety minutes, but feel like you only really get sixty. Given that this is the only writing time you have, you get discouraged. If you aren’t able to find a long session weekly and are reliant on writing retreats between teaching terms and during reading weeks, it’s been even longer since you last looked at your project. You can feel like you are taking two steps forward and one step back.
Newton’s first law of motion (inertia) seems to apply to the non-physical world, too: It takes more energy to get a stopped project started than to keep a project moving. When your longer writing sessions are infrequent, you spend considerable energy (and time) getting back into the project, reducing the amount of time available to be in flow and advancing the project. Imagine if you got into things quickly and could spend most of your 90 minutes in flow?
Instead of thinking of short sessions in terms of how much you can get written, think about them as keeping you engaged with your project. Try adding short sessions on the other days of your working week, or adding in a fifteen minute per day habit (see previous section) between retreats. Your goal is to keep your project from grinding to a complete halt. No matter how slowly it’s moving, you want it to keep moving so you don’t have to apply that extra force to get it going again.