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.
The research day is a full day each week kept clear of teaching and meetings. The advantage of this way of thinking is that it makes a clear temporal boundary between different responsibilities and sets an external guide for what the balance between those different work responsibilities should be. Setting aside your other responsibilities for a day enables you to focus more fully on your research and writing, reducing the cognitive load taken up by the juggling itself.
If this is not a feature of your own institutional culture, and you don’t have this much flexibility around your teaching schedule, you can skip this section. There are other ways to incorporate full days devoted to writing into your workload.
If the research day is a feature of how your department talks about workload and timetabling, and you don’t have strong evidence that full days are not effective for you, I recommend trying to make them work. To work well, you will need to put considerable effort into establishing and maintaining the boundary between research and all your other work.
You have a lot of other responsibilities and it is objectively difficult to get them all done in a reasonable amount of time. You will need to make difficult decisions about how much time to allocate to teaching preparation, grading, committee preparation, and other work and make tough decisions about the standard to which you do your other work. Be kind to yourself as you do this. Remember that your research and writing are part of your job even if the outputs and outcomes are not as immediate. The arguments you have with your own gremlins will be much more frequent and difficult than any you may need to have with colleagues.
If you find it difficult to make the research day work without feeling like you are underperforming in other areas, you don’t need to take one weekly. Your goal is not only to do more writing, but to feel good about how you manage your writing time. Perhaps taking a full research day every second week would be feasible. Alternatively, you can identify weeks in which other responsibilities will be particularly heavy and plan ahead to forego your full research day in those weeks.
Setting yourself up the day before
Take some time during the working day before your research day to make the transition. The biggest threat to your research day is your other work. The objective of your transitional practice is to calm the anxiety that you are forgetting important things and remind yourself that there is a balance to be struck between your various responsibilities.
Take a moment to reflect on what you have been doing since your last research day. Set a timer for a minute or two, and make a list. Acknowledge how much effort and time you devoted to those responsibilities. Allow yourself to be pleased with what you’ve accomplished.
Now turn to your to-do list. Prioritize the tasks on this list. Make sure you are ready for those things scheduled for the day after your research day. If you do this earlier in the day, you can do the urgent tasks in the time remaining before you finish work. You may find it beneficial to turn on your out of office reply: “[Day] is my research day. I will address your email during normal working hours on [next working day]. Thank you for your patience.”
Make a plan for when you will get to the other items, perhaps blocking time in your calendar. Also block time on the next working day after your research day to triage any email backlog. You might even consider writing a note to yourself, to read on the morning after your research day as a reminder of your priorities. If you do your research somewhere else, tidy your desk and make it ready for the next time you come in, with your note to yourself prominently placed.
Make the space where you write inviting for your research day. Tidy away the papers that are related to your other work. Put them in folders in a drawer. Or in a storage container in a corner of the room or whatever. Take out the papers and books you will need. Put your writing to-do list in a prime spot on your desk. If you have a dedicated space you can do this at the end of your research day for the next research day.
Continuity between research days
It will be easier to devote your day to research if it is clear where to start when you sit down in the morning. The best time to decide that is at the end of the previous session. You can’t do more than four to six hours of really intensive writing work in a day, so it’s easy to block some time at the end of your research day to review and plan.
Start by noting how your project has moved forward. Don’t restrict yourself to word counts, which may or may not be a valid measure of progress. Consider more qualitative and abstract indications of progress. Depending where you are in the scholarly writing process, those indications may relate primarily to your own understanding of the scope and depth of the project, or they may relate to how well you are communicating your ideas to your future reader.
Then list what your project needs now. Some of those needs won’t look like writing. For example, you may need to read more to improve that one section. Anything that moves your project forward counts. List whatever comes to mind. Leave the list with the project so when you come back to it, you can look at the list, and pick a thing to do. Since your project needs everything on the list, you don’t need to decide now, you can pick the one you most want to do the next time you sit down as a place to start. You might write Future You a short note about what you’ve been thinking and where you think this needs to go next. Your objective here is to give yourself a way back into the headspace you were in while writing.
If you use this physical space for other kinds of work, tidy away your research materials and get out the things you need for your next working day as a way of marking the end of your research day and setting yourself up for your other work. If this is a dedicated space, tidy the space to make it welcoming for your next writing session.
You may find that ten or fifteen minutes per day between research days makes it easier to get back into your writing and makes your research day even more effective. (Another section of the book goes into this complementary practice in more detail.)
The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide) the first book in the Short Guides series
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan for more on the planning process
Using all 3 types of writing time for more on how full days relate to other kinds of time you might have available