I am writing this part way through November. A few years ago Charlotte Frost and her team at PhDtoPublished got the bright idea to make an academic version of #NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and call it #AcWriMo. PhDtoPublished is geared to early career researchers and particularly those still in the late stages of a Phd. For those of you who are further on in your careers, even to the stage of having some kind of academic job, the fact that this challenge happens in November makes it even more challenging. That said, a group challenge can be a good way to motivate yourself to do something you want to do anyway.
The benefits of a group challenge
The benefit of taking part in a challenge is precisely that community aspect. Other people doing the same thing you are doing helps keep you motivated. Someone else has come up with ways to check in about your progress. You are part of a community even if you don’t know these other people at all. You also get to meet new people who you might go on to self-organize short term challenges or #writingsprint sessions with. The energy of the large group also affects you, hopefully positively. Encouragement or inspiration can be powerful motivators.
If this is your experience of the #AcWriMo challenge, carry on. You may want to read the rest of the post in case it enables you to help your friends and colleagues who are not having such a good experience, but you can also just stop reading and go write.
The drawbacks: or, there’s nothing wrong with you if that’s not your experience
That community aspect is not without it’s drawbacks. Feeling like a failure is not motivating. In fact, it is demotivating, making it even harder for you to do the thing you want to do. Unfortunately, being part of a community that is checking in regularly offers lots of opportunities for your gremlins to start telling you that you are a failure. You may feel like a failure because you aren’t meeting the targets you have set yourself, or because you aren’t writing as much as other people seem to be, or because the work you are doing to move your writing project forward doesn’t really look like the kind of writing other people are doing. None of these things mean you can’t develop a writing practice that works for you. None of these things means you can’t be a successful academic.
If taking part in the challenge is making you feel bad about yourself, you need to change something. Either you need to disengage with the challenge altogether (including muting the hashtag in Twitter) or you need to change your approach to the challenge. There is nothing wrong with you. What works for other people doesn’t necessarily work for you. You may have just learned that this kind of challenge is not a good way for you to develop better writing habits. Or, you may have learned that you need to adjust the nature of the challenge to fit you.
Making the challenge work for you
There are no #AcWriMo police. If you choose to take the challenge is it your challenge. You get to decide why you are doing it, what you want to achieve, and the best way for you to go about it. In that sense, it’s a bit like taking a yoga class rather than practicing at home alone. You get the benefit of community and a framework that someone else has worked out for you. But it is still your practice. And you get to modify how you engage with that framework to suit your strengths, avoid your pain points, and so on.
What is challenging for you may not be challenging for someone else. You have no idea where those other people are starting from or what else they are juggling. If you are teaching a heavy load, have a big pile of student work to mark, and your kid just came down with whatever illness is going around, it may be a challenge to write at all. Comparing yourself to the childless person on sabbatical or a PhD student is not valid. Their context, and what’s challenging for them, is completely different.
The overall goal with any challenge like #AcWriMo is to establish or improve your writing practice in a sustainable way. As an academic you need to be writing all the time. And whether you are teaching this November or not, if you have or plan on having an academic career, relying on a big burst of productivity in November is not a good idea. It’s a really crappy month for academics. You want to use the community aspect of the challenge to help you establish a habit that you can continue once the challenge itself is over.
What helps build a sustainable practice? Feeling like a success. Not pushing all your other responsibilities aside so you end up on catch-up mode once the challenge is over. In other words, you don’t want your success with the writing challenge to be tainted with feeling like you could only do it by being a failure in some other part of your life. That, too, is demotivating.
Setting achievable goals that are still a challenge
Set yourself up for success. You don’t want to set your goal at a level where you can fail before the end of the first week. Why would you stick to your plan if you’ve already failed? You do want it to be a challenge though. So you don’t want to make your goal so easy you’ll feel like you only met it because you didn’t really challenge yourself. You also need to build in some slack, because stuff will come up, especially in November.
One approach 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 challenging but possible and comfortable. You are committed and doing well. There is enough slack here for bad weeks.
- A level that feels like more of a 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.
All of these levels should be set in relation to where you are now and what you know about your abilities. Do not set them in comparison to someone else. You can be inspired by someone else but you only ever see their highlight reel. You don’t know enough about the context that supports their practice to use their practice as a goal for your own. Identify the important elements of their practice that you would like more of in your practice and then work out how you might build those elements in in a way that works for you and your context.
Enjoy your writing!
The 15 minute/day Academic Writing Challenge (one option for your #AcWriMo challenge)
Juggling 101: Elements of a good plan (for more thoughts on fitting writing into an already busy schedule)