How Not to Suck When You Don’t Want to Work

“Writer’s block is another word for laziness” — Elmore Leonard.

All respect to the late, great Elmore Leonard, but dial it back a little. We all have those days. The to-do list is long, you are sleep deprived, you have put in too many consecutive 12 hour days, and there is no end in sight. You drink your coffee and open the computer, yet the blinking cursor does nothing but mock you. You have the time to write, the ideas are well outlined, and deadlines are approaching. However, your mind is blank. Meanwhile, dishes need to be done, the dog wants to play, emails continued to pile up and there are several television shows on your DVR that demand to be watched. There are other appealing options such as day drinking, inviting a friend for lunch, and the ever popular going back to bed. Yet, you say to yourself, “This is my sacred writing time. I must work on this manuscript (or grant proposal or book chapter or report). Come on words. Start flowing.” But nothing happens. Dominating your thoughts are increasing frustration, questioning your career choices, and worrying that you will never ever be able to write another word again. These are the basics of writer’s block. Sometimes you have time, ideas, motivation, and deadlines; but you just are not in the mood to work.

First, the basics. Prevention is one of the best ways to prevent holes in productivity during inevitable ebb times. Developing a habit of writing every single day creates a situation analogous to building muscle memory. So even on days that you do not feel like writing, it is still automatic to sit down at the computer and begin work. On the worst days words will begin to flow so that some semblance of productivity can be achieved. Yet, most scholars have so many activities such as meetings, administration, teaching, supervision of students, grading, budget preparation, and other professional obligations that developing a daily writing habit can be challenging. This uneven schedule puts an enormous amount of pressure to produce during those precious time periods protected and set aside for written productivity. For me, I write every day even if I can only fit 20 minutes into my schedule and produce 100 words. It keeps the habit going and words flowing.

Second, identification of the exact nature of the problem is the most important step of any problem-solving process. Putting off writing to address pressing unmet basic needs such as sleep, food, exercise, time with friends and loved ones, and other acute self-care activities is often a quality investment that will lead to improved long-term writing productivity. So do it. Moreover, there must be the self-awareness to determine if the problem is burnout or depression. These are extremely serious situations that often require significant external supports from professionals and should not be underestimated, ignored, or simply worked through. Unless burnout and depression are successfully addressed there are short and long-term career consequences; and far more importantly major ramifications for health and quality of life. Identifying other internal short-term states that take away motivation such as waves of anxiety, situational stress, unresolved conflicts, self-doubt and many other factors also interfere and need to be addressed. Once you have ruled out or addressed all of these potentially severe causes of not wanting to work, there remain some times when you just don’t feel like it.

Third, you may not be in the mood to write because deep down you know that your project is not a good one. All scientist and writers tend to be self delusional to some degree. We frequently talk ourselves into believing that our mediocre ideas are valuable ideas. Having a discussion with an honest and forthright co-author, colleague, or other knowledgeable and supportive person might help you to reconsider and revise the outline or thesis of your paper. Sometimes not being in the mood is an excellent indicator that your thinking needs to change. Easy writing usually equals high-quality thinking (or, cynically, your level of self-delusion is extraordinarily high).

Most serious writers have rituals. My preference is for the least restrictive environment. This means I simply walk up to my computer and get to it. My only slightly unusual habits are that about 75% of my writing time is at a standing desk. I use the Pomodoro system where I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes and take an enforced five-minute break no matter where I am in the writing process. This allows me to be fresh and sharp for an entire day without working to exhaustion. Frequently, I use dictation software when I am tired of being at the keyboard. Dictation software has the advantage of speed (140 wpm dictation v. 55 wpm typing), posture (I frequently dictate with my eyes closed while lying on the couch and scratching my dog), and sometimes changing up the mode of written output can be a refreshing change. When the words are still not flowing at all I have a several part ritual: 1) turn off the Wi-Fi radio [no Internet] on my computer; 2) put earphones on and listen to a metronome that is timed to my resting heartbeat [about 52 bpm]; and 3) dim or turn off the lights. These activities allow for overcoming difficulties with focus. But sometimes the problems are not about the focus, they are about avoiding aversive and difficult work.

Sometimes you don’t feel like writing because the project is especially difficult or challenging. I write all manuscripts and grants from a prepared outline with completed tables and figures. Usually this gives me a structure to write the prose in at least a semi-organized fashion during the first draft. Because of the advanced organization of the outline and detailed preliminary thinking about the paper, once I write the first word usually everything begins to flow. When it does not flow, then I go through the outline and write the topic sentence for every paragraph within each section. The next step is to write the closing sentence for each paragraph. Then supporting details can be filled in. This process is laborious and much more like unskilled labour than scientific communication or creative writing. As Henry Miller said, “On the days that you cannot create, you can work.”

Most typically I write using the ubiquitous word processing program, Word. But when I have an especially long, challenging to organize, or difficult project; or the words are simply not coming at all, I use the Scrivener program. This program has an especially easy to use corkboard function where you can move paragraphs and topics around in an intuitive manner. This replaces the less efficient note card approach. There is also an excellent outlining system that can be quite effective. When things are really difficult I switch to the full-page view that I have set up with a black background with blue lettering. Sometimes such a jarring change of perspective can loosen some creative juices.

Most experienced academics are experienced writers, if not born writers. True writers can’t not write. They are called to write as if it is an addiction and even when they are not in the mood. Most graduate students have yet to be afflicted with this addiction. Many scientists eschew writing as much as possible and delegate the tasks to science writers or graduate students. Personally, I enjoy and cultivate this addiction. My retirement goal is to become an unsuccessful novelist and garlic farmer. Despite my addiction and retirement plans there are still days that I just don’t want to write. It may be laziness. It may be Netflix calling. But I will buckle down and try to reestablish equilibrium in my role as a scholar.

Or I could work on my blog.

S. R. Shaw

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