I have to state from the outset that I’m not a fan of goal setting. Academic environments tend to be filled with people who are overachievers, perfectionists and, in my case, just plain obsessive. Goal-setting in this context often feeds into the craziness. For myself, I have no problem setting goals. In fact, my list is likely to reach a hundred. What is more difficult is setting goals that I can achieve within the limits of my schedule, my family life and my energy levels. So it is with caution that I am going to advocate that you set goals in relation to what you want to achieve in your writing.
The first step is to set ‘realistic’ goals. That means what you can achieve in a certain amount of time. What writing goals would you like to achieve over this semester? What goals will be possible to achieve within the constraints that surround you? You can’t work between 12pm and 4am – so cross off the last three goals. Maybe just focus on one paper. Once you have that goal then break it down into steps or sections of the paper. If the whole task is still overwhelming, then you might need smaller steps. When it becomes do-able, in your mind, the steps are small enough. So one person might break the paper into sections (Introduction, methodology, literature review) while another might break the introduction into paragraphs. Finally, you need to attach a schedule to your steps and a deadline to your goal.
Here is where goal-setting becomes really useful. Once you have set up a writing schedule that suits your personality and context (eg every second morning for two hours) and you know what you intend to do in that time (eg Week 1: draft three sections of the introduction), it is so much easier to see if you are avoiding writing. Procrastination is the need to put off doing something you have scheduled to do. If you don’t have a schedule, it is very difficult to become aware of avoidance tactics. However, once you are aware that you are avoiding writing, then it is possible to address the problem.
How do we avoid writing? If I have set aside two hours to write but I spent that time checking emails, or I arrange to meet a student, go to a meeting, or to sort my files, get coffee, etc, etc – that’s avoidance. “But”, I can hear you say, “I had to meet that student!” This is why you need goals and a schedule. If you miss your writing time once, that’s fine but if you miss it regularly then you are avoiding writing.
So, what’s happening when you avoid writing? For academics, the problem is often a cognitive one. By that I mean, there is some conceptual obstacle or difficulty. It’s hard to write the three sections of the Introduction if you don’t know where the paper is going. Sometimes we avoid writing because we don’t have a clear argument, or the literature is complex and difficult to synthesise or we’re trying to link difficult concepts and can’t build the bridge. If you are aware that you are avoiding your writing then you can ask yourself questions: Why can’t I write this? What is making it difficult? Why can’t I begin?
Another reason why we avoid writing is the emotional baggage we carry. If your internal critic tells you how stupid you are every time you write a word, of course you are going to find something else to do. If the audience you are writing to makes you shake in your boots, no wonder you prefer to sit in a meeting instead of writing.
Without being aware of avoidance behaviours, it is very difficult to address them. Once you know you are avoiding your writing, then it is easy to find some way to address that problem.
I have many strategies and activities in my book Productive Writing, if you are interested and I will be posting more on this in future blogs. But one activity, which is really successful, comes from Joan Bolker (author of Writing your dissertation in fifteen minutes a day). She suggests that you turn up to your desk at your scheduled writing time even if you have the urge to avoid it. You sit at your desk and if you can’t write, you do nothing else. You just sit there for the full 15 minutes. Don’t get distracted by emails, phone calls, etc. The idea is that you will find it impossible, frustrating, annoying to sit without doing anything and will eventually begin to work on your paper. I suggest you use the time to ask yourself why you can’t write – what are you avoiding?