Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Working & Writing to Schedule

Previously I summed up (from other summaries, mind you!) one of the latest in a long line of “productivity tips from writers/thinkers/doers” books, and left it hanging with the advice to “stick to a schedule”.

Paul Silvia wrote a nice, short book a few years back about this very thing, called How to Write a Lot. So far as I can tell, it has become somewhat of a cult classic, and for good reason. The book begins with an assault on various forms of what is essentially “excuse making” about not writing, or what Silvia calls “specious barriers to writing a lot”. Silvia isn’t particularly normative here though, and he does an admirable job of stripping so much of the moralizing and tsk-tsk’ing from the “why don’t you write?” question. It also helps that Silvia himself at least claims to not particularly enjoy writing. Intrinsically satisfying or not, Silvia tells us, writing is just part of the job; so get down to work, then get on with your life.

Silvia frames this mainly around the fundamental divide between “binge” writing and writing to schedule. The latter is good, the former to be avoided. So, “binge” writers tend to hold off writing until they can “find the time” to do it, or until they “get inspired” or “feel like it”. Nonsense to both, sez Silvia: “Instead of finding time to write, allot time to write. Prolific writers make a schedule and stick to it. It’s that simple.”(Kindle Locations 126-127). I could go on here, and Silvia has certainly got some other good nuggets here, but you should just buy the (cheap) book. [That’s not an affiliate link, by the way!]

From my vantage as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, the real problem with binge writing – putting aside the broader question of whether it is ever an effective long-run strategy – is that it simply isn’t feasible. Binges require time, and that time is increasingly allotted to me in what feel like zero-sum chunks: my binge time comes at the “expense” of someone else covering for me. However, as a so-called mid-career person with school-age kids and a working spouse, I do have some time during the working day to get scholarly work and writing done in smaller chunks….but that doesn’t seem to be happening unless I get it planned for and scheduled.

How do you shift from binge to scheduled writing? The mechanics are pretty easy, actually:

  • Set Goals and Prioritize Them
  • Make a Schedule
  • Track Your Progress [update: and report it!]
  • Reward Yourself (Treat Yo Self?)

Goals for me are fairly easy, in that I’ve got a backlog of material I constantly feel guilty about not having written or finished, but Silvia is keen on actionable and concrete goals (as are most people who talk about goals). Rather than “finally finish that dreaded dissertation-summary general-interest article that has been the monkey on your back for years”, why not: “complete the two paragraphs in the lit review that will bring your theoretical argument up-to-date with a couple of major articles in your area”? You make a list, rank it and then get down to knocking things off.

That’s the easy part. What about a schedule? How do you stay flexible week-to-week with shifting meetings and other obligations? And what do you work on once you’ve got that schedule? Good questions, I say, and precisely the ones I will turn to next! For now, though, I’m a bit over 500 words, and my goal (aha!) today was to get that done and hit publish.


Breaking the (Writer’s) Block: Getting Meta About Writing

I’ve tried to avoid the “reading about working as substitute for actually working” trap, so I chose *not* to purchase and read Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals book this past fall. Currey did a sort of meta analysis of advice and recorded practices from writers and other “creatives” (oy), trying to identify shared habit and patterns amongst them. Or, maybe he was aiming for more of a compendium, without the summarizing. Regardless, from what I surmised from the various reviews of, and reactions to, the book that I did read, Oliver Burkeman’s six point summary of the book does pretty well. He concludes:

1. Be a morning person

2. Don’t give up the day job

3. Take lots of walks

4. Stick to a schedule

5. Practise strategic substance abuse

6. Learn to work anywhere

“Giving up the day job” isn’t really an option for me, if for no other reason than the “day job” is actually supposed to be providing me time, motivation and support to work and write! So, that’s not the problem. Walking (#3). Ok, I completely agree, and already do a fair amount of that. Walk downtown to work in a coffee shop (aka the “anywhere” of #6)….don’t mind if I do! This probably ticks off the #5 box as well (if not, dedicated mypressi action at home should do the trick).

Being a morning person does seem to be common enough to be close to universal…though there are always the exceptional cases, people who write for hours, late, each night. But with kids and a “day job”, going later doesn’t seem to be sustainable in the long run. I work in the evening already and find that this is an OK time to hammer away at focused administrativ-type tasks or email. It’s not a time for exploratory work or challenging writing. Going to bed at midnight and getting up at 7 is already on the limit. However, shifting bedtime back in order to feel OK getting up earlier (say 5:45am) might be a way to get that precious hour of directed work in, before the busy-ness of the day kicks in.

I often think of getting up early and writing/working in the morning as akin to the “pay yourself first” mantra from the personal financial management literature. Do your work first, even if it’s a small amount of it, and you will feel better during the day when you do the work for others.

This leaves, #4, perhaps the most important of the conclusions: stick to a schedule.

For that, I will need another post, in which I can talk about Paul Silvia’s book, “How to Write A Lot”.

See you then!


Pants & the Steadfast vs. Hot-Swap Component

A few years back (turns out almost exactly 3, now that I look), a post on snarkmarket proposed a cool way of thinking about “stuff”, drawing a distinction between “components” that are steadfast and those that won’t really last. The talk in the post was about media devices and the danger of buying a “TV” that locked you in with some set of services or other tech stuff that might be quickly made obsolete. The plea was for a “dumb” screen instead – something that could just show a good picture, and be swapped in with whatever particular content device or source might become the new norm (Apple TV, Mac Mini, cable box, etc.). We were looking for our first flat panel display at the time (I think!) so it resonated.

Then, interesting design-y guy Frank Chimero dropped into the comments there with a reformulation and expansion of the original distinction, arguing that we should think of objects as “steadfast” vs. “hot-swap”. Steadfast, as you would expect, are things that last and can serve as the foundation for a system. Whereas hot-swap items come and go, and can be plugged in and removed “without shutting down the system”. I find it a useful way of thinking about the stuff you buy and own and how to prioritize where the money is spent on quality and utility. In terms of computing/tech stuff, for instance, Chimero thought of his external display, keyboard and mouse/trackpad as “steadfast” and a laptop as increasingly “hot-swap”. In the age of cloud storage, the App store and Dropbox, laptops can actually come and go without much bother (putting aside the issue of *cost*).

Chimero also used the example of clothing, thinking of shoes, pants, coats as steadfast and t-shirts, shirts and ties as hot-swap. I’m with Chimero on the shirts, socks and underwear as hot-swap (how could one be otherwise, really?). But this is the (micro) dilemma I currently face: are pants really steadfast or are they hot-swap? As part of my ongoing wardrobe renewal and simplification – broadly organized around what seems to get called the “capsule wardrobe” model (and likely the focus of another blog post) – I’ve settled on having a few pairs of grey chino-type trousers for work. Almost any dark shoes will work with these, as will black or dark socks as well (so I don’t have to buy tan/light socks), and any number of sweaters. There are now a number of interesting trouser options out there from a variety of these small-batch boutique-ish producers (e.g. Bonobos, Outlier), ranging from premium prices (~$100 retail) to crazy expensive. Outlier, for instance, makes some pants that would seem to be super durable and “steadfast”…but they are $240 a pair! My current candidate for the hot-swap pant is the Uniqlo “vintage”(?) chino, which can be had for $40. The Producer from Express is about the same….and can be had on eBay for anywhere in the $15-20 range. Even if they only last two years, it’s hard to not consider pants as a hot-swap component.

So, there you have the first post for 2014, and it’s about pants – albeit with a useful distinction about “components” and such. Again, though, if the point is to get some words (any words) out there, this will have to do for now!


The Cure for Writer’s Block Is Writing

Writing is, and should be, a major part of what I do as an academic. But much/most of what I write is not “consumed” nor seen by a general audience, this being comments, class blog posts and emails to students or colleagues. There is also a lot of reading that goes into the job as well, but that’s a discussion for another time (and also discussed a couple of years ago). Also lots of “thinking”…but you only really get “credit” for thinking when it results in something tangible, which usually means written.

So, my basic problem is that I haven’t been doing a sufficient amount of visible-to-the-world writing to feel good about myself as an academic/scholar/writer for the past few years. This “problem” can be dealt with in a number of different ways – for instance, by changing one’s expectations for what a “reasonable” level of output might be through a realistic assessment of one’s priorities and the external demands on one’s time – but it seems obvious that one way out of the situation is to, you know, just write more!

The cure for writer’s block, in other words, is writing.

The core problem with not writing is that, for me, it begets more not writing. I guess this is what gets called writer’s block. Or, more precisely, perhaps this is how writer’s block manifests itself as an actual mechanism for me. It is a self-reinforcing cycle whereby not “publishing” in a public place (or, a place that could be publicly accessed, even if most of the public doesn’t see or care to see) creates more internal resistance to/fear of working toward that goal. Even on this blog I run into it: I don’t post for a long time and this, in my mind, raises the “stakes” for the next post (e.g. “he doesn’t touch BB for a year and he comes back with this shit?”). Sitting for too long on my dissertation research, to take another example, without publishing directly from it only raises – in my own mind – the stakes for how “good” it must be when I, in theory, finally do publish from that research (e.g. “this crappy article is what he waited eight years to publish?!”).

From the perspective of just getting stuff written and out there, regardless of quality, this is obviously a dead end.

There is a nearly infinite amount of talk out there about writing, and I will no doubt write a bit about that here on BB (meta!). For now I’d like to bring up the classic notion of the “three drafts”, the first of which is most germane. The first draft – or, the “shitty” first draft as I have often heard it – is crucial if, for no other reason, one can’t take the other steps without it! This is, essentially, what I will try to use Bliggity Blog for in the coming year: a publicly visible, shitty first draft on many of the things occupying my mind during the day. Hopefully it won’t be too shitty (so maybe it’s like the 1.5 draft, given how much real-time editing goes on when I’m typing things up) and hopefully it will cover some issues of interest to my various constituencies.

But, behind that manifest, obvious function is a more powerful latent one as well: forcing me to just get words out there.

If writer’s block is cured by writing, I will proceed as if all writing is writing. Blogging “counts” just as much as writing emails to friends, which counts just as much as drafting an academic article, grant proposal or scholarly correspondence. My hunch(hope?) is that the not writing begets more not writing cycle can be run in reverse: writing begets writing. Putting more words down, wherever they may be put, makes it easier to put even more down, so that, up to a point, writing frequently may merely make it easier to write more! That’s the hope at least.


It’s December. Time for a Post!

With about 21 days left on the clock, why not get on the board for 2013? Yes, the last post here was December, 2012. Such high hopes I had, a year ago. And it was a great year – London happened, but didn’t turn out to be the kick in the pants I’d hoped for Bliggity Blog. Now another semester done, back here in the regular routine, albeit with added administrative duties. Still not enough writing, either. That’s where some of the hope for the blog comes in. While I obviously didn’t get to it this year, I’m still planning to use this blog as an ideabook/drafty writing place, for thoughts of all sorts, but mainly centered on a new project about handmade bike builders and the global bike industry I’ve been cooking up. I mainly need a space to draft things out, but with some kind of public accountability and, ideally (though I have no idea of how this would happen with a blog visited by 5 people most days) feedback! More on that later, though….

In fact, I’ll go a step further toward “accountability” and say this: there will definitely be one more post before the end of 2013!


Still Waters, Running Deep?

To the creaky sound of RSS readers finding new content, Bliggity Blog emerges from deep storage in the final days of 2012.


For one, as a place to hopefully get rolling with this new project on hand-made bike builders I alluded to in July. If I go that route, Bliggity Blog would become a more public (e.g. connected to me by actual name) space for draft material and posts on work-in-progress. Essentially a way to work through the project, maybe even with some feedback, rather than just collecting materials/data/information, digesting it and then going directly into writing for academic publication.

Another, more immediate, purpose for Bliggity Blog might be as a travel blog of sorts. The greater BB family departs for a semester in London in the first week of January, returning early in May. This will be a very busy four months, but I will not be teaching during this time. So, it will be a different kind of busy. I’m hoping it will be the kind of busy that might get me back to tossing up more random thoughts, reports on stuff from daily life in London, cycling style rants, academic musings, etc. I don’t really want to use the blog as a personal/family/friend photo repository, especially since I might make the blog more public in the future. But maybe the London trip and the modest amount of scholarly work I’m expected to get done during that time will get me back on BB routinely.

The one thing driving me batty in all this however, is my never-ending search for an ideal blog theme. I have tried so many damn themes, and the more I do this, the more frustrated I seem to get.

[For instance: look at this crappy thing I’m running now. Why would the blog title be in a smaller size than a blog post title? How does this make sense?]

I’ve considered switching over to squarespace, for instance, because this would give me more customization options. Paying even upwards of $90 a year doesn’t seem too crazy for your own domain and a decent, clean blog. But then I lose the massively value “bliggityblog” here on! This blog, I will have you know, somehow “attracts” around 7-13 individual viewers every day, despite being updated every 6-7 months. And you want me to take that and flush it down the toilet?! Starting from scratch?! I just might do it. But then do I stick with Bliggity Blog? If I get a new domain name, what the hell would it be?


Farewell to All That? Not Until “Drafts” is Clear!

So, it has come to this:

Big S is putting out disc versions of some higher-end road bikes next year. Quelle surprise, and now we can see if Specialized’s own gravity/market share succeeds in quickly sinking small ships like Volagi, even if they weren’t downed by Specialized’s legal power already.

No, they aren’t hydraulic. Yet. Wait until 2014, right?

Where does that leave us on here on BliggityBlog? No longer as a self-styled lone evangelist (read: I felt alone because I wasn’t bothering to dig in to other places where, no doubt, others were saying the exact same things) for hydraulic road disc brakes. No longer interested in paying that much attention to new product announcements for the unending and overwhelming tsunami of really cool but totally unnecessary bike shit that flows through the industry every week. And – dammit – most frustratingly with a couple of link-oid posts still in Drafts about disc-related road stuff. These should see the light of day: one on thinking through fork design in the new era of disc brakes (and thru-axles on road bikes; you had to have known that was coming), the other on English’s “show-stopping” NAHBS bike from last year.

The BB interest in bikes and builders has not really died, though. In fact, as vaguely referenced a while back, BB is in the process of starting (the very early parts of the process, that is) a new scholarly project on handmade bike builders. That might be the grist for another round of BliggityBlog activity in the next couple of years. By the way, that last target is not hard to achieve when one posts at the rate of once a month or so! Or we could talk about the other stuff that was supposed to be here: green/modern/innovative house design and building, the meaning of life in middle age, productivity, whatever. We’ll see.