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#67: Writing productivity: Write more in less time

13 October 2020, by TRESS ACADEMIC 

Writing productivity is at the heart of your academic performance. If you want to be a good academic scholar, recognised by peers, and have an impact on your research field and society, being a productive writer is crucial. But how can you be a productive writer? Do you have to spend even more time at the writing desk and sacrifice some of your private life and spare time to get there? We suggest: No. There is a better way to boost your writing productivity. 

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Many academics are a bit concerned that they are not producing enough of the papers their academic environments are expecting them to write. Some of you feel burdened and stressed by the constant pressure to perform well in publishing. And some of you might be afraid of not living up to these expectations. This is a real problem, and it can affect your mental and physical health. So it’s worth having a look at it.   

1. What is writing productivity 

A lot has been said about writing productivity, what impact it has on academic careers, and the different ways you can achieve it. Instead of repeating the diverse views here, we’d like to refer you to the exemplary contributions from Boice 1990, Boice 1997, Johnson & Mullen 2007, Martin 2009, Nygaard 2017, or Gray 2020. For this article, we would like to approach writing productivity as a pragmatic concept that you can apply in your daily routine as a researcher. 

Let’s first get a quick understanding of what we mean by writing productivity. Productivity has many diverse facets as Tangen (2005) perfectly illustrated. We use it here in reference to the things that get done by somebody. Productivity is the output achieved by doing something. It is closely related to the concepts of efficiency and effectiveness (Roghanian et al. 2012). For us, efficiency means doing things in the right way to get them done properly. And effectiveness means doing the right things from the start to achieve a good outcome. All together, productivity is the sum of effectiveness and efficiency. 

You’re a productive writer when you write and publish the publications needed for your academic career and for your life to be satisfying and enriching. That means you consciously choose which publications to produce, and that you have realistic plans regarding how you write them and get them published. It’s not about having more and more publications, or even as many as possible, but writing the necessary papers and books, which display your research and further your career. 

2. How to NOT increase your writing productivity

It is very tempting to approach writing productivity with the ‘more is better” paradigm. The more you write, the better you are, the more productive you are, and the more important and better scientist you must be. No! 

This is not a helpful and healthy way to look at writing productivity. Being a productive writer does not mean simply adding up quantities. It does not mean that when you write very efficiently and you save time that you use the gained time for writing even more. Although it might be a big benefit to do the writing task in a shorter time and use this gained time to write the next paper right then. This way, you would write more papers than a less efficient colleague – at least in the short run. 

But this, dear friend, is a dangerous trap. By saving time on writing paper A, you gain a bit of time that you can spend to write paper B. And if you are even more efficient, you probably have extra time left to write paper C … and D, E and so on. Is this what you’re longing for? Being a superhuman? Super-efficient and reinvesting every minute of your time in another piece of work? Be careful, this understanding of writing productivity will—in the long-run—be the beginning of you entering the academic writer’s hamster wheel. 

You can always optimise your writing, save a few more minutes here and there, and with the time gained, do even more. But you cannot win this race. There is always more that could be done, and at the end of the day, you face a simple reality: Not only your time but also your energy to produce is limited. 

Writing productivity is about investing both your time and your energy into the writing projects that matter! 

3. How you can improve your writing productivity 

Our approach to academic writing productivity is inspired by Michael Hyatt and his understanding of productivity in his book “Free to Focus” (2019). He suggests that productivity is not about getting more things done, but getting the right things done in a way that leads to satisfaction and accomplishment. It leaves energy to spare. 

If we adapt his concept to the academic environment, writing productivity means you produce the texts that are necessary to achieve your goals and perform well, but writing should not eat up all your time. It should not increase the pressure on your time. It should not create more burden on your everyday researcher’s life. Then you will not have gained anything. The gained productivity would destroy what it is looking for: gaining freedom. 

For us, you are productive in your writing if you manage to write what you need in less time. As a result, you will have fulfilled your writing goals and gained extra time which can be used to recover, recreate, or spend on something you like. 

The two important variables in achieving writing productivity are time and energy. It doesn’t help if you try to squeeze time. Time is a fixed variable. There is only a certain amount of time available, per day, per week, per month. Also as a super-human, you’ve got only 24 h available per day. Even if you’re super efficient, it won’t increase. 

The second variable is different: Energy is flexible. Energy levels can change and vary during days and weeks. But you need energy to write your paper – without energy, you can spend a huge amount of time on writing, but it won’t result in a good paper. 

Since time is fixed, we need to take extra care of our energy levels available for writing. If you’ve spent all your energy already on other tasks, you’ve got nothing left to achieve writing productivity. 

We follow Hyatt (2019) and adopt his productivity approach to academic writing and suggest three steps that you should perform: 

STEP 1: Stop for a moment and think about how you approach writing. Are you trying to manipulate time and find some corners in your calendar where you could still squeeze in a writing session? Are you overloading your calendar with so many tasks that you already know will be a very tight fit if it works out, but it might be even more difficult if things take longer than you had planned? How does writing currently appear on your daily, weekly or monthly map?

We suggest three actions in step 1: 

  1. Formulate a good productivity outcome for yourself in writing, and determine the purpose of writing productivity for you in your academic and private life. How much time and how much energy are you willing to spend on writing? Which outcome do you want to achieve and why? To answer these questions, have a look at our post #38, it’s about setting up a publishing strategy and you can download a free worksheet to set up your strategy
  2. Now, evaluate which publications are you aiming for. Which ones are needed, and bring you further academically? Which ones are not particularly beneficial for you, but you may need to complete these to do somebody else a favour? Try to set-up your publishing strategy now to clarify and write down what matters to you. It’s like your publication compass pointing you in the proper direction. 
  3. You thought about the time you want to spend, you thought about the outcome that you would like, now it’s time to think about how to get and keep an energy level that allows you to achieve this. How can you rejuvenate your mind and body? It is not realistic to assume you can always put another task on your to-do list. You need to make sure you get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, socialise with other people, do the things you love to do and have fun with it, and that you leave some time to reflect on what you are doing and why. These are all activities where you recharge your energy. Cutting them is cutting your energy level and directly decreasing your writing productivity. 

STEP 2: Cut all activities that won’t bring you closer to your goal. If your time is fixed and your energy, while flexible, is limited as well, you need to prioritize. Saying ‘yes’ to everything will not make you a happy person, and it will not make you a productive writer. You’ll have to determine which tasks in your academic life to give less priority or drop entirely. What are the tasks that take up an enormous amount of your time and energy, but you either don’t enjoy performing or don’t bring you closer to your goals? Is it necessary that YOU do them, or is there somebody else who could do it? 

Think about writing a paper: You don’t have to do all the writing steps yourself. You probably have co-authors–some of them might even be far better at writing one specific part than you are. Delegate the task to them and get it off your list. 

Cut out all nonessential writing and other tasks to free you from an overload of tasks and responsibilities. We know that sounds tricky, but that’s an important step you need to take: Cut down your to-do list! You need this freedom to recuperate, and you don’t need to fill the space with new tasks. With the gained energy from rejuvenation, you can perform the kept writing tasks far better. 

STEP 3: Act! In this step, you have to execute what you decided in the previous two steps. Writing more in less time is not so much a question of being a gifted or talented academic who is also a brilliant writer. Not every bright-minded researcher is necessarily a good and productive writer. But you can learn to be such a writer – it simply requires training and discipline. 

The actions needed in step 3 follow the decisions you made before: 

  • What are the important writing outputs that you want to produce?
  • What tasks will you drop or delegate? 
  • How will you keep up your energy level? 

Actions you need to take now: 

  • Plan your writing tasks in your calendar and give them the time and the energy they need. 
  • Start planning your important tasks and outcomes first–not the ones you know take longest. 
  • Plan your most important tasks for when your energy level is highest. 
  • Create your ideal weekly schedule that allows you to best produce the outcomes and achieve the goals that you want. 
  • Start your day by working on your most important tasks. 
  • Schedule the tasks, i.e. give them a start and an ending time. 
  • Also schedule time to rejuvenate and recharge your energy. 
  • For one week, plan 3 big goals or outcomes you want to achieve, not more. 
  • Review these goals at the end of the week. 

4. Conclusion

We sometimes think we can write more if we just spend more time on it! In the long-term this isn’t going to work. Your time is fixed, you cannot make more time. If you just add more writing time, something else has to pay for it, and you will cut the time you spend on it or drop it entirely. Unfortunately, in academia, the tasks we often cut are the one’s where we rejuvenate and recharge. Cutting self-care doesn’t ever make you a more productive writer. 

You need to allocate your energy in a way that gives the best output–this is how you boost your productivity in writing. Whether it is a daily writing schedule, or adopting a more flexible session schedule (see also Sword 2016 for more ideas),  it is up to you. You can play with the way you spend the time, but you cannot play with the energy you need to fill the time meaningfully.  

If you want more help becoming a productive academic writer, sign-up for our Paper Writing Academy, where we will introduce you to the complete system of productive paper writing. Looking forward to seeing you inside Paper Writing Academy!  

Relevant resources: 

  • Blog post #38: Why you need a publishing strategy
  • Free worksheet “My publishing strategy” 
  • Boice, R., 1985. The Neglected Third Factor in Writing: Productivity. College Composition and Communication. Vol. 36, No. 4, 472-480. DOI: 10.2307/357866.
  • Boice, R. 1990. Professors as writers: A self-help guide to productive writing. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.
  • Boice, R., Strategies for enhancing scholarly productivity. In: Moxley, J.M. & Taylor, T. 1997. (eds.) Publishing for academic authors. 2nd ed. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 19-34. 
  • Gray, J. 2020. Publish & Flourish: Become a Prolific Scholar, 15th ed. Las Cruces, NM: Teaching Academy, New Mexico State University.
  • Hyatt, M. 2019. Free to Focus. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books. 
  • Johnson, W.B. & Mullen, C.A. 2007. Write to the Top! How to Become a Prolific Academic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Michael Hyatt & Company, https://michaelhyatt.com 
  • Martin, B. 2009. Research productivity: some paths less travelled. Australian Universities’ Review 51 (1), 14-20. 
  • Nygaard, L.P. 2017. Publishing and perishing: an academic literacies framework for investigating research productivity. Studies in Higher Education 42 (3), 519-532. https://doi.org/10.1080/03075079.2015.1058351 
  • Roghanian, P., Rasli, A., Gheysari, H. 2012. Productivity Through Effectiveness and Efficiency in the Banking Industry.  Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences 40, 550-556. 
  • Sword, H. 2016. ‘Write every day!’: a mantra dismantled, International Journal for Academic Development, 21:4, 312-322, DOI: 10.1080/1360144X.2016.1210153.
  • Tangen, S. 2005. Demystifying productivity and performance. International Journal of Productivity and Performance Management, 54 (1), 34-46. 

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