-guest post by Paul Silvia, author of How to Write a Lot
Today is the last day of the semester. For me, this is a time of reflection, of remembrance, of muttering under my breath like an under-caffeinated madman who has found the end of his rope and hopes to menace the nearest grade-grubbing undergraduate with it. But each end is a beginning, and for academics the end of the spring semester heralds the beginning of that glorious, shining time—summer.
Professors and grad students talk about the summer with an eschatological fervor. When the last and final things have been graded, when the students have retreated to the beer-and-vomit encrusted hovels they came from, then real writing can begin. Phew. Now we can start (or finish) that article, book, thesis, dissertation, or grant. Finally.
Yearning for summer is bad. Academics look forward to summer writing time like pre-teens look forward to vampire novels: the anticipation is intense but the result is disappointing. The summer has grim demands of its own. There are windows to paint, minivans to clean, and dogs to bathe—writing isn’t the only thing that we’re good at putting off. The juice-boxes, animal crackers, and Mapquest printouts and won’t clean themselves from my Toyota Sienna, despite my months of patiently waiting for them to do so. (I’ll give them a few more months—there’s no need to be pushy.)
And our bad habits and counterproductive mindsets don’t change when the semester ends. The academic lifestyle lends itself to booms and binges followed by busts and burnout. We write little during the semester and then crank it all out in hypomanic binges during the weekends and breaks. If we treat the summer as a chance to binge, then we are perpetuating the binge-and-burnout cycle. We might get a lot done over the summer, but then the semester starts, so we wait for the Christmas break, and then for Spring Break, and then it is summer again.
I suggest a simple alternative, one so straightforward that it sounds alarming: we can choose times for writing during the week, and then we can write during those times. (If you have read my little book How to Write A Lot, this notion of a “writing schedule” will sound eerily familiar.) Imagine, for a moment, that you have chosen to write 6 hours per week, perhaps 9 to 11 on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings. If you write every week, then it doesn’t matter if that week is the frenetic first week of class, the dismal last week of class, or even a breezy week in July. Choosing time to write will flatten your writing output—you’ll write the same amount, more or less, every month. This slow-and-steady approach is not glamorous, and it takes a bit of discipline at first, but it is the reason why some people write a lot and most people struggle.
If you have a writing schedule, the summer weeks are like any other week, only sweatier. You could choose to spend more time writing during the summer, but you needn’t. You could, horror of horrors, take time off. You could rediscover why the summer months are called “summer vacation” by people with normal jobs and well-balanced lives. You could say “I’ll save that writing project for the fall semester.” You could, dare I suggest, even clean your minivan—but that might be going too far.
[Note: This post was originally contributed as part of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Early Career Committee 2009 blog.]