This is my 41st post on this blog, and I was thinking recently about how different keeping the blog up to date is now compared to when I started last year. When I started I had so many ideas and I had posts scheduled for a few weeks; I was just churning them out. Recently I missed a week because I lost track of time and forgot to write a post. I have also been super-busy at work, and have been struggling to find the time to write – not just the blog but other things, like papers for journals. To be honest, I am getting way too little writing done and my excuse is that I just don’t have the time. It was an excuse I used a lot during my PhD when the writing would get pushed further and further into the background of my days and weeks, neglected for many more urgent work and personal tasks and demands.
But, here’s the thing. To say that I do not have time to write (or did not) is not completely true. I have had the time if you think of time as physical hours in the day. There has been enough of that kind of time in the last couple of months to write and publish several blogposts and at least a draft of my paper. But this is not necessarily what writers mean when they say they don’t have time to write. They are talking about another kind of time – a less literal kind.
When I say I don’t have time to write – and I say this a lot at the moment snowed under as I am by administrative tasks and endless emails that need sending and a million little terribly urgent things that need doing NOW – what I am saying is that I don’t have time to do the things I need to do to make it possible for me to write. I don’t have time to read, and to make notes. I don’t have time to think about all I have read and make connections and have realisations and see a paper structure emerging from that thinking, scribbling and reading. I may have physical time, but my head is so full of all these other things that I find I need more than just an hour or two here and there to get into the right headspace and create writing time.
Writing time is less about hours and minutes, I find, and more about space in my head. Hours and hours of headspace that can be devoted to all the reading, thinking, writing, scribbling, rewriting and so on that goes into producing a chapter of a thesis, or a journal article or a report. This kind of time is not always easy to find when life and work are busy. Many PhD students, I think, struggle to find this kind of time. I think many may also struggle because they are perhaps unfamiliar with all the things that need to go into this writing time – all the reading and thinking and drafting etc that is part of a typical writing process linked to writing a PhD. I was certainly way too ambitious with my writing time early on, and often still am, believing I can get more done than is actually possible. Working out the difference between the physical time you have and the writing time you need is important for making progress and not being really mean to yourself when it seems like you are not making any.
You see, I do know, having been an academic and a writer for some time, that I can find an hour today to work on a paper I am writing. It’s in revisions, so an hour is enough to get a good whack of revising done. However, if I were to use that same hour for a paper I am starting to write, I would get a lot less done – maybe read a paper or two and make some notes, or draft the introduction. But too many times I have taken my physical hour and written a to-do list of writing tasks worth 4 or 5 hours of writing time and tried to cram it in because my actual hours for writing are few at the moment (most of the time, really). It doesn’t work, of course, because I am distracted, or I am going too slowly through a new concept or section of reading, or for many other reasons. So I get frustrated, and I berate myself for going too slowly, or for not working hard enough or for being distracted. Then I start to resent the writing and its intrusion on my time and headspace and this is just a recipe for disaster. I end up wishing I could just find more time to write, because if I could all would be well.
This brings me to my point in this post: I don’t think we find writing time – I think we have to make it. We need to sit with our writing tasks and work out all the steps that have to go completing them, and then make that time in our schedules. We need to prioritise our writing and make it important – more important than the million other small things we do every day that can probably wait or at least be scaled down in importance. For me this means putting it into my calendar as a meeting with myself each week, and then planning the rest of my week so that I can get all the other things done in order to clear my headspace and have that writing time to spare. For students this could be a similar kind of process. Writing time is made, not found, but it can take time to learn that lesson.
A final point: I was advised, often, during my PhD to write every day. I didn’t. I just couldn’t. I tried a few tricks, like my research journal and an online writing site called 750words.com. These helped a lot, and for short stretches like a week or two I could write every day. The more I did this the easier it got, but inevitably the also-working-and-parenting thing would get in the way of making time for my PhD every day and I would lapse into once or twice a week, and a few times even less than that. Being mean to myself did not help. It just made me hate my PhD and wish I could quit. I had to try hard to be kind to myself, and to give myself a break every now and then. This kindness is important to making progress, I think, and to staying on good terms with your PhD.
It would be great to write every day, but you don’t always have the time to make for that – physical or headspace/writing time. However, I would advise making time regularly, whatever that looks like for you, and putting it into your diary as a meeting with your writing. Go to that meeting and be present as you would for any other meeting. Making time to write and think is often also about making time for yourself, and making your own needs and time as, if not more, valuable than the time of those who want you or need you during your writing time. It’s OK to put yourself and your research first, and the more you do that, the easier it gets to make the time to write. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to go and take my own advice. I have a paper waiting to be written…