I don’t have the time to write (not on top of everything else)

This is by far the most common reaction when discussing the scholarly outputs of an academic, or an academic department.

Writing is seen as a potential luxury that has become an inconvenience. Of course, “it’s the right thing to do“, but the “system” prevents academic writing from happening.

The “system” can be characterised as follows (no particular order):

– the university is focused on teaching, not research;

– I have too much administration to do (no time to write);

– I have to service students’ pastoral needs and they are getting more demanding each year;

– students arrive at university less prepared than they used to, so they need extra support outside of scheduled classes;

– the university places an emphasis upon student satisfaction surveys rather than the creation of scholarly work;

– I don’t have the mental space to write;

– I don’t have the physical space to write.

As a consequence, staff who don’t currently publish, or who publish sporadically, feel that writing is indeed an imposition. It’s something they would like to do, but they can’t see a way of changing the situation to make writing work.

This is understandable.

If the working day is full of activity, as well as any additional hours that an academic works during the week, the introduction of scholarly writing is an additional thing to do. It’s on top of everything else.

It doesn’t take long for this situation to become permanent. Organisational demands upon academic staff have grown over the years and continue to increase.

Political and social developments are such that the student body is naturally changing and behaving differently than it did even a short while ago.

Students are asking for more; organisations are demanding greater efficiencies; resources are scarce and competition for business is becoming more overt in the higher education sector.

If I’m having the “no time to write” chat at one of my workshops, or the academic has approached me to talk about this, there is hope. They still recognise that there is something fundamentally wrong if they are not writing.

It might be that the opportunity to write brought them into academe, and things haven’t turned out as they expected. They might feel anxious that a core differentiator of higher education from other forms of education is that the teaching is based upon knowledge that is created, discussed and disseminated by an academic community. If the scholarly foundations of this are missing, what is the future of the univerity?

There might also be pragmatic reasons for engaging in scholarly work in that it is easier to maintain teaching materials that are leading practice if the academic is shaping the subject area through their own scholarly work.

Pride is also a hallmark of an individual being able to maintain their standing in a research community. If the scholarly work doesn’t get done, the community will see this.

These are all compelling arguments that sustain a desire to write, and when that writing is absent, much stronger, destructive feelings of guilt, then shame, can manifest themselves within individuals.

In such cases, engaging in administration, servicing students, achieving fantastic teaching feedback, providing detailed, individualised written feedback on assessments, frequently revising lecture notes, organising extra student field trips, are all activities where a troubled academic can find some comfort. Deep down it cannot fully compensate, but it generally keeps organisational administration and students satisfied.

But if you are reading this, you are probably dissatisfied with the balance of your own workload, or you just want to find ways to write more.

Start small

The situations described so far are recoverable. Not as quickly as a hard-nosed cynic would want (“will this help me write and submit a journal article in three weeks“), but faster than you might think.

Establishing a writing habit is key. Writing becomes easier the more frequently you engage with it. All you need is ten minutes a day to get a routine established. Everyone can find ten minutes, even in a busy schedule. I found my ten minutes before I read my emails every morning.

A daily ten minute commitment is a good test of:

– are you ready to change your habits?

– ten minutes is small enough to shoe-horn into a packed diary, but it’s also a reminder that you are able to define your own priorities;

– ten minutes per day accumulates quite quickly into a significant amount of additional writing time, that wasn’t part of your routine.

But what, realistically can be written in ten minutes?

To be honest, I don’t think that this matters. If you have ideas but a percdption that you have no time, it is natural that you will start to explore these ideas on a daily basis. This will not only help you practice your writing, but your thinking will develop as you explore the ideas more codsciously as part of your daily work.

If you don’t yet have a specific idea, then you probably have a number of ideas to explore. I have yet to meet an academic who has nothing to write about. The act of writing will help you find an idea to concentrate on.

Don’t underestimate the act of exploring ideas on a daily basis through your writing. Writing fluidly and prodcutively is a consequence of practice.

Deliberate, regular practice always trumps sporadic binge-writing.

“I need blocks of time to write”
A second line of defence, after “I don’t have the time” is that the academic workload is too fragmented. What appears to be time to engage in scholarly activity is peppered by many spurious, difficult to anticipate administrative activities that prevent the deep state of “flow” being achieved.

A sabbatical is really the only answer; or is it?

As described earlier, the academic role is multi-faceted with many demands being made of staff. But this is also part of the attraction of the role. The variety can be both stimulating and satisfying, and it is when key components are relegated to once-a-blue-moon events that the role becomes more testing.

It is common for academics to find that sabbaticals are extremely stressful.

But why?

The prospect of a clear block of time, upon which you can focus your research, can be intoxicating. “Golden time” where you can enter a deep scholarly state and become prolific.

The reality is that academics who make sabatticals work for them are those that already have a regular writing habit.

Sabatticals can be major causes of writers’ block for first-timers who do not write regularly.

And similarly, a smaller block of time, which is enough to require scheduling, is not necessarily the solution to getting started in writing.

Many succesful academics have not had sabatticals, nor do they have blocks of time that interfere with their teaching. They develop a habit  of regular writing.

Have faith

Academics tell me that this is too simple; it can’t be this easy. Well the principle is easy, but the acquisition of a new habit is more challenging. My advice is to keep the faith – regular writing works.

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