Tips & tools to reach your writing productivity peak
“I’m master of my universe.” This is a mantra that Kathleen P. King, author of more than 30 books, including 147 Practical Tips for Emerging Scholars and The Professor’s Guide to Taming Technology, both practices and encourages fellow academics to use when deadlines or writing anxiety start to set in. Have a plan, set deadlines, and be flexible—be master of your universe. You are in control of the deadlines you set for yourself and how dedicated you are to your writing. However, she says, you also need to reflect on what your writing habits are, how you can improve them, and how you can leverage your strengths and preferences to be most productive.
There is more to reaching your writing productivity peak than just being master of your universe. You also need systems in place and tools to assist you. King suggests having the following systems in place to assist you in reaching your productivity peak:
- Make lists, schedules and charts, and always track your progress.
“They give you freedom, they give you control. But they’re never meant to choke you,” says King. Creating lists and schedules along with tracking your progress are ways to aid you in staying on track and to motivate you to get the work done. Although there are many different tools you can use to keep your lists and track your progress, King prefers Excel for its functions and ease of use. Do not get caught up in trying to learn a “fancy project program” when you could (or should) be concentrating on your writing.
- Make writing appointments with yourself.
Treat your writing time as sacred time; nothing else should be scheduled during this time. Treat this appointment with your writing like you would any other appointment—you show up.
- Be mindful that location and time matter.
To be most effective you need to understand what time and location work best for you. If you are most productive writing in the morning, that’s when you schedule your writing time. Write in a location that you are comfortable in and that is free of distractions. This will allow you to be the most productive.
- Turn off notifications (email, voicemail, text, etc.).
“Everything’s off so that I can write. That is my writing and my research time. Social media, text, emails, voicemails—turn off all of them,” King encourages. She also stresses that this distraction control is keeping chaos at bay and that, “you have permission to be focused on your work.”
- Take breaks.
King is a huge advocate of periodically taking ten-minute breaks, especially after a hereditary condition, accentuated after sitting for hours writing, left her temporarily paralyzed on one side of her body. Keep in mind your eyes also periodically need breaks. Look away from your computer screen and focus on something else within your office. Standing desks and walking desks are excellent alternatives to endless sitting. Getting up, going for a walk around the block, getting a fresh cup of tea from the kitchen, all of those breaks will help you stay productive and give you new perspective on your writing.
- Do not ignore ergonomics.
Improper ergonomics—how you are positioned at your workstation—can put enormous stress on your body. Thankfully there are helpful YouTube videos to illustrate how to properly position yourself at your desk, apps to remind you to take breaks and do appropriate exercises, and software programs like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, that help to eliminate the stress your body endures from sitting and writing.
Another aspect of mastering your universe and reaching your productivity peak is utilizing technology tools. King is a self-proclaimed techie and offers the following tools and tricks to help you stay productive and on task:
- Keep a virtual filing cabinet.
Services like Dropbox and Google Docs allow you to access your documents from any web-enabled device anywhere, anytime. This allows you to work on any given project no matter where you are. Just as you would organize a physical filing cabinet in your home with various folders, so too should you create virtual folders for research, writing, and your CV.
- Save online material as a PDF.
Saving information in the form of a PDF is much cleaner and easier to navigate than saving it as HTML. Some programs that allow you to save files as PDFs: Adobe PDF, PDFLite, and Google Docs.
- Utilize a reference control system.
Various bibliographic online management tools, such as Mendeley, EndNote, and Zotero, can help you store and organize your references. You can even keep a master Microsoft Word or Excel file for references you use most frequently.
- Have writing accelerators.
To keep your writing flowing, King suggests using hints like “cite here” or bullet points that show where you are headed next before you finish your writing session for the day. To mark her place for where she should start the next day, King places three asterisks. To find that place the next day, she enters “Control-F asterisk.” This will save you the time of having to scroll to where you left off and from getting distracted by the urge to edit.
- Use a scanning program.
Scanning programs, such as Smart Document Scanner, allow you to easily scan documents and articles with your cell phone to save for later. The scanned document saves as a PDF and allows you to take notes, keep organized using folders and subfolders, and easily search either by content or keywords.
- Save time with a PDF signing program.
DocuSign makes signing all of those publisher authorization forms much faster. You can sign on your phone or tablet and send it back almost immediately after receiving it.
- Always carry a notebook or an app that takes notes.
While gathering information, thoughts, and ideas for your book or journal article, it’s extremely helpful to keep them all in one, searchable location. King particularly likes MyScript Memo for its notes, voice dictation, and photograph embedding features.
- Find a to-do app that works for you.
One such powerful to-do app is Wunderlist. You can share lists with coauthors, print your lists, schedule email reminders and other notifications, and sync across all of your devices.
The most important aspect of reaching your productivity peak is knowing what works for you. Be the master of your universe. Take these suggestions and mold them to best fit your writing habits and lifestyle. As King says: “We need the perspectives that everybody offers. Nobody has one perfect perspective on this. Everybody has their own unique pathway and unique perspective. And it’s by all of us sharing together that we get the full spectrum of the light.”
The ideas expressed in this article are based on Kathleen P. King’s 2015 TAA Conference session, “Reaching Your Productivity Peak: Technology Maximizing Your Research and Publishing”. TAA members can listen to the podcast of this presentation here. Non-members: Join TAA for access to this podcast and more!