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Finding your flow: Establishing a pace that works for you

In my academic coaching and editing practice, I have many clients voicing a similar concern: that they’re not working as hard as their colleagues. They tell me stories of colleagues who show up on weekends, or work with their doors closed for 10 hours or more on the weekdays. My clients repeat these stories of their colleagues often. From my observation, these stories serve several purposes:

To reinforce the shame they feel about not working “enough.” This reasoning is normally along the lines of, “I’ll never get this done if I leave at 6pm every night. Some of my colleagues are still working when I leave.”

To undercut their achievements. Here, they’ll say something like “yes, I know I submitted two articles, but Sally down the hall submitted four articles in the same time period.”

To provide negative reinforcement about working long hours. My clients tell me, “I worked both days this weekend. I know my co-author is working too, and I don’t want to be a slacker.”

When I hear these rationalizations, I’ll ask my client if they know the number of hours their colleagues work, or what their colleagues do while in their office with the door closed. They never know. How would they? Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if they know or not, because their concern really isn’t about their colleagues at all.

What are academic writers worried about, if not their colleagues’ progress? Their concern with their colleagues work habits is a projection of their own fears and misunderstandings about their work processes. Academic writers often feel anxious that they are not working enough, but don’t know what, for them, enough would be.

Fear of the unknown.

When I first start working with a coaching client, I ask them to track their time for two weeks. The results are often surprising for them. They rarely realize how much time they devote to any specific task, whether it’s checking email, reading in preparation for a literature review, prepping courses, etc. Often, we feel so much pressure to work that we just put our heads down and do the work. We don’t think about how much time it takes – we just work until we have to stop or until we’re done.

Unfortunately, that strategy (or lack thereof) doesn’t provide much clarity on how long tasks take, or how long we’d like to work on a given task. What it does is rob us of the ability to pace ourselves. As a consequence, we have no foundation upon which to build sustainable, rewarding writing practices.

How do you develop a writing practice that will help you thrive, rather than one that is rooted in fear and uncertainty? Here are four principles for a strong writing practice: 

Stop worrying about your colleagues. Repeat after me: worrying will not make you write faster. If anything, it will make you write slower because you’re distracted. You have no control over anyone’s writing but your own.

Be attentive to how you’re currently using your time. I don’t believe that metrics work for all writers. Not everyone will thrive writing 30 minutes in the morning or setting a very rigid writing schedule. Nonetheless, you should know how long a given task takes to complete. That way, you can use the information to develop a writing plan and writing goals that are based on data rather than fear. For instance, if it takes you eight hours to assemble the readings needed for a literature review, you can use that information when developing a timeline for your next writing project. This knowledge not only gives you some certainty about your workflow, but also tempers the unrealistic expectations you might have concerning the speed with which you can complete a project.

Identify your ideal workday. Is it important for you to be home for dinner? Do you devote your mornings to writing because you lose focus in the afternoon? Think about how you like to work, and strive to structure your day accordingly. Things won’t always work out how you’d like them to, but that’s no reason to abandon your goal entirely.

Test, test, test. You won’t develop a perfect writing pace overnight, and that’s OK. Like writing, the process is iterative and will improve with revision.

In conclusion, please remember this: there is nobody who will give as much attention to your writing practice as you. That’s why it’s so important for you to develop a system that works for you, rather than one that you believe will compare favorably to your colleagues’. You’re in this career for the long haul, and you deserve to have a rewarding, enjoyable writing practice that is aligned with your values.

Jane Jones

Jane Jones, PhD is a developmental editor and writing coach. She has worked with scholars at all stages of their careers to develop better writing habits, bring their projects to completion, and publish work that they’re proud of. Her clients have published with presses including Oxford Press, University of California Press, and University of Chicago Press. You can find her at or on Twitter @janejoann.